Freeing China from restrictive Maoist economic thinking, in the mid 70s, then China’s leader Deng Xiaoping had unleashed market reforms which The Economist aptly summarised as “ … the most dynamic burst of wealth creation in human history.” This growing economic clout is translating into military muscle and modernisation of its forces at a pace which no country in the world can match. As is widely known, Chinese declared defence budgets are normally half of their actual value. From an annual defence budget of US$ 92 billion last year, the budget this year has shot up to a whopping US$ 106 billion, which, in real terms, would thus be around US$ 200 billion just for a year! According to the widely acclaimed defence consultancy, IHS Jane’s, China’s defence budget is set to double by 2015 to a whooping US$ 238 billion and exceed that of all major Asia-Pacific countries put together. Japan will remain in defence spending a distant second with around US$ 64 billion. India with a falling rupee depreciation, heavy fiscal deficit and large government debts will be left far behind in defence allocations. The overall strategic implications for the entire Asia-Pacific region of China’s triple digit defence spending can be easily comprehended.
Leader Deng Xiaoping had unleashed market reforms which The Economist aptly summarised as “… the most dynamic burst of wealth creation in human history.” This growing economic clout is translating into military muscle and modernisation of its forces at a pace which no country in the world can match. As is widely known, Chinese declared defence budgets are normally half of their actual value. From an annual defence budget of US$ 92 billion last year, the budget this year has shot up to a whopping US$ 106 billion, which, in real terms, would thus be around US$ 200 billion just for a year!
In the overall budget for 2011, for the first time the budget for Internal Security outstripped the Defence budget of the Chinese and this points towards internal stability concerns for China.
China’s core interests and internal imbalances
It is not surprising to China watchers that China’s all pervading assertiveness has led to the definition and usage by both its official and unofficial institutions of its “core interests” spreading to embrace newer sensitivities. Earlier, such interests used to be confined to a few areas where the Chinese Communist Party would brook no dissenting views. These included its national security, national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Tibet came in as a major “core interest” after its forcible annexation in 1951 and so did the island of Taiwan, which was ceded to Japan in 1895 and today is an economically vibrant self-governing democracy, calling itself the Republic of China. The People’s Republic of China has repeatedly warned the world that it will invade Taiwan if it ever declares independence. More recently, the restive province of Xinjiang (formerly East Turkestan), the huge area in west of China which has seen frequent clashes between the local Uyghur Muslims and the Han Chinese being settled there from mainland China, has also been added to the list of China’s “core interests”. China has vociferously warned of its “core interests” in the South China Sea as non-negotiable to nations like Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei which lie astride this waterway. It has cautioned the US to keep its naval vessels away from this waterway and only last year, it had aggressively cautioned an Indian naval vessel, INS Airawat which was sailing in the territorial waters of Vietnam where India is oil prospecting. China has now also included the sustaining of its existing political system as a “core interest.”
Internal stability is currently the most critical constituent of China’s national security. The significant internal imbalances which worry China are Taiwan, Tibet, the restive Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, uneven regional development with the east, namely its coastal belt far ahead in development indices than its impoverished western region. In addition, Chinese concerns also embrace its demographic clock where its population is ageing at a rapid rate and it is estimated that by the mid-century, more than half of its population will be over sixty. Barry Naughton in his book on the Chinese economy has surmised that “China will grow old before it has had the opportunity to grow richer.” In addition China’s growing energy demands to fuel its growth is causing environmental problems both internally and internationally. Its unchecked modernisation is also causing severe environmental degradation inside China with acid rain getting worse and its total agricultural land having decreased by 20 per cent.
China is developing rapid reaction capability for catering to speedy and potent responses to varying battlefield contingencies. These high-technology based rapid reaction forces will cater for small scale intense local military operations or in support of pre-emptive operations
China’s defence modernisation
China has shifted gears since the collapse of its major threat, namely the Soviet Union, in the early nineties of the last century. Their paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping had ordained that ‘small and medium local conflicts and not general wars were the most likely threats.’ Gradually the Chinese have, especially after the Gulf War, honed their doctrine to “Local Wars under Conditions of informationisation.” China’s military modernisation strategy is based on the “PLA’s simultaneous transformation” through mechanisation and informationisation. The Chinese have been rapidly building-up their Information Warfare capabilities. There are reportedly 30,000 computer professionals and two hacker brigades in the Chinese forces.
- Strategic forces: China maintains nuclear deterrence employing land based ICBMs. China has currently around 250 nuclear warheads in its inventory with the arsenal growing. It has around 60 ICBMs (DF-31 of 8,000 km and DF-31A of 13,000 km range). By 2020, experts opine that it will have 100 ICBMs and 6 Jin class nuclear submarines each armed with 12 sea launched ballistic missiles. Besides DF-25 medium range ballistic missiles, China’s Second Artillery Corps has over 1,000 short range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads.
- Land forces: The PLA is the world’s largest Army with 1.6 million men. As per the Military Balance, it has 40 divisions to India’s 28 with 7,660 main battle tanks to India’s 3,900 and nearly 18,000 artillery pieces to India’s a little over 10,000. Besides there are nearly 60 divisions worth of the People’s Armed Police as an internal security force, the bulk of which are demobilised PLA divisions.
- The PLA Navy: For expanding naval ambitions not only in the seas surrounding it, but for naval operations against Taiwan and in the entire Asia-Pacific to thwart even the US flotilla and the navies of the other countries in its vicinity, the Chinese Navy is the focus of modernisation. By 2020–25, it could have three aircraft carrier battle groups, 60 submarines including 10 nuclear and nearly 80 surface combatants. The Indian Navy may just have two / three carriers and 16–18 submarines with 2 nuclear submarines and 58 surface combatants.
- PLAAF: The Chinese Air Force is currently undergoing a feverish qualitative upgrade. Its vintage fleet is being rapidly replaced by third and fourth generation fighters like the Russian Su-27 and Su-30 and its Chinese copy, the J‑11. The mainstay is the J‑10 which is reportedly a F‑16 equivalent fighter. It is also jointly developing the JF-17 multi-role aircraft with Pakistan and is programmed to receive 250 of these. Like India, it already has air-to-air refuelling and the AWACS capability. By 2020, it will have over 2,300 fourth / fifth generation combat aircraft compared to India’s 750 aircraft in the best possible modernisation scenario for India — thus this asymmetry remains operationally unacceptable. Importantly, it is planning to build 60 airfields in Tibet alone.
- China tested its first anti-satellite missile in early 2007 and in 2010 conducted an anti-ballistic missile test. It has launched three manned missions and a lunar orbiter. It is planning for nano satellites that will serve as space mines and by 2020 plans to have 200 remote sensing satellites and a military space station — the first in the world!
- Rapid reaction forces: China is developing rapid reaction capability for catering to speedy and potent responses to varying battlefield contingencies. These high-technology based rapid reaction forces will cater for small scale intense local military operations or in support of pre-emptive operations. The Chinese already have a fully operational Airborne Corps and another Z is under raising. These forces could be tasked also in support of China’s “core interests” as specified above, in case required.