SINGAPORE – Since China announced another big rise in its military spending earlier this month, Chinese officials in Beijing and diplomats posted in Asia-Pacific countries have been trying to spread an orchestrated message to the region: Don’t be alarmed.
China is in a bind. Its declared defense budget, already the second highest in the world after the United States, will increase by 11.2 percent this year to $106.4 billion, after a 12.7 percent hike in 2011 and a near-unbroken string of double-digit rises for over two decades.
This military modernization program has made the Chinese armed forces the most powerful in Asia, and the gap with regional states is likely to continue widening unless China’s turbo-charged economy falters badly.
However, Beijing’s assertive behavior in claiming islands and large maritime zones that other Asian nations also claim in the resource-rich seas that skirt China’s east and southeast coast have prompted many of its neighbors, five of which are U.S. allies, to hedge against potential Chinese coercion. They are strengthening their own defense forces and developing closer security ties with the U.S. and among themselves.
This is happening before China can feel confident it is strong enough to negotiate from a position of strength with smaller, but still substantial, countries that contest its offshore claims. They include Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
(Indonesia does not claim any of the contested islands, atolls or reefs in the South China Sea. But its Exclusive Economic Zone overlaps with China’s extended claim to sovereignty and other forms of control over about 80 percent of the semi-enclosed sea in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.)
The hedging by China’s neighbors is also happening when Beijing lacks allies or close security partners in the region. Although American armed forces face sharp cuts after a period of hefty expansion, the U.S. has a network of Asia-Pacific allies and partners it can work with to build a counterweight to China.
Despite becoming the top trading partner of nearly every major Asian country, and an increasingly important investor and provider of aid and tourism, China is still more feared than trusted in much of the region.
The result is a potentially destabilizing military buildup. On current trends, Asian defense spending is likely to exceed that of Europe, in nominal terms, this year, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Unveiling its annual Military Balance survey on March 7, the IISS noted that while the West is reducing defense spending, “Asia is becoming increasingly militarized, as a result of rapid economic growth and strategic uncertainty.”
The IISS estimates that China accounted for over 30 percent of the spending last year, an amount that was more than two-and-a half times its level of defense outlays in 2001. The IISS said China’s technological advances were “more modest than some alarmist hypotheses of its military development have suggested.”
Nonetheless, the strategic priorities of the Chinese armed forces were “gradually widening from the defense of China’s borders to force projection within East Asia and further afield, in order to secure sea lanes of communication.” The IISS also said that managing tensions in the South China Sea “will be an increasing challenge.”
Presenting China’s defense budget for 2012 at a press conference on March 4, Li Zhaoxing, a former foreign minister, declared that the “limited military strength of China is solely for safeguarding its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will not pose a threat to any country.”
Unless, of course, they happen to be countries that challenge Chinese claims to control in the South and East China seas, and the Yellow Sea. For them, such assurances are cold comfort.
China’s claims in the South China Sea are far more extensive than anywhere else. For the moment, its strategy there appears designed to deter foreign investment in oil and gas development in areas offered by the Philippines and Vietnam, but which Beijing asserts are under its jurisdiction.
However, many of the modern Chinese warships, combat aircraft and weapons entering service could be used to enforce China’s offshore claims. They include the first aircraft carrier, new amphibious landing vessels and a planned new class of 1,500-ton corvettes.
The Communist Party’s People’s Daily Online reported March 9 that the refitted ex-Soviet carrier, with a crew of 2,000, could embark about 30 jet fighters and helicopters. The paper quoted unnamed military experts as saying that the carrier would serve in the South China Sea. It also quoted a senior military officer as saying that China would need to build at least three of its own aircraft carriers.
Four of the 20,000-ton landing ships are already in service. Each can carry up to 800 troops as well as hovercraft, armored vehicles and medium lift helicopters. They could be used to land Chinese forces on disputed territory in the South China Sea. Design work has reportedly started on a bigger, more capable amphibious assault vessel.
The critical point could come if Beijing thinks that it has overwhelming military supremacy in facing potential adversaries and that negotiations and pressure have failed to make them accept its jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Beijing might then be tempted to use force to dislodge rival claimants from the dozens of disputed Spratly Islands they have garrisoned.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.