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Is China a Threat?

Growing Chinese economic and naval power has stoked fears of an arms race in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Despite experiencing slowed economic growth, the Chinese juggernaut is driving full force ahead and it surpassed the United States as the world’s largest economy on October 9. With accumulated wealth, comes a willingness to use it and President Xi Jinping is eager to put every penny towards the Chinese dream. The end goal of the Chinese state, the Chinese Dream is the idea of a national rejuvenation, a strong and independent China that charts its own course, and finally a peaceful international order built on co-operation and trust. As China grows in power, so too will the dream grow in prominence. Unfortunately for the Chinese, other Asian states including India, Japan, and Vietnam are unconvinced. In particular, the idea of a strong China has them concerned.

An article in the China Daily captured the Chinese position well when it suggested that, “If its military is strong, China can be on the way to realize the dream of rejuvenating the nation.”  Its insistence on China’s peaceful history in the same article goes so far as to neglect its invasion of Tibet when it claims that, “Unlike former colonial powers, China has never invaded another country.” China, which has territorial disputes with India around Kashmir and Tibet as well as oceanic disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, would no doubt frame any conflict with them in a similar way. No doubt those countries are already aware of this. The launch of the Chinese Aircraft carrier with crewmen lining up to the words ‘Chinese Dream Military Dream’ is hardly further assurance of China`s supposedly peaceful intent.

The launch of the aircraft carrier is a part of China’s naval expansion plan which has also seen the development and launch of fully capable nuclear submarines. Partly emblematic of China’s great power status, they are nonetheless extremely useful as a strategic force. Fulfilling roles in deterrence and offence, nuclear submarines are meant to operate over long ranges, long periods and cover large territories undetected.

While Chinese capabilities are on the ascent, it has pushed India and Japan to react. Japan unveiled the helicopter carrier Izumo in August 2013 and has continued to raise military spending. More recently, and partially in response to ISIL’s murder of a Japanese reporter, President Shinto Abe has begun to shift away from Japan’s traditionally pacifist foreign policy. India meanwhile raised its defence spending for 2014-2015 by twelve percent and in 2013 saw the loss of one of its diesel submarines. The blow is particularly pronounced when India’s anxiety over China’s submarine force is heightened by the recent expedition of a Chinese nuclear submarine into the Indian Ocean, a diesel submarine docking in Sri Lanka, and the numerical superiority of the Chinese submarine fleet: forty-five Chinese submarines to India’s thirteen, of which half are operational. Even despite the launch of an Indian aircraft carrier and stealth frigate, these are causes of for concern in the Indian navy. On land, tensions are similarly high with India and China increasing the number of troops stationed along disputed borders.

In a bid to counter China`s network of open ports for its naval vessels, India has responded with negotiations and cooperation agreements with Vietnam. Boosting oil exploration efforts, a $100 million dollar defence credit line, and possible hints at a future sale of super-sonic anti-ship missiles are likely part of greater long term cooperation. Even so, China has arranged broader regional cooperation in its favour. Known as the `String of Pearls`, China has commercial port rights or naval bases in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and now in Tanzania. Ostensibly aimed at supplying and supporting the logistics of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean, it is suspected to have a more strategic role. Some suspect it is part of a long term strategy to confine Indian naval ambitions and capabilities in its own waters. Although doubts exist as to the effectiveness of the strategy in the long term, it is a logical goal for the Chinese to ensure their dominance in Asia.

Doubt over China`s future power is not isolated to the supposed `String of Pearls` strategy. The massive preponderance of American naval power, combined with that of her allies, is something the Chinese have a long way to even near a level competition with. Indeed, it is not wholly certain if level competition with America is something the Chinese even aspire to. As well, the growing age of the Chinese population will ensure that its economy continues to slow as its population ages and experiences a marginal decline. This alone will also ensure that the Chinese age before they accumulate wealth individually: despite having the world`s largest economy, the GDP per capita in China is a mere 10% of that in America. Coupled with a major technological gap with the US, its nuclear submarines are equivalent to Soviet subs in the 70s and 80s, and China looks to fall short of the imagined rising threat from the Far East.

Indeed, it would appear that direct Chinese competition with the United States has a long road to travel. If the Chinese dream is one of violent hegemony, then it appears set to experience major challenges down the road internally, from the actors already reacting against it, and from the United States. If, however, the dream is peaceful, China may yet be able to settle at a comfortable position in the international system without resorting to violence and trying to confront its detractors, and foreseeable American military power.

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