A Chinese J-10 fighter at the Zhuhai Airshow in 2012. China's Air Force has evolved from a homeland defense force to one capable of regional power projection. (Wendell Minnick / Staff)
TAIPEI — China’s military modernization efforts over the past 20 years have been marked by broad efforts, according to an expert, as opposed to focusing on specific services.
“So, we see new naval forces, air forces, ground forces and missile forces,” said Dean Cheng, a China military specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
That level of wide-ranging spending, combined with aggressive regional moves — dubbed “tailored coercion” — is what is putting neighbors on edge, experts say.
In March, China announced it was spending $131 billion, up 12.2 percent from the 2013 budget of $119 billion. This year marks 17 straight years of near-double-digit increases in defense spending.
The Chinese Air Force boasts new fighters, upgraded strike aircraft and new surface-to-air missile systems. The Navy has new surface combatants in serial production, new nuclear and diesel-powered submarines, a refurbished aircraft carrier with new ones under construction, amphibious assault ships, and the expansion of its naval infantry. The Second Artillery Corps has a variety of new missiles, including a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41, capable of carrying several nuclear warheads.
Cheng said other new capabilities include advancements in C4ISR support systems, such as new airborne early warning aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft, additional tankers, new command-and-control systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and space systems that include small satellites and anti-satellite warfare systems.
“All this is backed by additional training. This is not a military that has simply purchased new equipment for parades,” Cheng said. “Instead, there is reason to think that they have been working hard at being proficient in its employment, including the development of an indigenous doctrine, which exploits the strengths and shields, the weaknesses of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] with this new equipment, as well as training to that doctrine.
“So, in this light, neighbors are faced with a growing, comprehensive threat,” Cheng said.
Added to this modernization is a strategy dubbed “tailored coercion” in a new report released in March by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). The paper describes an insidious pattern of “dialing up and dialing down coercive diplomacy” — also referred to as “forceful persuasion” — and blending it with positive engagement, such as trade and investment.
The strategy spans legal, economic and military realms. It is also a strategy that has been “uniquely escalatory and revisionist.” Beijing officials consistently declare that the country’s muscular actions have been necessary responses to external provocations. China blames some combination of the US rebalancing to Asia and subsequent adventurism among US allies who believe that they can test China with Washington at their back, said the report.
The most visible evidence of China’s “tailored coercion” strategy has come from naval and Coast Guard activities in both the East China Sea and South China Sea. China claims the entirety of the South China Sea, an area the size of India, and has used a number of small actions via its Coast Guard to enforce its territorial claims. Employing “constabulary forces in contested areas” with Navy vessels out of sight allows Beijing to assert “administrative jurisdiction and overwhelming other countries’ often-weaker response forces,” the CNAS paper said.
Chinese naval modernization has been ongoing for more than two decades to develop a true blue-water fleet to support China’s strategy of projecting force into the first and second island chains, with a long-term policy of controlling these waters, said Tony Beitinger, vice president of market intelligence for AMI International, a US-based naval analysis firm.
“China’s Navy and paramilitary maritime forces [Coast Guard and other maritime security vessels, including thousands of “patriotic fishing vessels”] are now demonstrating their assertiveness to implement this strategy in the South China Sea and East China Sea as demonstrated in part through its provocative behavior with the Philippines in the Spratly Islands and also with Japan in the Senkakus,” he said.
China’s air power capabilities have also gone through an extraordinary evolution since the early 1990s, said Doug Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The Air Force has been revamped from one intended for homeland air defense and equipped with obsolete aircraft to a service with a significant number of capable modern combat aircraft, he said. Besides offering a greater air defense force, the Air Force is also moving toward regional power projection, he said.
China already can project air power to about 1,000 miles, said Roger Cliff, an Atlantic Council specialist on China and East Asian air power capabilities.
China’s Sukhoi fighters, such as the Su-27, Su-30 and J-11B, “can fly about that far,” as can the JH-7 fighter-bomber and H-6 medium-range bomber, which can carry anti-ship cruise missiles or land-attack missiles, Cliff said. “I expect the numbers of J-11Bs and JH-7s to increase in coming years. Some assessments of the J-20 stealth fighter suggest that it will be even longer range when it becomes operational.”
Cliff said to go farther than 1,000 miles will require new types of assets. One way of doing it is with aircraft carriers. The refurbished Liaoning aircraft carrier can carry only 20 fixed-wing aircraft. US Nimitz-class carriers can carry 60, “so even two to three carriers like the Liaoning would provide a pretty limited power projection capability.”
Another way would be through aerial refueling. China has only about a dozen small aerial refueling aircraft. None matches the 500 tankers in the US Air Force, and “so far Beijing hasn’t shown much interest in buying more.” Cliff suggests that when the Xian Y-20 strategic airlifter completes development, China might develop an aerial refueling version.
A third way would be with overseas air bases, in which China shows little interest. Beijing’s official policy is that China will never acquire overseas military bases, but policies can change. However, Cliff said it was not clear what countries would even host Chinese combat aircraft. Perhaps Pakistan, but that would only antagonize India. Maybe Cambodia, but that would anger Thailand and Vietnam.
Putting it in perspective, despite China’s enormous progress, Barrie said China’s air power is a “modernization effort that remains a work in progress, with areas of weakness still to be addressed fully.”
So what can the US do about China’s military modernization efforts and an insidious strategy of tailored coercion?
Patrick Cronin, one of the authors of the CNAS report, and senior director of the CNAS Asia-Pacific Security Program, said the US needs to develop, in concert with allies and partners, strategies to counter coercion, preserve a credible and sustainable forward force posture in the region, and build inclusive and strong institutions.
“It should also strengthen the capacity of allies and partners, not only to help defend themselves, but also to help others,” Cronin said. This means expanding intelligence cooperation, defense industrial cooperation and the training and exercising across a range of mission areas. These would include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, ISR, coastal and air defense, missile defense, and countering Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities.
“If we bear in mind our core objectives and vital interests, and preserve our comprehensive power, decision-makers will have the maximum flexibility to forge a roadmap with China that at a minimum prevents unnecessary competition and an escalation of tensions or conflict. The answer to the security dilemma is neither appeasement nor provocation but cooperation through strength.” ■