Vassily Kashin is Ph.D. in Political Science, is a senior research fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University—Higher School of Economics. He is also a leading research fellow at the Institute of the Russian Far East.
Resume: The fast build-up of China’s military power is a natural and inevitable process, albeit belated. China is only bringing its military capability into line with the scale of its economy, territory and population. More importantly, it is taking systematic and very costly efforts to make its armed forces ready for active combat operations in remote regions of the world.
Several landmark events happened in the development of China’s military capability last year. In April 2015, China for the first time sent its troops to a war-torn country overseas: a Chinese navy task force landed in the Yemeni port of Aden to evacuate Chinese citizens.
In September, it was reported that China was preparing to sign an agreement on the deployment of a military base abroad—a logistics and resupply center for Chinese ships in the African state of Djibouti. Simultaneously, China apparently continued negotiations on deploying another base in Africa—on the western coast of Namibia. Reports about it first appeared in late 2014-early 2015.
In December 2015, the Chinese National People’s Congress passed a law legalizing counter-terrorism operations abroad. The new counter-terrorism law defines in detail the powers of the authorities and rules of conduct for Chinese security agencies abroad.
China achieved impressive progress in reinforcing its capability to project military power on a global scale. Some Chinese programs, which will be described below, are obviously aimed at using military power beyond the Western Pacific. The geography of the Chinese Navy’s operations was further expanded, and its activity in the Indian Ocean kept growing.
In late 2015 and early 2016, China launched an unprecedentedly radical military reform which is believed to further increase the Navy’s role by reducing the proportion of ground troops, and, more importantly, to provide for the establishment of combined commands responsible for joint operations of different branches, similarly to those in Western countries.
While making consistent efforts to create military-technical and legal conditions for using its troops in remote areas of the world, China continues to pursue a relatively passive foreign policy.
At the beginning of 2016, China somewhat stepped up its activity in the region during President Xi Jinping’s tour of the Middle East. Previously, Beijing had intensified contacts with various parties involved in the armed conflict in Syria and started arms deliveries to the conflict zone. Nevertheless, China continues to “keep a low profile,” even though not as painstakingly as before.
The imbalance between the rapidly emerging material and legal basis for an active great-power policy and the existing political practices can be explained by the internal situation in China. The country is going through a period of belated destruction of the former political and economic model and the crisis of elites, which it is trying to overcome through an unprecedentedly large-scale purification campaign. In the next few years China will focus on changing its domestic and economic policy while continuing ambitious military reform. Publications of China’s Central Military Commission on the ongoing reforms suggest that Beijing expects a radical, “breakthrough” growth of its military capabilities by no earlier than 2020. China may complete its transition to an active foreign policy by that time.
CHANGES IN CHINESE RHETORIC ON THE USE OF ARMED FORCES
The White Paper on China’s military strategy, published in May 2015, is a document of particular importance and differs from previously published national defense doctrines. This is the first time China attempted to combine its White Paper (addressed to Chinese society and the outside world) and the Central Military Commission’s directives known as Military Strategic Guidelines.
Military Strategic Guidelines are issued by the Central Military Commission every few years (about once a decade recently) and are a concise summary of China’s defense priorities, often set out in one sentence. The 2015 White Paper preceded a cycle of sweeping military reforms initiated by the Chinese government in late 2015-early 2016, which apparently prompted the Chinese authorities to dwell on defense tasks in more detail.
From a purely military point of view, the 2015 White Paper placed greater emphasis on the importance of information technologies in China’s vision of a future war. Whereas the Military Strategic Guidelines of 2004 called for increasing readiness for “winning local wars under conditions of informationization,” now the wording was modified to “winning informationized local wars.”
Despite the seemingly insignificant change in the wording, it is an essential innovation for China, as it marks a new stage in development in line with the new Guidelines. One obvious consequence of this change in the wording was the establishment of a new branch of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—the Strategic Support Force—in late 2015. Its tasks are information warfare and information support of combat operations, including electronic intelligence, cyber intelligence, electronic warfare, and space reconnaissance.
A similar and again seemingly insignificant change is observed in the description of possible missions and tasks of the PLA abroad. The Guidelines and white papers on China’s national defense have since 2004 increasingly often mentioned China’s overseas interests that need to be protected. But these interests were described very vaguely. For example, the 2013 White Paper on China’s national defense said that “the security risks to China’s overseas interests are on the increase.” But the role of the Chinese Armed Forces in protecting the country’s overseas interests was discussed only in the concluding part of a long list of tasks set to the PLA, with an obvious emphasis on non-combat missions. “In addition, [China’s Armed Forces] strengthen overseas operational capabilities such as emergency response and rescue operations, merchant vessel protection at sea and evacuation of Chinese nationals, and provide reliable security support for China’s interests overseas,” the white paper said.
