Written by Shih-yueh Yang.

With its ever increasing budget and technological capabilities, the PRC’s rapid military modernization is one of the most worrying issues in the Asia-Pacific region. The standard view about this modernization is that it is driven by ongoing territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, Taiwan and the desire and necessity to protect the overseas interests and trade. Almost all major developments in recent years, such as the anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth fighters, and aircraft carriers, are designed to serve these purposes. The PRC’s military modernization invites a US response, destabilizing the region. However, this standard view might be a misconception.

First, these disputed territories are simply “inconsequential.” Almost all of the islets/rocks in East and South China Sea are too small for human habitation. Arguably, there may be considerable oil and gas reserves under the seabed surrounding those islets/rocks, but most of these reserves are not proven and are difficult and expensive to explore anyway. Taiwan as a major island is an exception and could count as the last major “lost” Chinese territory from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that is yet to be recovered. Nonetheless, how about the territories lost to the Russians during the same period? Some million square miles of territories are simply forgotten by the PRC. Why bother Taiwan, which, after all, is still governed by descendants of Chinese people? Actually, what is in short supply within the PRC’s current territories is arable land, forest and freshwater. All of these much needed resources can only be found in the territories lost to the Russians. If the PRC has an even bigger appetite for various natural resources, these resources can still only be found in central Asia and Siberia, well beyond the boundary of China even during its heyday in 18th Century.

Second, overseas interests and trade cannot be protected using the PRC’s current approach to military modernization. The PRC has built up its ocean-going large surface combatant fleet, but the scale of the fleet required is far larger than what PRC has today. A fleet needs to be the strongest to control the sea, the precondition of successful convoy escorting, which means the PRC’s fleet must outgun the US and Japan’s fleet in the region combined. The PRC has a long and potentially hostile land border and cannot build up its fleet in the way that the US does, which makes it difficult for PRC to catch up the US. One feasible way for the PRC to “protect” its overseas interests and trade is to build a huge submarine fleet, which constitutes a deterrence to a naval blockade against PRC, but this strategy violates the interests of almost all nations.

Given the objective conditions mentioned above, if the PRC’s military modernization was aimed to serve tangible interests, the modernization efforts should be army centric. This is clearly not the case. During recent years, the PRC’s land force received some of the latest tanks, self -propelled artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, and combat helicopters, but the force as a whole is still largely outdated. Less than 25% of the PRC’s land forces can be considered as modernized, while more than 40% of PRC’s naval force can be considered as modernized.

One could counter argue that the current status of nuclear weaponry simply makes major wars for territorial conquest between major nuclear powers impractical. Even if the PRC had a land force capable of grabbing/recovering huge territories from Russia, Russian nuclear retaliation would deter PRC from lunching such a war. True. Since nuclear revolution has transform the conduct of war, how can anyone dare to challenge PRC’s core interests if PRC becomes a nuclear peer to the US and Russia? How can any increase in US regional military presence be threatening under mutual assured destruction? In addition, treaty obligation prevent the US from developing theater nuclear weapons, an arena where PRC’s military has the greatest chance to triumph. Nuclear weapon is the true weapon of “asymmetric” advantage. PRC’ current military modernization effort is actually misleading. The PRC does not build up its nuclear forces as a top priority, but focuses on conventional force instead.

Then, what is the real driving force behind PRC’s military modernization? The answer is not new, the interests of the so-called Military-Industrial Complex, in both PRC and US. The complex tells a story to the public that the country needs more military strength, that is, more profits for the complex itself. In this regard, there is a “Cult of Offense” in 2014 in the Asia-Pacific similar to what happened in 1914 and 1984 in Europe, which exactly is a “Myth of Empire.”

The good news is that the PRC and US restrain their Military-Industrial Complexes. Both countries do not build up their militaries to the maximum allowed by their economies. Furthermore, the vast Asia-Pacific is not the same as crowded Europe. The Pacific is really huge enough for both US and PRC. Another World War or Cold War will not happen. Since the PRC’s military modernization is largely naval centric, it is not destabilizing in nature. The ocean is open to everyone. Freedom of the high seas, including navigation and military maneuvers, is a well established principle of modern international society. In other words, PRC’s military modernization efforts indicate that, PRC is now joining rather than restructuring the current international order.

Dr Shih-yueh Yang is Associate Professor in the Department of International and China Studies at Nanhua University, Taiwan. Image credit: CC by US Naval War College/Flickr.