China’s economy is crucial to Beijing’s growing influence in Asia and beyond, but it sometimes obscures a more basic element of its power: a formidable military machine. Recent developments should remind the region’s countries, and Japan in particular, of the need to keep that capability in mind. Beijing’s assertiveness is backed by its constantly modernizing armed forces, one that can better defend its national interests and can project power over increasing distances. Those capabilities assume still greater significance as Beijing’s foreign policy grows more assertive and its regional objectives more ambitious.
One of the most obvious signs of China’s interest in power projection is its aircraft carrier program. China has one carrier, the Liaoning. It was purchased from Ukraine, cleaned and refurbished, and declared combat-ready in 2016. A second carrier, the first to be home-built, is now undergoing sea trials in the Bohai Sea and is expected to be delivered to the navy by the end of this year. Preparations are reportedly underway to build a third carrier, larger than the first two, more modern and capable of carrying nearly twice the number of aircraft. One analysis concluded that China could field four carrier battle groups by 2030.
Building such vessels is merely the first step in a long process to make them usable instruments of national power. Learning how to operate them alone — aircraft carriers are especially difficult to master — and then in combination with other vessels takes time. Japan, along with the United States and China’s other neighbors, has kept a close eye on their training activities. Last week, the Liaoning conducted takeoff and landing drills in the western Pacific, the first time it practiced such maneuvers on the high seas; it had done so earlier in the South China Sea.
Those drills are part of a busy spring for China’s navy. In late March and early April, at least 40 vessels, including the Liaoning, conducted live-fire drills. They were followed by the largest navy review China has ever held. The event, covering every spectrum of combat operations, included more than 10,000 service personnel, 48 vessels, the Liaoning again among them, and 76 aircraft. Marking the occasion, President Xi Jinping called for additional modernization efforts and promised to turn the navy into a “world class force.” China is well along in that effort. More than half the ships in the review were commissioned after 2012; in 2017 alone, the navy commissioned at least 16 ships, mostly large combat vessels.
After the review, China conducted more live-fire exercises, this time in the Taiwan Strait, the first time it had exercised in those waters since September 2015. China has also sent a growing number of military aircraft into the skies around Taiwan as a way of signaling to Taipei that Beijing’s patience is growing short and it wants President Tsai Ing-wen to return to the accommodative policies toward the mainland adopted by her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Taiwan denounced the exercises as “saber-rattling” and “intimidation.” China countered with a statement by a spokesman for its Taiwan Affairs Office, who said the message was “extremely clear” — that China has “the resolute will, full confidence and sufficient ability to foil any form of Taiwan independence separatist plots and moves and to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Taiwan is not the only government being signaled. Reportedly, earlier this month China warships “challenged” Australian warships in the South China Sea as they were en route to Vietnam. Details remain unclear, but Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that “we maintain and practice the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world.” If the vessels were not engaged in freedom of navigation operations, then the encounter was especially worrisome as it exposes as hollow China’s claim that it won’t challenge maritime traffic.
Japan has special concern about the growing strength of China’s navy. The most recent defense white paper notes that “China’s reinforcement of its military capabilities without transparency, along with active maritime advancements, has been rapidly shifting the regional military balance.” Last month, the Chinese air force conducted a series of drills in the South China Sea and the Miyako Strait, located between two Japanese islands. The territorial dispute over the Senkaku islands is one place where China could use its military muscle. Japan and its ally, the U.S., must ensure that China is not tempted to do so.
China’s leadership has decided that the country’s status, interests and assets demand advanced armed forces that can protect and defend them. It is up to Japan, working with allies and partners, to make it clear to decision-makers in Beijing that the use of that military for anything but defense of the Chinese homeland is a mistake.