Responding to China's Military Buildup

Elinor Sloan on what China's new military capability means for both the U.S. and Canada.
By: /
March 20, 2013

For two decades a military transformation has been underway in China, bringing with it significantly increased capabilities in all components of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), including its army, navy, and air force. The strategic response on the part of the United States, the dominant military power in the region since the Second World War, has been to refocus its attention on the Asia-Pacific. In its 2012 “strategic guidance” for the Department of Defense, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. military “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” The rise of one great power in a region of major economic importance to Canada, and the response by another – Canada’s closest ally – cannot help but have implications for our country.

China’s military capabilities

The original spark behind China’s military transformation was the 1991 Gulf War, when America’s new precision-guided, information-based warfare were first displayed. Recognizing that warfare had dramatically changed, in 1993 the PLA set out a guiding doctrine calling for the ability to fight “local wars under modern high technology conditions.” NATO’s 1999 war in and around Kosovo, the war in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, and the Iraq war of 2003, gave further evidence of America’s new way of war. This included forces that are smaller in size than their Cold War predecessors, professional or voluntary rather than conscript, equipped with advanced technologies, and expeditionary in the sense of being able to be deployed and sustained far from home. This “smart”, mobile, digitized military forms the core of China’s goal, stated consistently since 2002, of building a modern military based on “informatization,” that is, the application of information technology to military operations. In 2006 China officially promulgated a goal of “building informationalized armed forces.”

China has made substantial progress in many of these areas. It is professionalizing its military forces, creating a well educated and technically capable officer corps, and reorganizing the army into smaller units better suited to power projection. Notably, it is placing greater relative emphasis on its air force, and especially its navy, than it has in the past. Facilitated by a defence budget that has grown significantly over the past ten years, China has also been investing in advanced military equipment. The Army is acquiring modern tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery, and integrating advanced command and control technologies into units and platforms. The Air Force is thought to be purchasing a new fighter and fighter-bomber from Russia, and is also producing its own multirole fighter aircraft in-house. The navy has acquired new diesel electric submarines and nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines, the latter based at a major new naval base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. It has purchased Russian-built destroyers outfitted with anti-ship cruise missiles, launched a new series of amphibious ships with stealth characteristics and, as is well known, recently commissioned its first aircraft carrier. China’s strategic missile force is also developing a new conventionally armed, precision-guided medium range anti-ship ballistic missile.

Explaining the growth in capabilities

The Chinese leadership stresses its military budget is purely for defensive purposes, is in line with its economic growth and defense needs, and is a natural outgrowth of its return to great power status. Military spokesmen have highlighted the vast oceans surrounding China, underscoring the requirement that the country be able to secure its sovereign interests along its coasts, as well as broader maritime rights and interests. China’s National Defense in 2010 speaks of safeguarding territorial seas and maritime rights and interests, and also highlights non-traditional security concerns like terrorism, energy, resources, and natural disasters.

There is growing attention to the link between China’s economy and its military power. Since late 2008 China has conducted anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia to protect Chinese and other commercial shipping. Many Chinese officials and scholars focus on the need to maintain open sea lines of communications between China and the Middle East/Africa region – particularly in the event of a crisis – from where it gets critical resources, notably oil but also minerals, to fuel its economy.

The U.S. perspective and response

America’s assessment is that the PLA remains focused on the status of Taiwan and its longstanding area of operations in the waters surrounding the island. But the United States also points to investments, particularly in the navy but also the other services, designed to extend China’s operational reach well beyond traditional operating areas. East of China, it sees China as attempting to push the boundaries of the U.S. Navy’s access to the Taiwan theatre ever further away. With advanced submarines, destroyers, and precision ballistic missiles China can hold U.S. ships and carriers at bay, controlling access to the Western Pacific. The Pentagon calls this an “anti-access/area-denial” strategy. The growing dispute between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea may fit with this interpretation.

South and west of China, many new PLA Navy capabilities, like the carrier, nuclear-propelled submarines, amphibious ships, and the new naval base, indicate a focus on the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, and perhaps the Indian Ocean. Several regional disputes between China and its neighbors over the past few years, including Vietnam and the Philippines, over access to the South China Sea’s waters strengthens the perspective that Chinese naval capabilities are being developed to pursue claims in these areas. 

The United States has responded to these developments with the reorientation stated in the 2012 guidance, now commonly referred to as the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. By 2020 America plans to have 60 per cent of its naval fleet stationed in the Pacific, as compared to 50 per cent today, and certain types of assets are being pursued that fit with the new strategic orientation. Doctrinally a central concept is Air-Sea Battle doctrine, under development for the past several years to address how air and naval forces can integrate their capabilities to meet the anti-access/area denial threat.

Implications for Canada

Changes in the security dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region have at least two important implications for Canada. One centers on the possibility of state-to-state warfare in the region. Should such a contingency lead to U.S. involvement then Canada, as a longstanding U.S. ally, would have to decide if it will participate, and if so, what form of contribution to make. Given that a U.S. response would likely be primarily naval in nature and that for decades our Navy has worked closely with its American counterpart, it is likely one or more Canadian naval vessels would be integrated into a U.S. naval force. Frigates are the most plausible contribution, however our diesel electric submarines would also be very valuable since U.S. submarines are nuclear propelled and therefore noisier. Canada could also contribute long-range patrol aircraft, which are specifically designed for anti-submarine warfare.

One mechanism through which Canada can train for such contingencies is the U.S.-led, multinational, biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. Canada’s contribution of 1,200 personnel in the summer 2012 was the largest in 40 years of participation, and it was the first time Canadian officers filled high-level command positions. Exercises included surface-to-air engagements, air-to-air missile engagements, surface-to-surface engagements, and amphibious assaults, among other things that one would associate with state-to-state warfare.

A second implication concerns the generally held desire and common interest among trading nations to maintain open the world’s seaways for maritime commerce. The non-traditional security concerns highlighted in China’s National Defense in 2010 impact all countries, including the United States, China, and Canada, which are dependent for their economic prosperity on secure access to ocean commons. U.S. officials call these “hybrid” threats: state adversaries using irregular forms of warfare normally associated with non-state actors, or non-state actors using high-end capabilities traditionally associated with states. Working together, maritime forces can constrain transnational threats like terrorists and extremists; proliferators of weapons of mass destruction; pirates; and human, drug, and conventional weapons traffickers, providing security and stability in the maritime domain.

RIMPAC is also relevant here because it includes scenarios like vessel boarding – necessary for addressing the terrorist threat and keeping open the sea lanes – as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. But the exercise does not include China. Domestic U.S. legislation, driven by a lack of transparency on Chinese military expenditures, prevents the U.S. Navy from inviting China to act as a participant (last year there were 22 countries) or observer. Maintaining open the sea lines of communication is arguably an area of Canadian expertise: it was what our Naval Task Groups did as part of Op Apollo in the Arabian Sea in the years after 9/11. There is much scope here for bilateral naval cooperation between Canada and China. Similarly, the Canadian Forces is experienced and knowledgeable on disaster relief. Joint Canada-China exercises in this area, perhaps led by Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, would be a further useful area for confidence and security building.

The Canada-China Opportunities in Transition conference, organized by the National Capital Branch of the Canadian International Council, will take place on Friday, March 22 at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa.