In 1995, when President Bill Clinton dispatched two US carrier battle groups to deter China from intimidating Taiwan ahead of the island’s elections, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was unable to detect the deployment of the ships, let alone prevent it. That humiliating episode was a wake-up call. A remarkable modernization ensued that has transformed the PLA into a modern, all-arms force capable of carrying out sophisticated joint operations. China is now in the front rank of nations that can project military power.
In some areas the PLA now outperforms the US military, a fact that the latter readily acknowledges. Its suite of hypersonic missiles that travel at several times the speed of sound jeopardizes not only US aircraft carriers in the western Pacific but also military bases such as Guam. Overall, though, China recognises that it has some way to go before it can regard itself as a peer competitor with the US military. Besides hardware, military capability is also about software in the form of doctrine, training and intangible qualities of leadership and morale. China's military planners are well aware that the country has some way to go before it can confidently regard itself as a peer competitor with the US military. China's military modernization has achieved and continues to achieve impressive results. They have catapulted China into the front rank when it comes to projecting military power.
Beijing’s goal for some time has been to displace the US as hegemon in the western Pacific, which China regards as its natural sphere of influence. To that end, it wants to take control of the seas out to the so-called first island chain, which runs down from Japan through the Philippines and Taiwan, and then of seas out to the second island chain, which includes Guam. Though China is keen to promote its own interests, it remains unclear how far its ambitions extend.
After the end of the Second World War, the United States of America did emerge as, in effect, the global hegemon. It was the only competent nation in World War II whose homeland had remained largely unimpacted by the hostilities, and its economy was in a very strong state because of the role that it had played in supporting the US war efforts. At that point, the world was effectively divided into two camps--the liberal democracies and communist countries under the aegis of the Soviet Union. But within the free world, the United States was the hegemon, and it was particularly active in policing sea lanes of communication and providing other security goods in the free world. And this included the whole of the Asia-Pacific region. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States entered waters being referred to as the "unipolar moment", the very brief period in human history during which the world was dominated by one single superpower--the United States.
The Soviet Union, the USA's main strategic challenger up until then, had melted away while China, though geographically large and populous, was still economically insignificant and had nowhere near the kind of military capabilities that would enable it to pose a challenge to the United States. But as the progress of economic reform and opening up took hold in China, and particularly after China was able to enter the World Trade Organisation on developing nation terms, China's turbocharged economy produced a country that was becoming increasingly politically and militarily powerful as well as economically strong. As that process took hold, China began to develop more wide-ranging geopolitical ambitions. It's still hard to say categorically how far China's ambitions extend, but what we can say with confidence is that China has for some time harboured ambitions to displace the United States as a hegemon, at least in the Western Pacific, which China regards as its natural sphere of influence.
As the United States' ambitions to exercise global hegemony are constrained both by circumstances and by domestic disinclination to see America fighting expensive and unproductive conflicts overseas, which lead to loss of American lives, the US ability to exercise hegemony and to police global sea lanes of communication is being reduced. At the same time, China, though keen to promote its own interests, is reluctant to take on the United States' global responsibilities. For a deep dive into the way the Party sees its global role, take a look as well at Enodo's course, China's Communist Political System and Global Ambitions. Again the result is the emergence of something of a power vacuum, a vacuum which is also accompanied by the rise of a significant number of middle-sized powers which are taking not just more responsibility for their own defence and relying less on the United States' defence umbrella, but also making use of new technologies to exercise power more assertively in regions of concern to them.
This new model is still taking shape, and it remains to be seen what the end result will look like if indeed there is anything as clear cut as an end result. But it's significantly disrupting the model of global hegemony that we have been familiar with since the end of World War II and arguably is a recipe for greater global instability and insecurity.
With just over 2 million personnel, the Chinese People's Liberation Army is the world's largest fighting force. It was originally conceived of as a low-tech, mass mobilisation land-based force designed to fight a guerrilla-style people's war within China's borders. It has since evolved into a modern, all-arms force supported by sophisticated technical capabilities. It's increasingly capable of projecting power outside China's borders. And the PLA is well on the way to becoming a peer competitor with the United States of America. And indeed, in some areas, it has developed capabilities that exceed those of the US military-- a fact that the latter readily acknowledges. But there's one area in which the PLA is different from other fighting forces. It's not a national army, but rather, the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party.
The PLA has been given the objective of becoming a modern armed force that can fight and win wars. But within China's concept of warfare, the PLA's only one element in a process which involves bringing to bear all levers of national power. For the PLA, moving up the technology value chain is critical to success, and it has sought to do this through a process known as "civil-military fusion". This involves incentivising China's universities and private firms to develop appropriate technical capabilities for the PLA, including in areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing and encryption. The PLA has sought to develop these capabilities indigenously.
There's a Chinese saying which holds that "you train an army for 1,000 days to use it for only one hour". It's pretty certain that at sometime in the not-too-distant future, the PLA will get that hour. What we don't know is when that will be. Under China's Communist leadership, the People's Liberation Army has become a prestigious and respected organisation that has played an important role in the country's national development. The PLA fought the US and its allies to a standstill in Korea. And it provided much logistical and other support to Viet Minh the Vietnam War. PLA has undergone a remarkable transformation towards becoming a modern all-arms force capable of undertaking sophisticated joint operations. And because China has enjoyed double-digit economic growth for much of that time, it has been able to achieve that modernization while keeping defence expenditure at just 2% of GDP. China has turned a minimal brown-water Navy into a modern blue-water Navy.
It now has 300 naval vessels, more than the United States. Its air force has acquired 4.5 generation fighters, fleets of drones, and heavy bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons. China has modernized its relatively small holdings of nuclear weapons. It has moved on from silo-based, liquid-fueled missiles to solid fuel, mobile-launched missiles, combined with submarine and air-launched missiles. China has also made significant progress in developing hypersonic glide technologies-- missiles capable of travelling at speeds of up to mach 7 or 2.4 kilometers a second, that combine the advantages of ballistic and cruise technologies.
After the end of the Vietnam War--which was widely seen as a failure for the United States military--extensive reforms were introduced in what has been referred to as a revolution in military affairs, gave China the impetus to instigate what is referred to as a "revolution in military affairs with Chinese characteristics". Changing the way of war is not just about changing equipment and weapon systems. It's also about changing doctrine, mindsets, and behaviours, all of which take much longer to achieve. The United States is in the foothills of this latest military transformation, which has a particular relevance in relation to its ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific region, and it will be some time before the results of this military transformation become apparent. But if the United States is going to be able to deal with a rising China effectively, this is the military path it is going to have to take.
Taiwan has become a pawn in the great power political game being played between the US and China. As part of its strategy to confront China, Washington has enacted significant pro-Taiwan legislation over the course of 2020. It has also authorized substantial arms sales to Taiwan, with the aim of enabling it to mount an asymmetric response to a Chinese attack. The US and other Western states have also sought to reverse China's efforts to diminish Taiwan's international space by bringing it back into bodies such as the World Health Organisation. From being within reach, national reunification now appears to be slipping away from China's grasp.
It remains to be seen how Beijing will respond.
Shabir Ahmad is a UPSC Aspirant from Raiyar Doodhpathri and writes on current affairs.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.