The 2015 White Paper is more explicit. In the list of major strategic tasks, “safeguarding the security of China’s overseas interests” ranks fourth after “safeguarding the sovereignty and security of China’s territorial land, air and sea,” “safeguarding the unification of the motherland,” and “safeguarding China’s security and interests in new domains” (cyberspace, etc.). It is indicative that the tasks of “maintaining strategic deterrence,” “participating in regional and international security cooperation” and “strengthening efforts in operations against infiltration, separatism and terrorism” rank even lower.
Practical implementation of the new, proactive approach to overseas operations began a month and a half before the publication of the 2015 White Paper, in late March 2015. On March 29, the Chinese frigates Weifang and Linyi landed a special navy force in the Yemeni port of Aden. It took control of part of the port and made contact with members of a special force of the Chinese People’s Armed Police who guarded the Chinese Embassy. Together, they organized the evacuation of Chinese nationals and a small number of foreigners from third countries (about 600 people in total) to the Chinese warships which transported them to Djibouti. Later, the evacuees returned to their homeland by passenger planes.
It was the first time China sent its troops to a conflict-torn country overseas. And it was the second time it used the PLA’s capabilities to evacuate Chinese nationals from a conflict area—the first was in Libya in 2011. But in Libya there was only a token involvement of the Chinese military, who sent only one frigate, Zhoushan, and several Il-76 transport aircraft. An overwhelming majority of the 35,000 Chinese nationals were taken out of the country by passenger planes. In contrast, the Aden operation was demonstrative and widely publicized in the Chinese media. Spectacular photos of Chinese commandoes on positions in the port of Aden captivated the public. China clearly showed that it was changing its methods of protecting its growing and vulnerable overseas interests.
Following the aggravation of the Syrian crisis and the interference of Russia’s Armed Forces in the hostilities in Syria, the Chinese media for the first time started an open discussion of the expediency and feasibility of a Chinese interference in the conflict. For the first time China admitted the possibility of its involvement in a local conflict that does not directly affect its territorial integrity and security.
China’s interest in the developments in Syria was caused by several factors, including the presence in various radical groups of several hundred members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist organization operating in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and gradually extending its activities to non-Muslim areas of the country. In addition, China shares Russia’s rejection of the U.S. practice of aggressively exporting Western values ??and supporting “color revolutions.”
At the same time, the diversity of Chinese interests in the Middle East, in particular, Beijing’s close trade and economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, to all appearances caused China to abide by its traditional approach to the problem. China increased arms supplies to Iraq and, apparently, began to supply weapons and military equipment (military vehicles) to Syria. It also intensified contacts with the Syrian authorities and the opposition on conflict settlement. In the summer and fall of 2015, China supplied Iraq with its CH-4 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). They are being serviced by Chinese maintenance personnel, and it is not ruled out that in combat sorties they are operated by Chinese military specialists.
It can be assumed that there was a serious debate among Chinese leaders on the possible depth of China’s involvement in military operations in Syria, but eventually the majority must have agreed to take a cautious approach. At the same time, there are reasons to believe that if the situation in Syria were less explosive and if its main actors could reach a consensus on joint actions against radical Islamists, a Chinese military intervention in a foreign country, the first ever over several decades, could take place already now.
PRACTICAL PREPARATIONS FOR POSSIBLE USE OF THE ARMED FORCES IN REMOTE AREAS
The fast build-up of China’s military power is a natural and inevitable process, albeit belated. China is only bringing its military capability in line with the scale of its economy, territory and population, seeking to make up for the time lost in the 1980s-1990s when the country neglected defense needs.
Of more interest are China’s defense priorities and the nature of tasks set to the Chinese military.
It would be safe to say that China is taking long-term, systematic and very costly efforts to make the PLA ready for active combat operations in remote regions of the world. These will not be limited actions carried out by several warships and special forces units but operations that will involve large forces, including the landing of troops in countries located thousands of kilometers from China. These are preparations for the use of forces numbering thousands of men in any area of the world.
In some cases, China invests in military capabilities that would be useless for accomplishing tasks that seem most likely for the PLA in the Asia-Pacific region, such as protection of the Chinese territory, support for the unification of China and Taiwan, and the bolstering of China’s position in territorial disputes.
A typical example is the commissioning of the Chinese Navy’s first mobile landing platform (MLP), named Donghaidao, in July 2015. The Donghaidao was built only two years after this class of vessels was first developed in the United States. MLPs provide a sea-basing capability for amphibious operations away from naval bases and coastal infrastructures.
