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Impact of Chinese Military Development on Regional and Global Security

May 08 , 2014
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Director of China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, Senior Adviser at Pangoal Institution

Chinese military modernization has made remarkable progress in the new century. The Chinese white papers on national defense published in the past years already have very detailed discussions about Chinese military development. I will focus here only on two questions: First, how to understand the rapid military development; and second, its impact on regional and global security. 

How to understand rapid Chinese military development 

First, the rapid military development is aimed at better safeguarding national security. Since the end of the Cold War, the international situation on the whole has moved towards relaxation, however, China still faces multiple complicated security threats and challenges. As a result, the task to safeguard national unification, territorial integrity and development interests is extremely arduous. In the past twenty-plus years, the development of pro-independence forces in Taiwan, the outbreak of military crises with the US, the intensification of maritime disputes, the various non-traditional security challenges both at home and abroad and the increasing need to safeguard its overseas interests have become important drivers behind accelerated military development. Besides, the revolution in military affairs led by the US, the various high and new military technologies used by the US in multiple wars, and the rapid development of the US military in new security domains such as missile defense, outer space, and cyberspace have also increased China’s sense of urgency to develop military capabilities and speed up defense modernization. 

Second, China develops its military to better carry out more international responsibilities and obligations. With its rise, China, as a responsible big country, has started to undertake more international obligations and made active efforts for regional and world peace and stability. Fulfillment of international responsibilities requires various military capabilities, including that of long-range projection. 

Third, the rapid development is a necessary result of economic, scientific and technological progress in China. Defense modernization has always been one of Chinese objectives. In the past decade, the rapid economic and scientific advancement have created important conditions for military development. Actually, it is a universal rule that economy, science and technology facilitate military development. It is true for all countries in the world, big countries in particular. 

Fourth, China’s military development has always been guided by a defensive national defense policy and the new security concept. The ultimate objective of defense modernization is to safeguard state sovereignty and territorial integrity, ensure the country’s peaceful development and defend regional and world peace and stability with the development of necessary deterrence and counter-intervention capabilities. China wants a military that matches its national strength and international status. It has all along stuck to the policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. It has adopted an increasingly positive attitude towards participation in multilateral security mechanisms and dialogues and conduct of international military and security cooperation. China insists that international disputes should be settled peacefully through dialogue. Since the end of the Cold War, even with huge military development, China has not engaged in military conflict with any other country. 

Impact on regional and global security 

First, Chinese military development has played a very positive role in the maintenance of global peace and security. For years, along with increased military capabilities, China has undertaken major responsibility in, and made great contribution to international peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. It has also become increasingly positive towards and made contribution to naval escort, sea-lane protection, anti-terror cooperation, prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear security, all of which have been welcomed by the international community. 

Second, China has also played a positive role in enhancing security in its neighborhood. In East Asia, the Chinese military has helped to decrease the possibility of conflict outbreak in two traditional hot spots: Taiwan Straits and the Korean Peninsula. In Central Asia, China has, through political and military cooperation, contained the challenges of three types of extremist forces, contributed to regional security and stability. In West Asia, China has given important support to the prevention of and combat of terrorist forces. Besides, the Chinese military has also taken an active part in disaster relief and medical assistance in the neighborhood, which is also welcomed by the relevant countries. 

Third, we are aware that rapid Chinese military development has also caused doubts and concerns among the US, some other Western countries and some neighbors. The US worries that China’s military development may challenge its position as a military hegemony and its geopolitical interests. Some neighbors (especially Japan) who have territorial and maritime disputes, as well as other historical disputes with China, worry that China’s military development will pose a threat to their interests and security. Among these countries, the “Chinese military threat” story is fairly popular. And among them, the US and Japan have demonstrated the most apparent tendency to balance and guard against China. The security dilemma between China and Japan is the most outstanding. Some medium-sized and small countries also attempt to “borrow” American and Japanese strength to counter China. 

Fourth, how Chinese military development will influence regional and global security in the long term depends not only on China’s intention and efforts, but also on external interpretation of and reaction to it, as well as interactions between the two. In order to have healthy interactions, I think the following efforts are essential. 

On the part of China, no matter how its military develops, it should stick to the defensive national defense policy and the new security concept of comprehensive security, cooperative security and common security. It must never pursue the Western powers’ old path of seeking military expansion or hegemony or engage in any arms race with the US or other major powers. 

Other countries should have an objective and accurate assessment of Chinese military development, support the PLA to contribute to regional and world peace and stability, and support China to be an important force safeguarding freedom of sea-lane communications. The US and its allies should change its practice of regarding China as the main object of prevention and balancing China through strengthened military alliances. 

In terms of interaction between the two sides, in order to avoid security dilemma and strive for healthy interaction, I suggest that we advocate one concept and enhance efforts in three areas. 

The one concept is this: although it is the military’s basic function to prepare for the worst-case scenario, the military forces of all countries should also proceed from the most likely scenarios or the relatively better scenarios and actively develop all possible co-operations. 

The three areas are: to maintain and strengthen defense dialogue so as to reduce, as far as possible, misunderstanding or misperceptions; to enhance bilateral and multilateral military and security cooperation at both regional and global levels, in particular, non-traditional security cooperation; and to develop and improve SCBMs(Security Confidence Building Measures) and crisis management mechanisms. The last one is especially important between militaries with fairly big security differences. 

And by the way, upon China’s proposal, the Chinese and American militaries are conducting consultations on establishing rules of notification of major military operations and code of military and security conduct in the open sea. I hope the two sides will reach agreement at an early date. Similar SCBMs are also necessary between the defense authorities of China and those of India, Japan and some ASEAN countries respectively. It is hoped that similar consultations will be conducted in the future. 

Zhang Tuosheng is the Director of Research and Senior Fellow at the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies.

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