Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) pledge to build a “world-class army” by 2050 is making his neighbors nervous, but analysts say Beijing’s military ambitions do not constitute a strategic threat — for now.
With purchases and construction of fighter jets, ships and hi-tech weaponry, China’s military budget has grown steadily for 30 years, but remains three times smaller than that of the US.
Now, Beijing wants to catch up.
“We should strive to fully transform the people’s armed forces into a world-class military by the mid-21st century,” Xi told 2,300 delegates of the Chinese Communist Party, which he heads and which controls the army.
The comments, made during the party’s twice-a-decade congress, were aimed in part at domestic nationalists, but also intended to show other countries “China’s desire to be strong economically as well as militarily,” said James Char, a military analyst at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
During China’s so-called “century of humiliation,” starting around the mid-19th century, the country lost almost every war it fought, and was often forced to give major concessions in subsequent treaties.
“That’s why China, more than any other country, dreams of a strong army. Not to bully other countries, but to defend ourselves,” said Ni Lexiong (倪樂雄) from Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
But Xi’s call to build a military that can “fight and win” has alarmed China’s neighbors, several of whom are embroiled in tense border disputes with the superpower.
This summer India and China engaged in a bitter, weeks-long military confrontation over a disputed area in the Himalayas.
Japan regularly faces off with Chinese maritime patrols close to the Senkaku islands, which are called the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in Mandarin and claimed by Beijing.
And Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, despite rival claims from countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Beijing has reclaimed islands it controls in the sea in order to cement its claims and installed military aircraft and missile systems on them, causing tensions to spiral in recent years.
“Chinese activities are a security concern for the region encompassing Japan and for the international community,” said a recent Japanese defense report.
“It is incontestable that the country’s rise as a military power is setting off an arms race in Asia,” said Juliette Genevaz, China researcher at the France-based Military School Strategic Research Institute.
“This arms race in Asia has several causes,” she said, noting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as one of the contributors. But, “China’s military build-up and reclaiming activities in the South China Sea is a major factor.”
China’s military expenditure last year was an estimated US$215 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, putting it in first place in Asia, well ahead of India (US$56 billion), Japan (US$46 billion) and South Korea (US$37 billion).
The country has not participated in any conflict since a month-long border war against Vietnam in 1979 that killed tens of thousands of people and a 1988 skirmish, also with Hanoi, over the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in the South China Sea, that left 64 dead.
But it has been busy boosting its military activities abroad.