« Previous | Main | Next »

China: a military giant in the making?

Post categories:

Robin Lustig | 09:37 UK time, Friday, 9 March 2012

You probably remember that when the UN security council voted on a resolution about Syria last month, Russia and China vetoed it.

But why was it Russia and China, in that order, rather than China and Russia? Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the nature of the relationship between these two Eastern giants, one post-Communist, and the other -- well, what's the right term -- neo-Communist?

Ever since the end of the Cold War, we've tended to assume that Russia was the dominant one in the Moscow-Beijing partnership. After all, the Russians were used to behaving like a super-power, perfectly happy to play a major role on the world stage.

How different from the Chinese, quiet, diffident even, concentrating on expanding their economy at terrifying speed and keeping the lid firmly on any signs of domestic unrest or dissent.

These days, it's rather different. The Russian foreign policy analyst Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, calls what's happened a "historical role reversal". As he wrote in an article this week: "In 1979, China's gross domestic product was a mere 40 per cent of that of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union. Nowadays, China's GDP is between four and five times bigger than Russia's."

What's more, he wrote, at the height of the Sino-Soviet confrontation, the Soviet Union was a military superpower and the Chinese People's Liberation Army was doing little more than preparing for a "people's war". Today, China's defence budget is the second largest in the world, far ahead of 5th-placed Russia.

And while we're on the subject of defence budgets, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported this week that on current trends Asian defence spending is likely, for the first time, to exceed that of Europe during the course of this year.

And yes, Chinese spending makes up a whopping 30 per cent of the regional total, having more than doubled over the past decade. European defence spending, on the other hand, has been sharply cut back.

According to the defence industry consultants IHS Jane's, by 2015 China will be spending more on defence than the combined total of Nato's top eight members, excluding the US: that's the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Canada, Spain and Poland.

Now, I wouldn't want you to get this out of proportion. According to the latest available figures, in 2010 the US was still spending nearly six times as much on defence as China -- and more than the next 15 top-spending countries combined (including the UK, France, Russia, India, Brazil and Turkey).

But the trend is clear: China is catching up. And it's interesting to wonder why.

If I were suddenly to invest in a new high fence round my house, with security guards on duty around the clock and an armoury of high-powered weapons on hand in my bedroom, what would you assume?

That I'd developed a bad case of paranoia, or perhaps that I was frightened of my neighbours? Or that I wanted you to sit up and take notice, say to yourself "I'd better not push that Robin around -- he looks as if he means business"?

My hunch is that China has realised that its economic clout can now be parlayed into military clout. It has regional interests that it is determined to protect, and it's prepared to spend some of its newly acquired wealth on purchasing the means with which to protect them.

China, after all, has a proud past as an imperial power (so does Japan, but that's a rather different story). I'm not suggesting that it wants to re-create its imperial past, but it may well be ready to use its regional muscle to get what it wants.

Above all, it needs to keep its fuel supply lines open, as it's now increasingly dependent on oil imported from the Middle East -- and, like the US, it regards guaranteeing energy security as a top national security priority.

And for that, you need modern military hardware, and the technological know-how to keep ahead of the game. China is clearly prepared to pay for both.


  • Comment number 1.

    Difference in defense budgets between China & US is a far more important indicator shaping Asian Geopolitics than differences among Asian countries. Most Asian military issues originate from US. It is more meaningful to consider the US military budget, which is @ eight times China's (in 2011).
    Maritime disagreements among China and its neighboring countries may not avoid the consequence of a military clash but China does not want to solve territorial disputes this way. China believes that restraint is the foundation of Asian stability.
    China must possess strong military power due to US focus on Asian territory. The uncertainty brought by China's strength is often stressed, but China feels somewhat the same way. The US turn to Asia has created a significant concern in China and her neighboring countries. The fast growth of Asian military budgets is related to this factor.
    China has not gone overboard in reacting to the US. China is not pursuing a military advantage over the US, but it will strive for a balance against US naval & aerial strength in the West Pacific, including a military advantage in China's nearer maritime areas. It will be a deterrent against US' aggression.
    China is aiming to safeguard peaceful competition. The US - always aggressive - is not likely to take this position sitting down. US wants dominance. Pacifism is persuasive in China, but many China is worried that peaceful development might draw more challenges & provocations from US. Military development is an insurance policy for the future.

  • Comment number 2.

