“China is a developing country,” Commerce Ministry spokesman Yao Jian said this week, in the government’s initial reaction to the news of China’s surpassing Japan for the first time in its gross economic output. “The quality of China’s economic development still needs to be raised.”
Behind that apparent humility, however, is a complex story of Chinese ambitions and anxieties. Just as China’s second-quarter gross domestic product showed it leading Japan, the U.S. Defense Department was reporting that the country’s economic achievements have enabled China “to embark on a comprehensive transformation of its military.” The annual Pentagon report on China’s military development highlighted the country’s rapid expansion of missile, submarine and space-warfare capabilities, all made possible by its dramatic economic growth.
China’s reluctance to trumpet its economic achievement, in fact, seems mainly to reflect its reluctance to take on additional international burdens.
“Being recognized as one of the key economic powers in the world also brings with it a great number of responsibilities,” says Eswar Prasad, a professor of trade policy at Cornell University. “Their feeling is that, given their level of development, with a per capita income less than one-tenth that of the U.S., [the Chinese] are really not in a position to shoulder some of these responsibilities.”
In recent months, China’s government has disappointed the United States and other countries with its refusal to play a higher-profile role on climate change issues and in the promotion of freer trade.
“The Chinese have a great track record in demanding to be treated as a great power and a mixed record in acting like one,” says David Finkelstein, a former defense attache in Beijing.
The new Pentagon report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” suggests China wants to establish itself as a dominant regional power before claiming a larger global role. The Chinese military, according to the Pentagon, is pursuing “anti access and area denial strategies” in its corner of the world with respect to potential rivals like Japan, South Korea and the United States. In part, this means being prepared to keep U.S. and other foreign military forces as far from Chinese waters as possible.
“One of the missions that have been given to the Chinese Navy and the Chinese air force has been to extend China’s defensive perimeter out to sea, eastward,” says Finkelstein, now at the Center for Naval Analyses. “So they’re developing operational capabilities that can make it difficult for forces outside the region to operate with impunity inside China’s coastal strategic areas.”
New Chinese submarines, according to the Pentagon report, are being equipped with missiles capable of destroying aircraft carriers operating anywhere in the Western Pacific. At the same time, China is locking up oil supplies and other resources needed to fuel its economic growth, looking especially to nearby countries like Iran and Afghanistan.
“They do intend to become very dominant in the region,” says Cornell’s Prasad, formerly the top China specialist at the International Monetary Fund. “They see economic, political and military issues as all intertwined in terms of trying to obtain their longer-term objectives.”
International law normally recognizes a country’s territorial domain only over seawaters within 12 miles of its shores, but China is claiming dominion out to 300 miles. Other Asian countries, with U.S. support, are now pushing back, as was evidenced at a meeting last month of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hanoi. But China has not retreated, with Chinese leaders even asserting their domination of the Yellow Sea, between China and the Korean Peninsula.
“Beijing’s statements about their sovereignty in the Yellow Sea as well as their sovereignty in the southern part of the China Sea reflect a new, even more expanded view [of their sovereignty claims],” says James Mulvenon of the Defense Group consultancy. He notes that the United States has repeatedly challenged China’s claims, most recently in the speech given by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ASEAN meeting in Hanoi.
“We have been very clear in the last three or four months to say that we reject that [Chinese] definition of sovereignty and that we are going to deliberately reassert our ability to operate freely in those areas,” Mulvenon says.
Such statements, in the face of Chinese claims, suggest that if there is to be a U.S.-China military conflict in the coming years, it most likely would be a naval confrontation in some part of the China Sea.
China, meanwhile, is also boosting its military presence in distant corners of the globe. The Pentagon report highlighted the role of the Chinese navy in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and China’s direction last year of a military medical exercise in the African nation of Gabon. Such relatively minor moves serve at least to bolster China’s international image as a military player.
“They’re going to be out there showing the flag in the Horn of Africa, Indian Ocean and other places,” Finkelstein says. “We’re going to have to get used to that.”
It would be a mistake to conclude China will rule the world anytime soon. It still has huge internal challenges to deal with, including widespread rural poverty and an unbalanced economy that depends far too much on other countries continuing to buy Chinese goods. Twenty years ago, many commentators were predicting the next global superpower would be Japan, the very country that has now slipped to No. 3 in the economic rankings.
But China’s military and economic development over the past decade has been dramatic, and at this point it seems destined to be a dominant 21st century player.