Editor’s Note: Last week we discussed the rise of China’s economy and why some U.S. fears of Chinese dominance might be overstated. Yet regardless of the speed of China’s economic growth, its military modernization and growing power projection capabilities make it an increasingly formidable challenger to the United States in East Asia. Yet here too concerns might be overstated. My Georgetown colleague Oriana Skylar Mastro contends that China is not likely to equal the United States militarily. Instead, its military capabilities are likely to be similar to that of important, but still second-tier, powers that have a real but limited capacity to use force outside their immediate region.
For over a decade, academics, policymakers, and government officials have been engaged in a relentless debate about Chinese military capabilities and intentions. To some, China is likely an expansionist country akin to Germany before WWI. Others argue that China’s assertive behavior in its regional offshore island disputes is simply a manifestation of the Chinese Communist Party’s focus on domestic stability, which precludes any broader global ambitions.
Contrary to the extremes of the current debate, the Chinese military will be neither hollow nor a juggernaut. While the Chinese leadership would prefer to stay focused on internal development and regional issues, I argue in a recent article in The National Interest that facts on the ground will increasingly compel the Party to develop some global operational capabilities. Specifically, the burgeoning need to protect commercial assets and Chinese nationals abroad will inevitably shape modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toward limited global power projection, regardless of its current plans or intentions. Even though the Chinese leadership will embark on this path with very limited goals in mind, Chinese thinking on how and when to use force could change once its strategy, doctrine, and capabilities evolve to incorporate these new roles.
While I posit that commercial, domestic, and international drivers will push the PLA to have an increasing global presence, this does not equate to fighting major wars and stationing troops abroad. If we define global military power by the standard of the United States, no country qualifies. The question here is not whether China would have the capacity to invade and occupy far-off countries, as only the United States can; but whether, like other second-tier powers, it will develop the capacity to project limited but meaningful force outside its immediate region.
Chinese Companies Create the Strategic Demand
In the near future, economic motivations will drive the development of China’s limited global power projection capabilities. Approximately 20,000 Chinese companies have a presence in more than 180 countries and regions, creating a constant demand for government protection of these assets. Furthermore, Chinese overseas investment is growing: at US$60 billion, China’s annual outward foreign direct investment (OFDI) in 2011 was 20 times the 2005 amount.
As Chinese investments increase, threats to those assets will increase in tandem. This is particularly the case in politically unstable countries where nationalization or seizure is always a possibility, or in countries that have ongoing territorial conflicts where anti-China protests have often resulted in damage to Chinese-owned property. While still a fledging phenomenon, there are recent examples of instances that could drive China to develop limited expeditionary capabilities to augment its response options.
These incidents are occurring more frequently and are increasingly threatening to the Party’s strategic and political interests. Statements made by the Chinese political and military leadership acknowledge that China’s need for stable access to natural resources in addition to exploding foreign investment have expanded its interests beyond the region, while their capabilities lag behind. Wang Yi in his first speech as China’s foreign minister outlined trends and principles in foreign policy, highlighting the need to align China’s foreign policy with its expanding global interests. China’s 2013 Defense White Paper noted that “security risks to China’s overseas interests are on the increase” and included for the first time a section on protecting Chinese overseas interests. And in recent months, China’s president Xi Jinping himself has publicly stressed the critical importance of a strong military to a successful foreign policy and dismissed the option of passivity.
The Chinese Public Creates the Domestic Support
An increasing number of Chinese citizens are going abroad, with many migrating to politically unstable countries as part of an exported labor force or in prospect of financial gain. In the 12 months leading up to May 2014, Chinese nationals recorded 98 million overseas trips—a number that has increased by an average rate of over 10 million a year for the last four years. By 2020, approximately 150 million Chinese citizens will be traveling and living abroad. In comparison, approximately 57 million Americans traveled abroad in 2014 and 6.3 million Americans live overseas.
Domestic public support for the development of expeditionary capabilities is coalescing as more and more Chinese nationals find themselves in dangerous situations due to a combination of misfortune and political instability in host nations. According to the Chinese government’s foreign ministry, its embassies and consulates deal with an average of 100 incidents a day regarding overseas Chinese nationals in danger. Netizens have begun to complain that the government relies too heavily on enhancing citizen awareness of dangers and diplomatic mechanisms for citizen protection, rather than using military force. A prominent Chinese public intellectual noted in the aftermath of the disappearance of flight MH370, which was carrying 157 Chinese nationals and to which the Chinese government responded by launching joint search-and-rescue teams, that “China’s capacity to engage in security operations outside its national boundary still lags far behind” developed countries and that “China has all the reason and right to turn the crisis and challenge into an opportunity to build up its security forces’ capacity to protect overseas interests.”
