Macromegas #21 - China: The Planned Superpower (Part 1)

How China is Planning its Way into Becoming a Superpower, Whether Anyone Likes It or Not

Hi friends,

Happy Friday!

Following the strong interest triggered by my previous issue: United States: The Inevitable Empire, I have decided to start a series on military-focused geopolitics.

Starting with…

How China is Planning its Way into Becoming a Superpower, Whether Anyone Likes It or Not

After 20 years of military modernisation, China released its new Defense whitepaper released last July 2019: China’s National Defense in the New Era (pdf download). This whitepaper explains China’s strategy to become a true superpower by 2050, on par or overtaking the US.

This reported trigger the following analysis by the US Defense Department: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China - 2020 Annual Report to Congress.

I want to explain what critical elements are still fully missing for China to reach that status, despite largely surpassing the US in Purchasing Power Parity GDP already (28tn vs. 20tn in PPP $).

I want to start with the US DoD’s intro, the very best part of their 200-page-long report by far.

The US’s take on China’s military

DoD’s first annual report to Congress in 2000 assessed the PRC’s armed forces at that time to be a sizable but mostly archaic military that was poorly suited to the CCP’s long-term ambitions. The report recognized the CCP’s objective was for the PRC to become a “strong, modernized, unified, and wealthy nation.” Despite these great power aspirations, the PLA lacked the capabilities, organization, and readiness for modern warfare. Yet the CCP understood these deficiencies and set long-term goals to strengthen and transform its armed forces in a manner commensurate with its aspirations to strengthen and transform China.

DoD’s 2000 report assessed that the PLA was slowly and unevenly adapting to the trends in modern warfare. The PLA’s force structure and capabilities focused largely on waging large-scale land warfare along China’s borders. The PLA’s ground, air, and naval forces were sizable but mostly obsolete. Its conventional missiles were generally of short range and modest accuracy. The PLA’s emergent cyber capabilities were rudimentary; its use of information technology was well behind the curve; and its nominal space capabilities were based on outdated technologies for the day. Further, China’s defense industry struggled to produce high-quality systems. Even if the PRC could produce or acquire modern weapons, the PLA lacked the joint organizations and training needed to field them effectively. The report assessed that the PLA’s organizational obstacles were severe enough that if left unaddressed they would “inhibit the PLA’s maturation into a world-class military force.”

Two decades later, the PLA’s objective is to become a “world-class” military by the end of 2049—a goal first announced by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2017. Although the CCP has not defined what a “world-class” military means, within the context of the PRC’s national strategy it is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military, or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat. As this year’s report details, the PRC has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect. Indeed, as this report shows, China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas such as:

  • Shipbuilding: The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.

  • Land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles: The PRC has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The United States currently fields one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs.

  • Integrated air defense systems: The PRC has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems—including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems—that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defense system architecture.

More striking than the PLA’s staggering amounts of new military hardware are the recent sweeping efforts taken by CCP leaders that include completely restructuring the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint.

Despite the PLA’s progress over the past 20 years, major gaps and shortcomings remain. The PRC’s leaders are aware of these problems, and their strategy envisions the PLA undergoing almost 30 more years of modernization and reform. Of course, the CCP does not intend for the PLA to be merely a showpiece of China’s modernity or to keep it focused solely on regional threats. As this report shows, the CCP desires the PLA to become a practical instrument of its statecraft with an active role in advancing the PRC’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the PRC’s increasingly global interests and its aims to revise aspects of the international order.

TLDR; China was not serious 20 years ago, now it is. It is on the right track to becoming a serious contender for global hegemony.

But despite all its military might on paper - and how much the US humbly praises China for that - China is still missing two vital things: readiness and global reach.

The US focuses on readiness, because that is something China will get, inevitably. It is working on it, and it will get there.

In its own whitepaper, China also innocently focuses on readiness. But global reach is very much implied. Let’s look at the most interesting statements and their implications.

