China is Flexing Its Military Might

Posted in China | 17-Sep-05 | Author: Dieter Farwick

China's geopolitical environment

China’s leaders recognize that military power is an indispensable factor for a superpower. Stalin’s question: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” is still relevant. The military has certainly lost its dominant role of the past, but a superpower must demonstrate its capabilities to combine elements of soft and hard power in order to follow its own vital national interests. “Power projection” underscores China’s ambition to become a superpower with worldwide interests.

Traditionally, navies have the best chances and capabilities to “show the flag.” Therefore, it is no coincidence that the history of the Chinese navy is brought to the attention of the Chinese people as well as to the whole world.

The hero is Admiral Zheng. He was born in 1371 – a Muslim. Between 1405 and 1431, he sailed 7 times to the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The navy went to India and Java as well as to Kenya and Somalia – about 50,000 kilometers. There are rumors that Zheng even found the way to America and Australia – 70 years prior to Christopher Columbus. It is no coincidence that Deng Xiaoping, the father of the modernization of China, made Zheng a national hero.

Admiral Zheng's fleet was impressive – more than 300 ships with about 30,000 soldiers with all the necessary means to survive a long journey. The ships were fourfold bigger than Christopher Columbus's “Santa Clara”. Chinese navigation skills and tools must have been extraordinary.

After the seventh journey in 1443, the Chinese emperor decided to burn the whole fleet and to concentrate on the “Middle Empire.” He is quoted as having said that Chinese people had nothing to learn from the “barbarians beyond the horizon.” Thus the Chinese navy and its hero were forgotten for more than 500 years.

Today, there are statues of Admiral Zheng as well as exhibitions in many Chinese cities. His tomb is in Nanjing – the location of the first Chinese shipyards.

Now, seminars and publications elaborate the history of the Chinese navy. They underline officially the “peaceful nature” of the Chinese navy – in order to quiet down concerns and anxieties abroad.

Military forces are a priori neither “aggressive” nor “defensive.” Even a sea mine – for some observers the best example of defensive weapons – might be used in an aggressive way by blocking the harbors of a foreign country. Political aims and objectives determine the size, structure and equipment of the military forces taking the perceived threats and risks into account.

The Chinese – Russian military exercise “Peace 2005” – lifted the veil a little bit. This joint and combined exercise was based upon a scenario that was more reminiscent of “classic warfare” than “peace support operations.” The officially delivered pictures show masses of forces, missiles and long-distance bombers capable of carrying nuclear bombs.

Russia used this “road show” to present the modern equipment that China lacks. In my view, this exercise should impress nations abroad – especially Taiwan and other countries nearby in the region. It should show the United States that China is not willing to let the American navy rule the waves in the Asian-Pacific region.

It’s certainly a legitimate approach of China to do more to protect the lifelines for the import of the needed raw materials and for the export of increasingly more sophisticated Chinese goods. However, Chinese “power projection” towards Taiwan is not acceptable. This will cause a new phase of the arms race.

China will have to pay a price for its increased military spending. This money is not available to mitigate huge domestic problems.

Our newsletter “China’s Changing Military” from the IISS shows the ambitious remolding of the Chinese military. It needs a transformation process from quantity to quality.