21 February 2019
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undergoing its most extensive reform in thirty years. Combined with China’s expansionist foreign policy, the West and its allies ought to be concerned.
Since 2013, China has been weaving a network of assets and tightening its grip on strategic zones across the globe. Its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has widened its political and economic spheres of influence. There has also been an alarming increase in China’s military presence, from militarising islands in the South China Sea to opening its first overseas military base in the strategically important state of Djibouti.
President Xi Jinping has announced the modernisation and reform of his military, allowing Chinese military might to edge ever closer to that of its rival, the US. The Chinese leader wants the PLA’s modernisation to be completed by 2035 and for it to be “world-class” fighting force capable of winning wars anywhere by 2050.
Military modernisation and a strategic resizing have allowed the PLA to shift from what was primarily a defensive force, to one that has the ability to flex its muscles abroad. Its land army has been almost halved, now accounting for under 30% of the total PLA force (it is still the largest in the world, with two million personnel in its ranks). To make up for the shrinking of its land force, Beijing has focused on the growth of its navy, air force and strategic support force, making the PLA far more capable of modern offensive warfare. As well as this strategic change of size, the PLA has under gone an extensive modernisation effort, demonstrated by the launch of its first independently developed aircraft carrier planned to launch later this year and it’s continued development of the Hong-20 nuclear-capable bomber.
China has also expanded its military presence overseas. The August 2017 establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti has been downplayed by Beijing which has stressed that the base is an “overseas logistical supply facility”. Beijing’s actions contradict this claim. The base is home to deployed Marines and it is currently completing the construction of a 450-meter long pier that, once finished, will have the capacity to birth four warships. This will aggravate the growing concern felt by the US and France, who both have military bases in close proximity.
Washington has vocalised its concern over the Chinese military base, seeing it as a direct threat to critical counterterror efforts conducted from its only permanent military base on the African continent at Camp Lemonnier. Now with a rumoured Chinese takeover of one of Djibouti’s main port terminals, the US is concerned that that the Chinese may attempt to stop supplies reaching the US base. The two powers have already clashed in Djibouti, when two US airmen were injured by Chinese-deployed ‘military-grade’ lasers. The incident mobilised the Pentagon to announce a major spending initiative to protect against such attacks in the future.
The base in Djibouti isn’t the only concern when it comes to China’s expanding military arm. Both the PLA and Chinese private security forces have been spreading across Africa. As Beijing’s infrastructure and investment interests and assets spread across the region, it is likely that Chinese security forces will follow. In 2015, China passed a new national security law, which provided it with a legal basis to deploy security forces abroad in order to protect its foreign assets. A recent report by the African Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) revealed a concern for Beijing’s use of hard power to protect its assets and interests. This was confirmed by a 2018 action plan which is solely focused on beefing up BRI security. A mounting Chinese military presence on the African continent is not only drawing concern from major foreign powers but also African citizens. Opposition to China’s more active military presence has resulted in attacks on Chinese nationals and property in Uganda, South Sudan and several other sub-Saharan nations.
Military expansion isn’t limited to Africa, the militarisation of the Spratly islands in the South China Sea has triggered alarm. Three years ago, satellite ima
ges proved that China was responsible for the development of seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, at the time President Xi Jinping state that China did not “intend to pursue militarisation” of the islands. These claims were false. There is growing evidence that the islands are scattered with radar installations, bunkers made of reinforced concrete and anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. In May 2018 China installed long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on three of the islands, claiming that its actions were justified because of US manoeuvres in the South China Sea. The creation of these artificial islands is an act of aggression. China forcefully claimed thousands of acres of sea in order to construct the islands and now has control of the South China Sea. The islands add to China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy, which has seen a chain of military and commercial networks build-up across strategic locations spanning from China to the Horn of Africa. Two further ‘pearls’, Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar Port in Pakistan, are both run by Chinese state-owned companies and fit neatly into Beijing’s logistical framework that supports is military presence in the area. This is especially true of Pakistan. The two countries
have recently increased their bilateral military relationship, with rumours that they are building fighter jets and other military hardware together. There is a general consensus that the Chinese port operation at Gwadar will be used not only for commercial use, but to support its military objectives.
It is difficult to ignore Beijing’s major military reforms, which are positioning the PLA to be an offensive military force capable of competing with the US. When Chinese military expansion is linked to its steadily increasing political and economic influence, the possibility that China could expand its sphere of influence and knock the US from its position as the major power in Africa and Asia specifically becomes ever greater. This is a concern not just to the global power balance and US interests, but also threatens the stability of host nations. The West needs to develop robust policies to address China’s swelling international military presence.