China’s military reach goes global, leaving rivals behind

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An annual assessment of global military capabilities and defense economics has been released by the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Titled “The Military Balance,” it provides government leaders with sound analysis regarding contemporary spending trends on military capabilities.

This year’s report startled many in the US defense establishment, for it details the extraordinary depth of global redundancy in Beijing’s defense procurement. The report is a benchmark upon which Washington views its own capability requirements. What the report  reveals is stark: Beijing’s reach is global, while America’s remains parochial.

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Beijing’s progress in fielding near-peer competition in avionic and naval capabilities has outpaced growth in every Western nation-state, from ultra-long-range conventional missiles to fifth-generation fighter jets. As seen with the launch of its first Type 055 destroyer last year, China has not stopped recapitalizing it entire surface-to-subsurface fleet. As for the air fleet, China’s own fifth-generation fighter incorporates stealth and supersonic cruising speed with integrated avionics.

China still needs to develop and field suitable tactics to operate low-observable jets while it synchronizes a mix of contemporary doctrines adjusting for differences among fighter craft. If Beijing can succeed in integrating air-to-air missile technology into its fifth-generation fighter, it will be able to deter US dominance in the Western Pacific.

Anti-access aerial denial systems (A2AD) will be complemented abroad with Beijing’s global supply chain. It seeks to deploy an ambitious arms-export strategy securing regional allies throughout the globe with advanced technologies in unmanned armed drones for Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf monarchies. The Americans can no longer depend on acquiescent Arab partners with immediate availability from China on the horizon. By any measure, the view of China as an isolated outpost vulnerable on its eastern flank is closing quickly.

By seeking to deploy ambitious weaponry abroad, it sends a message to the Americans that they can no longer accept benign operating environments abroad.

It is on land that China is most vulnerable. Its efforts to modernize its army pale in comparison with its achievements in avionics and naval procurements. China still spends more on domestic repression of its interior than all of its defense spending combined. The social and ideological portents of the ruling Han remain deeply vulnerable in the interior, and it is here that the West faces an indomitable challenge.

To succeed against China, the Americans need to find allies throughout China’s southern breadbasket, the Mekong, as well as regions that have historically remained hostile to Han rule. The aggressive nature of Beijing’s hand throughout the South China Sea portends favorably to ambitious foreigners.

Exploiting social and political grievances against the ruling Han deep in China’s interior and southern littoral is how best to threaten China.

With new war-fighting concepts dominating the PLA in operational systems, it is time for realists throughout Western chanceries to return to Carl von Clausewitz, and view war as an extension of politics.

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