7 December 2017
China’s “New Era”: Regional Dominance or Global Contender?
In the coming years will China seek to create and hold regional dominance, or will it instead move towards becoming a global power in the same vein as the United States, and practice the same interventionist policies? If global power is the plan, what past events or policies might support this supposition, and what would the world look like with an interventionist PRC as a key global player? What counter arguments might be made against the global intervention theory and rather support China establishing insular and regional hegemony instead?
Although it would appear that China will continue to seek to fortify and expand its current regional power, perhaps capitalizing on the United States’ seeming withdrawal from the Pacific, an ever-strengthening argument could also be made that their sights are in fact set on increasing their global pull, perhaps even adopting an interventionist policy akin to that of the United States. Given the available evidence, it appears that not only will the PRC seek to maximize its control of regional affairs, but will also seek to expand that dominance westward to solidify its control of international policy making. Despite the historical precedence towards expanding only regional control, with President Xi Jinping’s recent statements to the Chinese People’s Congress it seems as if the goals of the PRC are much larger and more comprehensive than have previously been realized.
Addressing the Chinese People’s Congress in October, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself outlined a brave new future for the PRC, a future which not only supports regional political power, but global influence. In her BBC article covering the event, contributor Carrie Gracie says “Gone is the insistence that China must hide its light under a bushel and be a modest player abroad. Xi Jinping told Congress that China must be a ‘great power’ with a first-class military ‘built to fight’.” (Gracie). In addition to its military ambitions, Jinping also described his wish to guide the international community “towards a more just and rational new world order”. The insinuation being of course that the status quo is not enough, and that a new player sees fit to step into the global arena.
Had this same statement come from any other developed nation, the words might not have caused much of a stir. China however warrants a different response. What is the nature and intention of their involvement on the global stage? Do they wish to simply augment current global trends, or in fact blaze a new, China-centric path? President Jinping himself answers the question for us by stating China is ready “to move towards center stage in the world”, (Gracie). To properly analyze his rather bold claims, we must explore a few basic concepts.
Historically speaking, is there a precedence that would support an interventionist Chinese push? If not, by what means and to what ends does the PRC seek to expand? Additionally, if the evidence does support such an expansion of control, should the U.S., (and the western world at large), support or subvert such behavior? A desire for regional control alone is a much easier assertion to support due to the wide variety of actions the Chinese have taken in recent years. From the South China Sea to Africa, the smaller components must be added in order to realize the larger sum of potential of global influence.
Resources lay at the heart of much of the current Chinese action abroad, most notably within Africa. Resource scarcity is no new topic where the PRC is concerned, though many of the reasons supporting such scarcity have changed over the years. In a report dated 1996 we see that the trend towards imports had already begun in earnest, “In 1994, China ceased to be a net exporter of energy and grain and became a net importer of these commodities.”, (Walker 8). In post-Mao China, recovering from the widespread famine that was often encountered in his regime, one would have seen the economy move from large scale exports of food, (grain specifically), to similarly sized imports of those commodities. A growing population seemingly unaffected by the One Child Policy needed food and providing its own proved difficult when considering the great desertification that occurred in much of China’s traditional crop growing lands, (likely again due to many of the inefficient and disastrous policies incurred under the Mao regime, as well as those to follow).
As the nation dealt with these struggles and outsourced much of its food and energy needs, it simultaneously had to provide resources for local production of cheap exported goods. In an effort to keep up with the last several decades of rapid economic growth, Chinese corporations had to source raw materials in order to maintain their output for both domestic and export production. One of the locations deemed profitable for Chinese investment was the African continent. Logically speaking, simply using a foreign nation to maintain the flow of raw materials makes total sense, and supports the theory that the PRC only seeks to boost its economic success, (and thus, regional power). Where this theory seems to waver however is how these activities continued to be handled once initial materials were secured.
If there’s one common factor in nations who seek global dominance, (whether real or perceived), it’s military action, and more specifically taking advantage of developing nations to further its own goals. Initial steps towards military action were taken in Africa with China’s entry into UN peace keeping missions on the continent, specifically “…in Liberia, Western Sahara, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).”, (Rich and Recker 61). While UN peace keeping missions are hardly massive combat oriented campaigns, for a nation which has been nearly without conflict since the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, (where they were repulsed quite viciously), they do offer the PRC a recurring opportunity to cut the teeth of their largely inexperienced forces.