‘Responsible Stakeholder’ Creates the International Approval
In addition to commercial demand and domestic pressure, the Chinese leadership’s desire to create a positive international image could provide additional incentives to develop global expeditionary capabilities. International pressure for China to take on more global responsibilities organically creates international support for PLA expeditionary operations of a limited nature. A Chinese military with the ability to project power globally, even if only for a short period of time in relatively permissive environments, could contribute more to peacekeeping missions as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. A proclaimed desire to contribute more to the global good could provide a legitimate and non-threatening rationale for the development of power projection capabilities.
A Stronger, More Globally Impactful China?
An effective global capability is not inevitable. There are real obstacles—technological, political, and ideological—to the Chinese military’s capacity to operate abroad, even on a limited scale. Scholars often point to China’s failure to resolve these obstacles today as proof that there will still be impediments tomorrow. Admittedly, the PLA’s experience with such expeditionary operations has been limited. It holds true that China currently has no bases abroad, no long-range logistics capabilities, and rudimentary satellite coverage. China is particularly weak in the key enablers required for expeditionary capability: airlift, sealift, C4ISR (command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), and logistics.
But we should not forget that at the turn of this century, the idea of China with an aircraft carrier or Chinese participation in peacekeeping operations seemed highly contentious and hypothetical. If China invests in the right platforms and technologies—such as large transport aircraft and tankers; amphibious combat ships; hospital ships and landing dock platforms; and a robust, space-based ocean surveillance system—conducting limited global operations will become more probable. At the same time, while acquiring the requisite military platforms and units is a formidable and obvious challenge, it is only one piece of the puzzle—the PLA will also have to address organizational and doctrinal impediments.
The exact shape and capabilities of a global expeditionary PLA in a decade or so remains uncertain and contingent. But powerful commercial, domestic, and international drivers will compel the Party to reshape the PLA in order to protect Chinese interests and nationals overseas and maintain its credibility. While Beijing’s motivations may be relatively narrow, such new and expansive PLA capabilities will have much wider implications for its traditional war-fighting goals as well as for future articulations of strategy and interests. Specifically, the ability to conduct limited expeditionary operations on a global scale could impact China’s non-interference policy and regional stability.
Once the PLA has the capabilities to intervene abroad, and ideological barriers have been loosened with global operations, the Chinese leadership may become more interventionist. A more assertive China may be a positive development for the United States, especially if it leads to greater Chinese cooperation on issues such as energy security, stability in the Middle East, and climate change. One possible future scenario is that China relaxes its non-interference principle as its global interests expand and overlap with those of the United States, leading to coordination between the two countries on global issues. But there are three reasons to question the feasibility of this ideal outcome. First, as the North Korean nuclear issue has demonstrated, even when Chinese and American interests overlap, divergence in their preferred tactics can inhibit progress on the issue at hand. Second, China defines its core interests narrowly in domestic terms while the United States is more likely to view issues from the perspective of maintaining the current global order. Last, abandonment of the non-intervention principle to facilitate its new global expeditionary mission would mean the potential for Chinese interference in issues in which the United States may prefer China’s traditional hands-off approach.
In terms of regional stability, while the Chinese leadership may only plan on building expeditionary forces to address non-traditional threats, the increased capabilities may shape Chinese interests and preferred methods of achieving traditional regional security objectives. The implications for the United States and its regional allies and partners are uncertain. China’s increased military role in global affairs and enhanced expeditionary capabilities could create a balancing backlash among its Asian neighbors and contribute to instability in the region, as incentives for preventive war increase with the rapid shifts in the regional balance of power. China could become confident in its ability to achieve its objectives by brute force alone, especially with domestic support. However, a global expeditionary PLA could also create a more assertive China that is positioned to provide international public goods, further enmeshing Beijing into the current world order and reducing the incentives for it to use force to resolve disputes.
Any projection about future intent and capabilities is contingent and uncertain. But as long as China continues its double-digit annual increases in defense spending, and GDP growth continues even modestly, China should be able to simultaneously develop traditional war-fighting capabilities to address regional challenges as well as global expeditionary capabilities to confront threats farther from home. While flare-ups or resolutions of persistent regional issues may delay or accelerate this future scenario, they are unlikely to reverse China’s increasingly global PLA.
Oriana Skylar Mastro is an assistant professor of Security Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. This piece draws on her work on trends in Chinese military modernization originally prepared for the 2014 PLA Conference presented by NBR, SSI, and USPACOM and appears in the current issue of The National Interest.