China’s military is becoming a force in Pacific

By Dale R. Herspring

The modernization and expansion of China’s military is an issue of deep and growing concern to U.S. policymakers. China realizes that to expand its influence in the South China Sea, it needs a larger navy. Likewise, if it wants to fend off potential attacks by the United States or Japan, China needs newer and better fighter aircraft and bombers. Finally, China needs a modern air defense force and more powerful missiles.

Money does not appear to be a problem.  China has the second highest military budget in the world, behind only the United States. China spends about 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on its military. The United States spends about 4.5 percent, although Obama ad-ministration funding cuts will probably bring that down.

China’s military modernization is the brainchild of Presi-dent Xi Jinping. He is determined to make China a power to be reckoned with and believes in Henry Kissinger’s dictum that an effective foreign policy must be backed up by military power.  

Xi faces considerable bureaucratic opposition. So does Russian President Vladi-mir Putin, who is trying to overcome efforts by his military to maintain the status quo and modernize Russia’s armed forces. Putin brought in a outsider to shake up the Russian military. While some of his changes may have been nutty, the fact is that the military did everything it could to oppose him. In the end he was fired, and a military officer is again Russia’s defense minister.

As for China, its ground forces are the heart of Xi’s problem. The Chinese Army is organized much as it was when it contained a million peasant soldiers under Mao Zedong. From a bureaucratic position, this put the ground forces in a position of strength.  The army’s position was further strengthened by its organizational structure — seven regional commands originally set up to counter a possible Russian invasion. Non land force officers are attached to the regional commands but exert little influence.

China now is more concerned with Japan and the ability to project power in the South China Sea to protect its efforts to extract oil from the region.

China’s army is useful for protecting the homeland, but that is not where the action is. China’s air force and navy will play more important roles in the dispute with Japan over islands both countries claim. And in some ways, China’s missile forces will play an even more important deterrent role than ground forces will.

China does not need as many infantry soldiers as it has in the past. That also is the case in the United States, Russia, Germany, Canada and other countries.

No bureaucrat wants to hear that he is irrelevant — that his job is obsolete.  That is particularly true of senior officers. Yet technology and things like cy-ber-warfare are playing ex-panding roles. If an individual can transfer to another job, he will be fine, but a low-tech individual could well find himself out on the street in increasingly high-tech militaries.  

The bureaucrats are not making things easy.  As one observer put it, “Forces for inertia are making real military reform more difficult. You’ve got a lot of fiefdoms, and there’s the strong, disproportionate influence and power of the ground forces.” 

To be effective, Xi has to loosen the grip of the ground forces. Another problem Xi has is corruption in the army.  Apparently, selling promotions has become so widespread that the government has put a corrupt general on trial to make an example of him.

The Pentagon’s latest yearly report on the Chinese military points out that China already has the largest air force in Asia, although many of its planes are from the 1970s or ’80s. To modernize, Beijing is trying to buy advanced Sukhoi SU-35 fighters and is producing ships at a rapid rate, although few expect Chi-nese-made carriers in the near future. Naval exercises have increased. and there are reports that China is trying to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system.  

If Xi can push his reforms through, China by 2020 will become a major military force in the Pacific. We have shifted ships and Marines to the Pacific, but given our military cutbacks, they may not be enough.

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