Making a bold military power play

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on March 7, 2018.
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AS lawmakers meet this week to cement Xi Jinping’s power at home, China’s president is also looking to boost his country’s military might abroad.

He has overhauled China’s military to challenge US supremacy in the Indo-Pacific, most visibly with a plan to put half-a-dozen aircraft carriers in the world’s oceans.

Still, Xi has a problem: He needs bases around the world to refuel and repair his global fleet.

So far, China only has one overseas military base, compared with dozens for the US, which also has hundreds of smaller installations.

US-China balance
In recent years China has stepped up efforts to challenge the US’s military presence in the South China Sea, developing missiles to deter American warships and reclaiming land to build bases on the disputed Spratly Islands.

It also started sending submarines and frigates into the Indian Ocean, opened its first overseas base in Djibouti and invested in ports around the region that could one day be used for military purposes.

That has set off alarm bells among some countries in the region, leading to closer security cooperation between the US, Australia, India and Japan. But China says there is nothing to worry about. It says the base is aimed at deterring piracy in a key Middle East shipping lane for oil tankers, while the ports are part of Xi’s One Belt and One Road infrastructure push that spans three continents. China says it wants prosperity for all — not global hegemony.

Defence budgets
While the US still dwarfs China when it comes to defence spending, Beijing’s sweeping modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)has prompted increases in military outlays from India to Japan. The PLA Navy has led the way. Since 2000, China’s seven main shipyards have produced more submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes than the collective output of South Korea, Japan and India, according to the 2018 Military Balance published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Aircraft carrier catch-up
China’s aircraft carrier programme is still in its infancy: Only one, the Liaoning, is currently in operation. Of five others planned, two are currently under construction. Two of the carriers are limited by systems that rely on ski-jump decks to launch planes into the air, rather than the steam-catapults commonly used on US carriers. The third carrier could use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system that will be used on the USS Gerald Ford, which was commissioned by the US Navy last year. That system, which reduces wear and tear, is the first in an American fleet that includes 10 Nimitz-class carriers — all of which are nuclear-powered. Reports this month said China may also be planning to build a nuclear-powered vessel, though that has not been confirmed.

Hemmed in
Chinese military strategists have long felt boxed in by the so-called First Island Chain, a string of US-aligned governments off its coast stretching from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines. When the Liaoning sailed through the Miyako Strait for the first time at the end of 2016, the transit was hailed as a milestone in China. Even so, the US and its allies will still be able to track the comings and goings of Chinese vessels through the region’s waterways until Xi is able to base part of his fleet elsewhere in the world. The US suffers no such hindrance. Its fleet can sail out of San Diego unobserved and disappear into the vast Pacific Ocean.

During the National People’s Congress, China’s lawmakers will be asked to approve the country’s military spending as part of the general budget. They are also set to endorse changes to the country’s constitution that will abolish presidential term limits, setting up Xi as a potential leader for life. That would help him implement a vision he outlined in October to turn China into a leading global power by 2050. By then, the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific might look very different. — Bloomberg