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China’s military in its own words

I. International Security Situation

China’s Security Risks and Challenges Should Not Be Overlooked
China continues to enjoy political stability, ethnic unity and social stability.
There has been a notable increase in China’s overall national strength, global influence, and resilience to risks. China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development. Nevertheless, it also faces diverse and complex security threats and challenges.
The fight against separatists is becoming more acute. The Taiwan authorities, led
by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), stubbornly stick to “Taiwan independence”
and refuse to recognize the 1992 Consensus, which embodies the one-China principle. They have gone further down the path of separatism by stepping up efforts to sever the connection with the mainland in favor of gradual independence, pushing for de jure independence, intensifying hostility and confrontation, and borrowing the strength of foreign influence. The “Taiwan independence” separatist forces and their actions remain the gravest immediate threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the biggest barrier hindering the peaceful reunification of the country. External separatist forces for “Tibet independence” and the creation of “East Turkistan” launch frequent actions, posing threats to China’s national security and social stability.
China’s homeland security still faces threats. Land territorial disputes are yet to be completely resolved. Disputes still exist over the territorial sovereignty of some islands and reefs, as well as maritime demarcation. Countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in reconnaissance on China by air and sea, and illegally enter China’s territorial waters and the waters and airspace near China’s islands and reefs, undermining China’s national security.
China’s overseas interests are endangered by immediate threats such as international and regional turmoil, terrorism, and piracy. Chinese diplomatic missions, enterprises and personnel around the world have been attacked on multiple occasions.
Threats to outer space and cyber security loom large and the threat of non-traditional security issues posed by natural disasters and major epidemics is on the rise.

My translation: China will annex Taiwan at some point, one way or another. And they will put the onus on the US to accept peace and not escalate this “reunification” non-event into a global-scale conflict.

Global Military Competition Is Intensifying
Major countries around the world are readjusting their security and military strategies and military organizational structures. They are developing new types of combat forces to seize the strategic commanding heights in military competition. The US is engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority. Russia is advancing its New Look military reform. Meanwhile, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and India are rebalancing and optimizing the structure of their military forces.
Driven by the new round of technological and industrial revolution, the application of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information, big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things is gathering pace in the military field. International military competition is undergoing historic changes.
New and high-tech military technologies based on IT are developing rapidly. There is a prevailing trend to develop long-range precision, intelligent, stealthy or unmanned weaponry and equipment. War is evolving in form towards informationized warfare, and intelligent warfare is on the horizon.

II. China’s Defensive National Defense Policy in the New Era

Resolutely Safeguarding China’s Sovereignty, Security and Development

This is the fundamental goal of China’s national defense in the new era.
China’s national defense aims:

  • to deter and resist aggression;

  • to safeguard national political security, the people’s security and social

  • to oppose and contain “Taiwan independence”;

  • to crack down on proponents of separatist movements such as “Tibet independence” and the creation of “East Turkistan”;

  • to safeguard national sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security;

  • to safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests;

  • to safeguard China’s security interests in outer space, electromagnetic space and cyberspace;

  • to safeguard China’s overseas interests; and

  • to support the sustainable development of the country.

Never Seeking Hegemony, Expansion or Spheres of Influence
China is committed to developing friendly cooperation with all countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. It respects the rights of all peoples to independently choose their own development path, and stands for the settlement of international disputes through equal dialogue, negotiation and consultation. China is opposed to interference in the internal affairs of others, abuse of the weak by the strong, and any attempt to impose one’s will on others. China advocates partnerships rather than alliances and does not join any military bloc. It stands against aggression and expansion, and opposes arbitrary use or threat of arms.
The development of China’s national defense aims to meet its rightful security needs and contribute to the growth of the world’s peaceful forces. History proves and will continue to prove that China will never follow the beaten track of big powers in seeking hegemony. No matter how it might develop, China will never threaten any other country or seek any sphere of influence.

Translation: When we annex Taiwan, it won’t be “expansion”, only pure territory integrity preservation. Accepting our unwavering story gives you, the US, an honourable backdoor not to escalate our lawful annexation into a global-scale retaliation.

Note that the US does not recognise Taiwan as a nation, neither does most of the international community…

Implementing the Military Strategic Guideline for a New Era

In the Service of Building of a Community with a Shared Future for

Continuing to Strengthen the Military in the Chinese Way
The strategic goals for the development of China’s national defense and military
in the new era are:

  • to generally achieve mechanization by the year 2020 with significantly

  • enhanced informationization and greatly improved strategic capabilities;

  • to comprehensively advance the modernization of military theory, organizational structure, military personnel, and weaponry and equipment in step with the modernization of the country and basically complete the modernization of national defense and the military by 2035; and

  • to fully transform the people’s armed forces into world-class forces by the mid-21st century.

