China’s Expansion Strategy Frightens Neighbors

China has so far been peacefully expanding its global military presence to match its image as a rising super power.

Varyag, under tow in Instanbul, en route to China in 2001.

Sometimes, a country’s military might needs to fit with its political and economic prowess. With a huge amount of cash at hand and having influence in the world’s economy and politics, China is asserting its position on the world stage in order to achieve this goal.

Flexing its military muscle in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and beyond, China has been exerting its newly-acquired image as a super power with the second highest GDP in the world. The Chinese are desperately looking for opportunities that give them a strategic advantage or foothold anywhere in the globe.

Beijing’s expansionist behavior in South Asia has been noticed by defense experts. Recently, China has been intensifying the development of its strategic assets in the area, beginning with building the Karakoram highway, a high altitude strategic road that borders China, India, and Pakistan. They have both built and taken charge of sea ports, roadways, and strategic infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Myanmar. China is moving to establish strategic and trade partnership with each of them. China is showing a special interest in all of India’s neighbors—perhaps in a move to contain the second most populated country and next emerging super power in its own backyard.

Eying China’s new moves in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean, the American military has revived its presence in Australia with the aim of deploying 2,500 troops, signaling that the United States intends to counterbalance a rising China. Prioritizing the United States’ leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region, President Barak Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia reached many agreements during the U.S. president’s visit to that country in November of 2011.

New Delhi is also closely monitoring the growing Chinese presence in its neighborhood. India is particularly concerned with the “String of pearls”—a chain of deepwater ports built with Chinese aid along the Indian Ocean.

In fact, China’s expansionist behavior has long been evident in the acquisition of naval facilities along crucial choke points in the India ocean, which serve both China’s strategic and economic interests.

Strategically, Beijing is placing more emphasis on the Indian Ocean to improve its access to the trade lines therein, to counterbalance India, and to break through the encirclement it perceives being orchestrated by the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Myanmar’s deep-water port of Kyaukpyu is China’s southwest gateway to land trade. Myanmar sits in a strategic corridor between China and the Indian Ocean. This location is becoming increasingly vital as China tries to diversify its energy supply routes from the Middle East and become less dependent on the Strait of Malacca, which is dominated by the U.S Navy and where ships are vulnerable to piracy.

Developments of late last year corroborate further the fact that the Chinese are desperate to go global. China’s Ministry of National Defense announced that Beijing was considering using a port on the main island of Mahe off the east coast of Africa for naval purposes in response to an offer from Seychelles, a former French and British colonial possession. China is certainly calculating the stretegic benefits that Seychelles provides, being far more convenient to ports along the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh reacted to this development as saying, India doesn’t see anything “wrong” with China setting up a military base in Seychelles since this appears to be part of Beijing’s efforts to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean region. The island nation’s value to China is similar to that of Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean that was first controlled by the British and now by the Americans.

Meanwhile, in another new report last December, the Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, General Ma Xiaotian, met the Sri Lanka high officials in Colombo to discuss opening a base in the island nation off the coast of the Indian Ocean.

According to Indian media reports, in July of last year, a Chinese ship was mapping the Indian Ocean for crucial bathymetric data. Laboratories onboard the ship were designed to collect data on the currents of the Indian Ocean, the temperature at various depths, and other crucial information like underwater obstructions and obstacles. Bathymetric data is required for submarine and carrier based operations. Information about ocean currents is needed if torpedoes are to be used.

Immediately after detection, an Indian Navy ship was sent. The Chinese ship moved towards Sri Lanka and docked at Colombo. India did not take any punitive action since the Chinese ship remained in international waters. Inquiries by Indian security agencies revealed that the ship had as many as 22 laboratories onboard.

China is also looking to expand across its land borders as well. To tackle restive Islamic terrorism in its province of Xinjiang, China wants to develop a township near along its border with Pakistan where anti-Chinese terrorists operate. The Pakistani province of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa abuts the non-Han, Chinese province of Xinjiang, which is home to ethnic Uighur Islamic separatists. With the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China getting a foothold in the tribal area of Pakistan, China reasons, it can crush separatism and make sure that terrorists can’t hide across the border.

It has been observed on the one hand that China’s long-term plans of cementing ties with Pakistan are a means to contain India. On the other, Pakistan has in return hugged China close during periodic flare-ups in Pakistan-American relations, pointedly dubbing Beijing “an all-weather friend.”

Along naval borders, it is becoming increasingly clear that China’s “near sea” includes its territorial waters as well as its claimed 200-nautica-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) around the nation’s extended seashores. A critical issue for this evolving defense strategy is that China has many disputes in this vast area. The most challenging of these conflicts are with Taiwan and with the United States over U.S. military activities in the Chinese-claimed EEZs. China is also engaged in territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea. Consequently, China has long desired to have an aircraft-carrier-led, blue-water navy to strengthen its position in these disputes. (Article continues below.)

