6 August 2017

Enhancing China’s Status as a Great Power


China is investing heavily in its military modernization program as it aims to extend its power, not only in the region, but globally. This has been a key focus of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the run up to the Communist Party Congress later this year, where he is expected to be designated for a second term as general secretary of the party and as president. The Cipher Brief’s Will Edwards asked RAND Corporation experts, East Asia senior analyst Jeffrey Engstrom and political scientist Michael Chase, to explain China’s expansion of its military force projection and how it will impact U.S. goals in the region.

The Cipher Brief: China is investing heavily into improving its ability to project power beyond its borders. What are some of the capacities it is acquiring/expanding?

Jeffrey Engstrom and Michael Chase: Beyond the attention-grabbing acquisitions of aircraft carriers and large amphibious ships, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also acquiring less heralded, though absolutely necessary platforms to engage in both regional and global power projection. These include the steadily growing fleet of at-sea replenishment ships, enabling naval combatants to operate on-station for long periods of time. It also includes the recently developed Y-20 heavy transport aircraft, allowing the PLA to rapidly send forces and equipment globally.

Of course, to achieve substantial capacity for power projection, the PLA still must invest in large numbers of these platforms. Furthermore, it must also develop other capabilities, including a more capable and larger tanker aircraft fleet to provide air refueling to its large and increasingly diverse fleet of combat aircraft.

TCB: What goal is China attempting to achieve by investing in these capabilities?

Engstrom and Chase: The PLA is increasingly being tasked with missions that are both intended to enhance China’s status as a great power as well as to protect Chinese interests, citizens, and investments worldwide. For the former, China is taking, and is being expected to take, an increasing role in providing global public goods, such as peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief.

For the latter, China has recognized that it cannot free ride off the efforts of other countries when it comes to ensuring that its shipping is safe from piracy threats, its large numbers of overseas citizens are safe from local instability, and its investments are secured from a variety of threats such as terrorism and state failure. Power projection capabilities are essential to capably respond to international crises in which China has a stake, either to enhance prestige or to address domestic interests.

TCB: Where does China’s new base in Djibouti fit into this plan and does China have any plans for additional foreign bases?

Engstrom and Chase: To ensure the safety of its commercial shipping from piracy, the PLA Navy has now dispatched 26 naval escort taskforces to the Gulf of Aden, and this presence has continued now for nine years. Up until this point, the PLA relied entirely on ad-hoc access to a number of nearby ports in various countries to resupply its ships with food and fuel as well as provide its sailors with shore leave. The new base in Djibouti provides a more permanent location to carry out this anti-piracy mission, likely enhancing the nearby maintenance capabilities and allowing the PLA to increase its naval presence, if need be.

While this is a very big step for China, a country that has never had an overseas military base, it should be noted that many other countries providing maritime security have already made long term arrangements to base forces in the area, including Japan. In addition to enhancing the robustness of the PLA’s anti-piracy operations, this base also potentially provides a forward staging area for the PLA to conduct future non-combatant evacuation operations and more regularly provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief in both Africa and the Middle East.

It will likely also allow the PLA to expand its interaction and cooperation with nearby foreign militaries. While rumors of PLA interest in other potential bases in places such as the Seychelles and Gwadar, Pakistan have swirled for a number of years, these are all unconfirmed.

TCB: What is China’s track record with joint operations among military services, and what is it doing to improve this capability?

Engstrom and Chase: The PLA has very little experience with real joint operations. Indeed, PLA officers point to the 1955 Yijiangshan Island campaign as the PLA's first and only real joint war-fighting experience, but the PLA is working hard to improve in this area because Chinese strategists see the ability to conduct joint operations as one of the keys to winning future wars.

The PLA has emphasized modernization of its command and control and communications capabilities, but this isn't just about information and communications. It's also organizational because the ground force traditionally dominated the military. The PLA recognizes this problem and has been working to elevate the status of the Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force.

The PLA is currently undergoing what is probably the most sweeping reform in its history, which includes a massive reorganization that is intended to make the PLA more joint as well as to strengthen its readiness and power projection capabilities. The PLA recently appointed a PLAN Admiral as the head of one of its theater commands, an important first that underscores the importance it attaches to becoming more joint.

TCB: How will China’s growing ability to project power affect U.S. regional goals?

Engstrom and Chase: This is an incredibly complex question to answer especially since Chinese global military interaction, enabled by its growing power projection capabilities, is a fairly new phenomenon. The reality is that these capabilities can be used, from the U.S. perspective, in ways that are alternately beneficial, indifferent, and even adverse to U.S. regional goals.

Providing global public goods, such as peacekeeping or anti-piracy patrols, benefits the global community and beneficially burden-shares in ways that may minimize the scale or possibly even the need for a U.S. response. With these new capabilities China will also increasingly engage in operations, core to its own interests, such as non-combatant evacuations or protection of overseas assets, which are essentially indifferent or of low impact to U.S. strategic goals.

Lastly, China is already using its bases on its man-made islands and power projection capabilities in the South China Sea in ways that seek to exert control over international waters, intimidate other claimants, and challenge U.S. freedom of navigation, all of which are inimical to U.S. regional goals.

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