III. Fulfilling the Missions and Tasks of China’s Armed Forces
in the New Era

Safeguarding National Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights and

China has a land border of more than 22,000 km and a coastline of over 18,000
km, China surpasses most of countries in the number of neighboring countries, the
length of land border, and the complexity of maritime security. Therefore, it is a
daunting task for China to safeguard its territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and
interests, and national unity.
China’s armed forces maintain a rigorous guard against encroachment, infiltration, sabotage or harassment so as to safeguard border security and stability. China has signed border cooperation agreements with 9 neighboring countries and set up border meeting mechanisms with 12 countries.
Since 2012, China’s armed forces have deployed vessels on over 4,600 maritime security patrols and 72,000 rights protection and law enforcement operations, and safeguarded maritime peace, stability and order.

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Maintaining Combat Readiness

Safeguarding Interests in Major Security Fields
Nuclear capability is the strategic cornerstone to safeguarding national sovereignty and security. China’s armed forces strengthen the safety management of nuclear weapons and facilities, maintain the appropriate level of readiness and enhance strategic deterrence capability to protect national strategic security and maintain international strategic stability.
Outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition. Outer space security provides strategic assurance for national and social development. In the interest of the peaceful use of outer space, China actively participates in international space cooperation, develops relevant technologies and capabilities, advances holistic management of space-based information resources, strengthens space situation awareness, safeguards space assets, and enhances the capacity to safely enter, exit and openly use outer space.
Cyberspace is a key area for national security, economic growth and social development. Cyber security remains a global challenge and poses a severe threat to China. China’s armed forces accelerate the building of their cyberspace capabilities, develop cyber security and defense means, and build cyber defense capabilities consistent with China’s international standing and its status as a major cyber country. They reinforce national cyber border defense, and promptly detect and counter network intrusions. They safeguard information and cyber security, and resolutely maintain national cyber sovereignty, information security and social stability.

Countering Terrorism and Maintaining Stability

Protecting China’s Overseas Interests

Participating in Disaster Rescue and Relief


IV. Reform in China’s National Defense and Armed Forces

Reforming the Leadership and Command System

Optimizing Size, Structure and Force Composition
Reform measures have been taken to transfer more officer positions to non-commissioned officers and civilian staff, downsize the leading organs at all levels by reducing their subordinate sections, leadership hierarchies and staff the number of personnel in the leading organs at and above regiment level has been cut by about 25%, and that of non-combat units by almost 50%.

Reforming Military Policies and Institutions

Reshuffled PLA and PAP Troops

Promoting Defense and Military Development in All Respects

These are all for costs and efficiency reasons. Russia is driving the same reform as part of its New Look.

There will be an essay on Russia’s stance in the new world order.

V. Reasonable and Appropriate Defense Expenditure

Defense expenditure as a percentage of GDP has fallen from a peak of 5.43% in 1979 to 1.26% in 2017. It has remained below 2% for the past three decades.
Defense expenditure as a percentage of government expenditure was 17.37% in 1979 and 5.14% in 2017, a drop of more than 12 percentage points. The figures are on a clear downward trend.

In terms of usage, China’s defense expenditure is assigned to three sectors –
personnel, training and sustainment, and equipment.

  1. Adapting to national economic and social development, improving the wellbeing of service personnel, ensuring regular increases in military salaries, and bettering the working, training and living conditions of the troops;

  2. Increasing input in weaponry and equipment development, phasing out the outdated, upgrading the old, and developing and procuring the new, such as aircraft carriers, fighters, missiles and main battle tanks, to steadily modernize weaponry and equipment;

  3. Deepening national defense and military reform, supporting major reforms in military leadership and command systems, force structure and composition, and policies and institutions;

  4. Supporting training in real combat conditions, enhancing strategic-level training, joint training at TCs’ level and training of services and arms, and improving the conditions for simulated, networked and force-on-force training; and

  5. Supporting diverse military tasks including the UNPKOs, vessel protection operations, humanitarian assistance operations and disaster relief efforts.

The last three points are key. I cannot stress their importance enough.

A state can have the best military equipment in the world, if their men can’t operate it and their officers can’t lead efficiently, that equipment is useless.

Napoleon’s brand-new expensive navy is a perfect example: it got crushed at Trafalgar because the men had never seen a real sea battle before, while the British navy was built on decades of experience and tradition.

China knows that very well. As we’ll see below, fighting pirates, policing unstable maritime regions, and launching humanitarian responses is not charity: it is training.