China’s First Aircraft-Carrier: Varyag

China’s aircraft carrier debut was in 1998 with the acquisition of the ‘half-built’ Varyag from the Ukraine. The warship was intended to serve in the Soviet Pacific Fleet but the construction was abruptly halted when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.China bought the half-built aircraft carrier for $20 million after it was inherited by the Ukraine out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. When purchased, the warship was an empty and rusty shell, stripped of all critical equipment. China, however, was determined to bring it to life, and it took nearly 10 years to finish the warship.

China set to modernize its defense in the mid 90s, but it quickly stepped up efforts on account of several imperative events—beginning with the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1985 and subsequently the display of U.S. military power over the last two decades: the Gulf war of 1991, the Kosovo air campaign of 1999, and the anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. Since then, Chinese leaders felt their military needed to take urgent measures or be marginalized for good.

The Chinese were desperate to induct the aircraft carrier Varyag into the Chinese Navy. They put forth undisclosed but understandable additional expenses and a tremendous effort to do so. According to a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, Varyag is expected to make short test sails in 2012 when it will be fully operational. An Indian defense expert estimated that China will be able to carry out full-fledged, aircraft-carrier-based operations as soon as 2017.

In a Congressional hearing, a leader of the U.S. Pacific Command said that recent Chinese military developments have been dramatic. China has already tested long-range missile that are effective against warships. After years of denial, Chinese official have confirmed that they intend to deploy an aircraft carrier group within the next few years.

Varyag will be used as the Chinese Navy’s training platform. The diesel and steam powered aircraft-carrier has limited capacity for distance battle missions after all, but the Chinese leaders are convinced that the aircraft carrier has not outlived its usefulness. In addition, they are willing to invest significant resources over the next 10 to 15 years to build several homemade aircraft carriers. They are expected to be built in time to help China pursue its interest in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific, and beyond.

Over the past year and a half, China has moved to assert territorial claims in the resource-rich but hotly-contested waters near the Philippines and Vietnam. Many of the region’s smaller countries have asked Washington to re-engage in the region as a counterweight.

The South China Sea, in fact, has long been at the centre of dozens of territorial disputes between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The disputes center on the ownership of hundreds of small Islands, rocks, and reefs in the South China Sea and the jurisdiction rights that would allow the disputants access to valuable maritime resources, both in the water and beneath the seabed.

As China emerges as an important, global super power, Beijing’s political, commercial, and strategic imperative has been to expand its military footprint across the globe. It is seeking to project its naval power beyond the Chinese coast, from oil ports in the Middle East to the shipping lanes in the Pacific, much like the United States has done over the last century.

“With our naval strategy changing now, we are going from Coastal defense to far sea defense,” Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen, deputy commander of the Chinese East Sea Fleet, said in an interview with Xinhua, the state news agency.

Breaking their traditionally narrow military doctrine, “far sea defense” is China’s new strategy that enhances their long-range capabilities. Chinese admirals now say they want warships to escort commercial vessels crucial to the country’s economy through waters such as the Persian Gulf and Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia, and they want to help secure Chinese interests in the resource-rich South and East China Seas.

To do this, China is in the process of developing a sophisticated submarine fleet that could prevent foreign naval vessels from entering its strategic waters if a conflict erupted. According to U.S. naval observers, China has also tested long-range missiles that could be used against large aircraft carriers, and now a Chinese government statement has confirmed that they intend to deploy an aircraft carrier fleet within a few years.

China has been quietly acquiring more submarines, missiles, aircraft carriers, and other weapons. According to a New York Times report, Mr. Huang Jing, a scholar of the Chinese military at the National University of Singapore, was surprised to see the new development and said, “We were in a blinded situation. We thought the Chinese military was 20 years behind [the Americans], but we suddenly realized China is catching up.”

A 2009 Pentagon report estimated Chinese naval forces at 260 vessels, including 75 principal combat ships and more than 60 submarines. The report noted the building of an aircraft carrier and said China continues to show interest in acquiring carrier-borne jet fighters from Russia. China recently built at least two Jin-class submarines, the first regularly active in the fleet that have ballistic missile capabilities, and two more are under construction. Two Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines recently entered into service, according Mr. Huang.

China’s official military budget was $91.5 billion for 2011. Officials in the U.S. had estimated China’s total military spending in 2009 to be more than double its official numbers. If that is the case for 2011, China’s military spending could be near 3.5 percent of its GDP for the previous year. This would put China securely in second place for military spending—behind the U.S.’s estimated 4.7 percent for 2010.

According to a Western military expert, the overall plan reflects Beijing’s growing sense of self-confidence and increasing willingness to assert its interests abroad. Though the naval expansion will not make China a serious rival to American naval supremacy in the near future, and though there are few Chinese aggressive intentions toward the United States, China’s smaller ASEAN neighbors and particularly India—which was attacked by China in 1962 and still has unsettled border disputes—feel Beijing’s posture is apparently dangerous. Beijing seems to be committed to the idea of a “peaceful rise”—the concept that China is taking up its natural role in new international order and targeting to replace U.S.’s world hegemony in near future.