China’s fast military modernisation has prompted widespread concern that it could ignite a conflict with the United States.This fear may be due to an exaggerated view of the importance of war preparedness as a driver for the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army.
In fact, the modernization of the army is based on a wide variety of political and security factors, many of which have nothing to do with the war. A more nuanced understanding of US-China competition, including the non-military components that play a role in both countries’ military buildups, would be beneficial to US interests.
China increases its defense budget.
The Chinese military has expanded dramatically over the past few years, in no little part because of rising defence spending. China’s military spending climbed by roughly 10% each year from 2000 until 2016, then decreased to 5-7% per year.
According to PRC government sources, China’s defence expenditure in 2022 was $230 billion, second only to the United States. The budget underestimates the number of resources allocated to the army. Western experts suggest the difference could be as much as $60 billion a year.
Growing defense budgets have given rise to an increasingly lethal and capable PLA. US officials have not failed to warn of the erosion of military advantage in the face of rapid advances by the PLA. During his service, US Air Force Maj. Gen. Cameron Holt declared that China was acquiring weapons at a rate “five or six times faster” than the United States.
China prepares for war.
For some, the accumulation of weapons alone is a reason to fear a conflict. Observers point to the rapid modernization as unequivocal proof that China is preparing for war with the United States.
In March 2021, Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, warned that China could take military action against Taiwan in 2027. Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, added that he could not rule out a Chinese invasion attempt as early as 2023.
The PLA expansion could be related to war preparedness, but this is not the sole explanation. The goals of modernising the army are both political and military, and they do not necessarily reflect the desire to initiate a conflict.Knowledge of the multiple motives could help observers to more accurately assess the danger posed by PLA modernization.
Reasons for the Chinese military buildup
The first compelling reason the Chinese leadership seeks a powerful military is basic security. History is very important in this regard: Chinese leaders are well aware of the fall of past dynasties when a weak army allowed adversaries to bring the empire Down
To warn their people against succumbing to weakness, Chinese leaders frequently bring up historical humiliations like the Opium Wars. Maintaining a strong deterrence, even though a large nuclear arsenal, is a fundamental reason China seeks a powerful military.
Will China invade Taiwan?
Second, China’s expanding economy necessitates a stronger military to handle a wider variety of threats, including an armed clash with Taiwan.
Geography is challenging for China because there are numerous suspicious and hostile powers on its borders. Several risks are highlighted in the defence white papers. They include the possibility of Taiwan seceding, territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, border issues, and great power rivalry with the United States.
Consequently, the PLA has organized five command theaters to better align resources with designated missions. The PLA is also entrusted with a wide range of non-war missions, such as humanitarian aid, disaster relief, maritime patrols, and the evacuation of non-combatants. These missions are small in scale but important. In fact, all Chinese military interventions since the 2000s have consisted of non-war missions.
Chinese patriotic enthusiasm
A third widely underestimated reason is due to national prestige. Like autocrats in other countries, China’s leaders see a powerful army as a sign of national status and a way to arouse patriotic enthusiasm.
This partially explains the government’s pursuit of prestige symbols such as aircraft carriers. To emphasise this point, China conducts numerous extravagant military parades and drills, all of which receive great publicity in Chinese media.
Building a strong army is also important for the country’s leader to gain political power. Part of Xi Jinping’s power comes from how well he knows how to run the military. This is why he is often seen in uniform or other military settings.
Yet, Xi, like his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, understands that he must allocate large amounts of money to the military if he wants their devotion.
A fifth reason is to keep the military focused on its responsibilities and resist tendencies towards corruption and lethargy. Xi’s instructions to stay focused on military tasks are part of a broader effort to improve the government’s overall modernization, competence, and effectiveness, which authorities see as critical to realizing the country’s goals of national revival.
In line with this larger goal, Xi has repeatedly combined efforts to stop widespread corruption with calls for the military to improve its combat readiness. This is another way of saying that the military needs to get better at what it does.
In conclusion, China’s military expansion is due to various political and security factors. This increase does not by itself indicate a tendency to war. In fact, there is currently no evidence that China plans to attack Taiwan in the near future.
To better protect US interests, decision-makers could take a balanced view of China’s military expansion and consider the technological, economic, and diplomatic dimensions of US-China competition as of equal or greater importance than the military dimension.