As a percentage of GDP, from 2012 to 2017, China’s average defense expenditure was about 1.3%. Comparative figures were: the US about 3.5%, Russia 4.4%, India 2.5%, the UK 2.0%, France 2.3%, Japan 1.0%, and Germany 1.2%. China ranks 6th among these countries in terms of defense expenditure as a percentage of GDP on average and is the lowest among the permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

As a ratio of spending to government expenditure, from 2012 to 2017, China’s average defense expenditure was 5.3%. Comparative figures were: the US about 9.8%, Russia 12.4%, India 9.1%, the UK 4.8%, France 4.0%, Japan 2.5%, and Germany 2.8%. China ranks 4th among these countries in terms of defense expenditure as a percentage of government expenditure on average.

China’s per capita defense expenditure in 2017 was RMB750 – 5% of the US, 25% of Russia, 231% of India, 13% of the UK, 16% of France, 29% of Japan, and 20% of Germany. China’s per-serviceperson defense expenditure was RMB521,600,15% of the US, 119% of Russia, 166% of India, 27% of the UK, 38% of France, 35% of Japan, and 30% of Germany. China’s defense expenditure ranks 7th and 6th in per capita and per-serviceperson terms respectively among these countries.

Translation: China will slowly drive the US to back down because its pockets are deeper. China knows it can afford to play the long-term game: it has played it for thousands of years, long before the US even existed as a nation.

VI. Actively Contributing to Building a Community with a Shared
Future for Mankind

The military relationship between China and Russia continues to develop at a high level, enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability. The Chinese and Russian militaries have continued the sound development of exchange mechanisms at all levels, expanded cooperation in high-level exchanges, military training, equipment, technology and counter-terrorism, and realized positive interaction and coordination on international and multilateral occasions. Since 2012, Chinese and Russian militaries have held 7 rounds of strategic consultations. From August to September 2018, at the invitation of the Russian side, the PLA participated in Russia’s Vostok strategic exercise for the first time.

Translation: for the foreseeable future, China wants Russia as its best friend. It also suits Russia well: similar to a patient chess player, it will grab whatever is to be grabbed while minimising the risk of large scale escalation.

There will be an essay on Russia’s stance in the new world order.

China actively and properly handles its military relationship with the US in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. It strives to make the military-to-military relationship a stabilizer for the relations between the two countries and hence contribute to the China-US relationship based on coordination, cooperation and stability.
China resolutely opposes the wrong practices and provocative activities of the US side regarding arms sales to Taiwan, sanctions on the CMC Equipment Development Department and its leadership, illegal entry into China’s territorial waters and maritime and air spaces near relevant islands and reefs, and wide-range and frequent close-in reconnaissance. However, in China-US relations, the military-to-military relationship remains the generally stable one.

Translation: China does not want any kind of large-scale escalation, but it will pressure the US into slowly yielding ground around Chinese mainland territory.

China is actively developing its military relations with European countries. Exchanges and cooperation in all areas are making sound progress. Targeting a China-Europe partnership for peace, growth, reform and civilization, China conducts security policy dialogues, joint counter-piracy exercises and personnel training with the EU. In 2016, China held a desktop exercise on non-combatant evacuation with the UK and a joint military medical exercise with Germany. In 2018, China and the EU held the third China-EU high-level seminar on security policy.

China is strengthening military exchanges with developing countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific by carrying out personnel training, conducting exchanges between mid-and-junior level officers, and providing assistance in military development and defense capabilities. In Beijing in 2018 China hosted the China-Africa Defense and Security Forum, the China and Latin-America High-level Defense Forum, and the Forum for Senior Defense Officials from Caribbean and South Pacific Countries.

The PLA adheres to the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation in carrying out pragmatic exchanges and cooperation with foreign militaries. Since 2012, China has held over 100 joint exercises and training with more than 30 countries. These engagements have covered traditional and non-traditional security fields, in locations extending from China’s periphery to the far seas, and the participating forces have expanded from land forces to multiple branches including the army, navy and air force. Cooperation and exchanges in personnel training have intensified. Since 2012, the PLA has sent over 1,700 military personnel to study in more than 50 countries. Over 20 Chinese military educational institutions have established and maintained inter-collegiate exchanges with their counterparts from more than 40 countries. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 foreign military personnel from over 130 countries have studied in Chinese military universities and colleges.

Translation: similar to the US, China is “the good guy”.

Reach the second - China: Dreaming of a Blue-Water Navy (Part 2) and third - China: Territorial and Moral High Ground (Part 3) parts of this series.

Thanks for reading,