Proxy campaigns, even under the guise of UN missions, allow soldiers to test equipment and tactics in harsh and unforgiving environments, and while not contributing a great deal to the readiness of the PLA, the feedback given by boots on the ground beats any mental wargaming that would otherwise fill the void of tangible conflict. Another key advantage to maintaining a wide foot print on the African continent, both via UN peace keeping deployments as well as its larger “workers settlements” which support its economic interests, is the ability to place pseudo-military forces in points of strategic interest which the nations might not normally have allowed without a great deal of diplomatic banter.
Most recently a Chinese PLAN base was opened at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Much of Beijing’s public press regarding the base referred to it as being primarily in place to support Chinese economic interests in the region, by maintaining an open and regulated port for the import of infrastructure and the export of its extracted raw materials. What Beijing chose to leave out of much of the press is that the base was only a short drive, (15-30 minutes), away from the U.S. naval joint base at Camp Lemonnier. Africa. While publicly appearing to simply be a logistical operation for supporting the growing Chinese economy, it is in reality a proving ground for military technology, a forward operating base for PRC military forces, and potentially a thorn in the side of the classic western powers who previously had largely uncontested control of the region.
Africa is hardly the only place that Beijing has seen fit to cut its martial teeth. Afghanistan too seems to be the home of shadowy PLA operations. PLA operations in Afghanistan are difficult to find solid information on, and up until recently have been totally unreported. This is to be expected considering that the US and its ISAF allies are fighting in an active campaign against IS and Taliban forces across the nation. Afghanistan too might be seen as having a logical enough explanation in passing, as China shares a relatively short, (approximately 47 mile), border with Muslim majority nation. In a country full of active fighting and externally funded terrorist forces, it makes sense that neighboring states would ramp up security operations to keep those forces from escaping into their own homes. What doesn’t make sense, however, is some of the locations that PLA forces are being seen, nor the nature of the operations themselves.
As per a report by the Military Times, which received information from journalists on the ground, “India’s Wion News published photos claiming to show Chinese military vehicles in a region called Little Pamir, a barren plateau near the border. Reuters, an international news agency, also recently documented the development.” (Snow). The article goes on to state that there is abundant evidence that not only are the PLA forces conducting patrols, but that those patrols are in fact “joint counter-terror patrols with Afghan forces” (Snow). Both Beijing and Kabul dispute these claims, but analysts at the Pentagon believe them to be true based on their own internal reporting.
Why would PRC based border security forces move outside of their own territory and into the land of a sovereign nation, if not without express permission by said nation? Furthermore, what end goal does that expansion support? While the mutual benefit to the U.S. as well as the reduction of cross border violence is an obvious boon, the subtler answer would appear to fall into the same category as military expansion within Africa. Afghanistan, specifically joint counter-terror patrols in Afghanistan, provide China’s PLA with yet another opportunity to test tactics, techniques and equipment to further advance their own forces’ readiness.
Unlike most simple UN peace keeping missions within Africa, actions in Afghanistan require the use of sophisticated military equipment to detect and defuse IED’s, as well as other tertiary protective concerns which can’t usually be discussed on open forums. These pieces of technology aren’t built in a day, and require real world use to achieve optimal refinement, as the U.S. doesn’t even share those types of technologies with its Afghan partners. As such, Afghanistan seems to be simply another training ground, providing small and incremental improvements to an increasingly modernized Peoples Liberation Army.
The final and most obvious piece of Beijing’s seeming militarization is the territorial dispute currently ongoing in the South China Sea. The South China Sea dispute, at least at face value, also reflects an expanding China’s need for more resources. With an alleged 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, unfettered control of the South China Sea would allow the PRC to nearly end its need to import energy resources, or at the very least provide them with the ability to exploit those resources for profit.
Resources can’t be claimed in disputed regions without force to back the claims, and in this case the multitude of man-made reef islands as well as military installations and airstrips in the Spratly Islands continue to concern China’s regional neighbors. Where the SCS conflict differs from actions on the ground in Afghanistan or Africa is the wide use of paramilitary forces in addition to its uniformed PLAN vessels. Chinese “fishing vessels” have often been relied on to disrupt neighboring nations’ military patrols, as well as to essentially claim large swathes of the region by presence alone. One notable occurrence was “The Scarborough Shoal Incident”, where in April and June of 2012 Chinese sailors operating under the directive of Beijing had a tense standoff with Philippine coast guard vessels. Here we can clearly see that the power of the PRC isn’t limited to uniformed forces alone, “Although military force was never used, Beijing employed a number of coercive measures during the event and ultimately assumed de facto control over the feature” (Taffer 95).