    Although the American decline is real it has been over stated. America has been the world's biggest economy since the 1850s, yet it took it almost another 100 years and two very expensive world wars waged by the old existing powers for it to reach the dominance that matched its economic power. Moreover, the FT recently ran a piece about America's potential use of new technology for extracting its own natural fossil fuels which may allow it to become energy independent. America will still aim to control the middle east though because who ever controls that region pretty much controls the rest of the world.

    At the same time, China's (and India's) rise is real, but that too has been overstated in my opinion. Its rapid growth has been very inegalitarian and it still remains a poor country with vast internal social problems. Currently most of the world's goods have 'Made in China' written on them, but this belies the fact that China is, more or less, a giant assembly plant for other more advanced Asian economies and Western multinationals. Also, China has been benefiting from a 'demographic bonus' of having a very large working age population. This will not last forever and its excess cheap labour supply may end soon.

    So China's dominance in this new century is very uncertain IMO. Let's wait and see what China does next. If it wants dominance it will have to exert far more control in the middle east which will put it at loggerheads with the US.

  • Comment number 3.

    To understand China, in the same way as to understand Ireland or France etc. one has understand the history of the Chinese (etc) national psyche - the origin of the folk memory if you like. In Ireland it is the historic attachment to land and the empry shells of the homes of the Anglo/Irish landowners that still exit in the landscape along with the war memorials to those lost in the battle for independence "done to death by the bloody black and tans" along with the terrible famine caused initially by the potato blight of 1848.

    In France remember Bonaparte, the Revolution of 1789 and those of 1848 along with the essential Catholicism of the French (apart from the Huguenots etc.of course)as well as the Maid of Orelans and the relationship with the English

    Now for China the recent attitude to the rest of the the World dates from the beginning of the last century with the Boxer Uprising which in many way set the stage for the Long March and Mao. The reason for opposing foreign imperialism was the outrageous way that foreigners treated the Chinese (much in the same way as the Irish were treated! and both by the English!)

    To avoid going on at enormous length I'll move on now to suggest that unless these old folk memories of their grandparents are remembered then incorrect judgements are made. We always need to try to see the world through the eyes of the other person I am not convinced that any of the institutes that study China look at it in this way. I see them generally considering materiel but not considering the folk memory psyche of the people who operate the triggers.

    Just as the USA is still rebelling against the England of George 3rd etc etc. Unfortunately there is no way to rewrite history. There is no way to rewrite the wrongs of the opium trade etc. and it is still remembered in the underlying attitude of China to the rest of the World

    As an aside: this is why nations should be nice to other nations because you never know who you will need as a friend in the future! And the memory of an insult or worse lasts for hundred's of years! National altruism is a good idea despite the machinations of the military industrial complex!

  • Comment number 4.

    China's record on human rights is nothing compared to the death and destruction unleashed by the US over the last fifty years. America only respects life if you are 'one of us'. I'd rather be ruled by the Chinese atheist Buddhists than by the American self-proclaimed 'Christians'.


    It's fifty years since JFK first sent troops to South Vietnam to launch the most destructive and murderous act of aggression of the post-World War II period: the invasion of South Vietnam, later all of Indochina, leaving millions dead and four countries devastated, with casualties still mounting from the long-term effects of drenching South Vietnam with some of the most lethal carcinogens known, undertaken to destroy ground cover and food crops.

    The West commemorated Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, but not the start of the war in Indochina.

  • Comment number 5.

    '4. At 17:03 12th Mar 2012, Rusholme Ruffian - I'd rather be ruled by the Chinese atheist Buddhists than by the American self-proclaimed 'Christians'.'

    Even today, all things are relative.

    At least, if you have the wrong kind of views, your gloriously richer relatives may be able to afford the bullet better.

    Not sure religion gets a look in.

  • Comment number 6.

    Asia has a number of issues and China does have "Imperial" designs. The 20th century was not good for China. The Revolution was an armed take-over. The National Revolutionary Army was held in very high regard until 1989. The military has always been a political force in Asia. Military coups remain a method of regime change in Asia. China, like the U.S., has a military-industrial complex and the budgets of China reflect both perceived threats, internal and external, and political influence. Governments everywhere have "ghost" defense budgets so accuracy is always an issue. Iran, Egypt and others have rallied their populations with the idea of regaining the glory of ancient empires. When China was ruled by the Mongols they made it to Europe's doorstep. The more one has to lose the greater the amount spent to protect it.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.