MLPs allow transferring any types of cargo in the open sea from military or civilian transport ships to special-purpose landing craft to ensure constant shipment of cargoes to an unimproved shore for expeditionary forces.
There is no point in using MLPs if the distance from a home base is tens or even hundreds of miles, because in this case cargoes can be delivered to the shore by numerous landing craft, small landing ships and small civilian ships directly from their ports. Mobile landing platforms are also not needed for using a small expeditionary force of several hundred people, because this can be done by special-purpose landing craft. The development of MLP technologies reflects China’s ambition to acquire capabilities for the deployment of thousands of troops in remote areas of the world, ready to conduct active military operations, since the Chinese Navy’s landing ships will be fully capable of supporting such missions.
The development of the Chinese Navy’s landing forces and capabilities to supply warships in the open sea also looks excessive against the Navy’s declared goals of returning Taiwan and retaining disputed islands in the South China Sea. In fact, the Chinese Navy is already far ahead of the Soviet Navy of the 1980s in terms of landing forces’ capability.
For example, the Chinese navy has already received four Type 071 amphibious transport docks of the planned six. The Soviet Navy at the height of its power had only three landing ships capable of carrying helicopters and incorporating well docks—Project 1174 Nosorog-class landing ships. But Nosorogs were half the size of Chinese ships in terms of displacement and had many design flaws. China has 29 Type 072 large landing ships of various modifications.
Whereas the first few of them had approximately the same characteristics as those of the Soviet Navy’s Project 775 large landing ships, their later version (Type 072III-class, of which China has ten ships) by far exceeds Soviet ships in displacement and is capable of carrying attack helicopters.
China places special emphasis on the development of the fleet of replenishment ships intended to provide logistic support to warships operating far away from home. The fleet comprises more than ten replenishment ships with a displacement of more than 20,000 tons. At present, China is building its first giant support ship (Type 901) with a 40,000-ton displacement.
Chinese surface ships already have great capabilities to support expeditionary forces, and they exceed the Soviet Navy of the 1980s in this respect. For example, China has built or is building about 20 warships equipped with S-300F or HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile systems (currently missile cruisers with S-300F missile systems play a key role in ensuring the security of the Russian force in Syria). These include Type 051C (2), 052C (6) and 052D destroyers (four already built and another eight are undergoing testing or being built). The Soviet Navy at the height of its power had air defense missile systems of this class only on seven ships (three Project 1144 cruisers, three Project 1164 cruisers, and one Project 1134 large anti-submarine ship). Type 051D destroyers are also equipped with multifunctional weapon systems and can use cruise missiles against ground targets. The Russian Navy has received such capabilities only recently.
The Soviet Union never had full-fledged combat-ready aircraft carriers. China completed the construction of the Soviet-developed Varyag aircraft carrier and is now implementing a large-scale program for developing the aircraft carrier fleet, under which it plans to commission the first few nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with electromagnetic aircraft launch systems at the beginning of the next decade. At present, two aircraft carriers are under construction in China. Another major program provides for the construction of strategic military transport aircraft. The first several Y-20 heavy military transport aircraft are expected to achieve initial combat readiness in 2017.
Elements of potential overseas operations are increasingly present in the Chinese armed forces’ combat training. For example, in January 2016 more than 2,000 Chinese marines and a special operations regiment of the Chinese Navy conducted a military exercise in the Gobi Desert under extreme cold weather conditions. Some foreign analysts view the exercise as part of China’s efforts to build universal expeditionary forces, based on the Marine Corps, that would be capable of operating in various geographic areas and not necessarily at sea, thus emulating the U.S. Marine Corps. Naturally, China denies it has such intentions.
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When does China plan to put all these impressive technical capabilities to use?
We will hardly see this happening in the coming years. Modern military-technical projects usually take very long to implement. China is in the midst of major political, economic and military reforms. The radical military reform, started in early 2016, provides for an overhaul of the old military administration and command system, built by Chinese Communists even before the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. In addition to major military personnel cuts (in September 2015, President Xi Jinping announced that the country’s military personnel would be reduced by 300,000), the system of military regions has been completely reorganized, the old General Headquarters has been disbanded and a new Joint Staff has been created in its place, and many other major innovations have been made. On January 1, the Central Military Commission released a guideline on deepening national defense and military reform, aimed at achieving a breakthrough in the efficiency of military command and control by 2020. It can be assumed that 2020 will be a landmark year for the Chinese, as they plan to complete their main organizational reforms and major technological projects by that time. There is no doubt that China is preparing to enter the international scene as a full-fledged great power, but it is hard to say when this will happen. Surely, this event will be well-prepared to produce the maximum effect both in China and the world.