Chinese control of the South China Sea, and more specifically its heavy naval presence in the Spratly Islands provides not only a deterrent for opposing parties interested in making good on their own claims within the region, but also provides in essence an extension of the Chinese mainland. It’s said that an island is the ultimate aircraft carrier, and in this case the Spratly’s become a permanent one within the region. Where a normal aircraft carrier group can be forward deployed to increase the striking range of a nation’s forces, and support force projection measures, a permanent force based on an island does much of the same while removing the resource intensive vessel from the picture entirely. While the tangible product of South China Sea control may be seemingly minimal in regard to the theory of global dominance, by hammering home their regional dominance with military and paramilitary force, Beijing shows that it cares little about the desires of external powers when it comes to their own immediate backyard.
Any of these pieces taken alone say little about a desire for global hegemony. In fact, nearly every developed nation who can afford it routinely sends troops abroad in order to either support or subvert interventionist policy. Tensions between the PRC and the U.S. are often seen as old news, but the contemporary trends show that the tensions might well be rising. As per a report in the New Zealand International Review, “frictions between China and the United States have been growing in terms of number, frequency and seriousness…Liu Mingfu, a professor from China’s National Defense University and a senior colonel of the PLA, claims in his new book…that China should build the world’s strongest military and move swiftly to displace the United States as the global ‘champion’.” (Yang and Azizian 15). The global goals of China need not be guessed when they are being handed to us in plain speech. As it turns out, the true answer to the question of China’s asserted dominance isn’t simply one of global versus regional, it’s both. The words of PRC officials themselves betray the global intent, and the cumulative actions abroad prove that the words are anything but hollow.
As such, if Chinese officials blatantly admit to wishing for a PRC-centric world with the U.S. in the background as a minor player, what should the U.S. do in response? Should Chinese expansion be seen as a welcome relief from years of global intervention and “policing”, or should the status quo be maintained? Had the Chinese rhetoric been more limited in its nature, a rising PRC with global reach might have been a well-received respite, potentially freeing us from our many toilsome, (and often self-imposed), conflicts abroad. This isn’t the case though, and the PRC rise hints at a total disregard for current U.S. power and control. Being selfish isn’t typically an admirable trait, but it is a trait which tends to work well towards securing the quality of life of your own population. Being selfish in this case is likely the best answer, and Chinese power should be countered whenever possible.
When mutual gain is possible, such as the PLA presence in Afghanistan, we should, (and have), turned a veritable blind eye to the situation. However, when dealing with Beijing backed near-breaches of sovereignty such as are occurring in the South China Sea, a firm strategy must be utilized to maintain our own position of strength. Shifting back towards the Pacific and our allies there will be the best immediate response to growing Chinese power, as nations which previously called the U.S. firm friends have lately been tempted by Chinese aid. An example of this conversion is the Philippines. Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines turned down a large U.S. backed arms deal which would have helped their forces in the fight against IS backed militants. Seeing an opportunity, Beijing stepped into the vacuum and instead offered a smaller number of weapons as gifts, solidifying their own relationship with the island nation and simultaneously weakening our own. These little defeats eventually add up, and shifting back to the Pacific in an attempt to entrench ourselves with China’s regional neighbors will do much to staunch the current flow of regional alliances.
In additional to martial and strategic moves, President Xi Jinping has been no slouch regarding diplomacy either, “China’s defense capabilities and international influence have both seen unprecedented improvement. Over the past five years, Xi Jinping made 28 foreign trips to 56 countries and major international and regional organizations on the five continents” (Angang 43). Enhanced military capabilities are largely meaningless without “just cause” to use them, and by making great strides regarding foreign diplomatic contacts, President Jinping can further what was previously a rather limited ability to interact with the outside world. A global hegemon cannot be an insular one, and taking these steps clears the path.
Ultimately, what does this all mean for us? Blatant admittance of its global goals makes the overall problem easy to identify; China clearly seeks to knock the U.S. from its current near-hegemonic throne. By piecing together the militaristic and neo-colonial actions of the PRC abroad, we have also seen that there is a rapidly developing and modernizing martial threat behind the diplomatic face of Chinese expansion. Ignoring this increasing threat could be detrimental to the United States and its interests, and with the potential winding down of conflicts in southwest Asia, more time, money and effort must be focused on the Pacific region to contain and subvert Chinese expansionist efforts. Ultimately, President Xi Jinping’s “New Era” is good for China, but potentially bad news for the world.
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