Xi Is Fast Arming China to Impose Its Influence Around the World

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

With respect to China policy, the Trump administration has been focused on the North Korean nuclear issue.

The Trump administration has pursued a strategy of maximum pressure on North Korea, including declaring North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism and enacting biting sanctions.

Last year, the US imposed sanctions on two Chinese individuals as well as the Dalian Global Unity Shipping company and the Bank of Dandong. In September, the Treasury Department added eight North Korean banks and 26 individuals to its list of sanctions, with the majority of the individuals listed residing in China.

Armed police commandos train in water on March 30, 2016 in the Chuzhou, Anhui Province of China. VCG/VCG via Getty

Most recently on November 21, the Trump administration announced further sanctions, targeting one individual, 30 companies, and 20 vessels that had engaged in trade with North Korea.Meanwhile, Chinese military modernization continues apace.

At the October 2017 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping continued the charge to reform the military's organizational structure, downsizing the central decision making body, the Central Military Commission.

Xi reiterated the Party's goal to reach its objective of a networked and mechanized force by 2020; to achieve basic national defense and military modernization by 2035; and to build a world-class military by 2050.

In his Party report, Xi made it clear that China needed a military prepared to fight and win wars, and that the military would play an increasingly prominent role in Chinese foreign policy. Therefore, to understand China's role in the world, we have to understand three things about China's military strategy.

First, China's military strategy is best characterized as a regional power projection strategy. In this situation, the military moves from a ground-centric, manpower-heavy force to a professionalized force with a strong and high-tech air force and navy capable of projecting power beyond a country's borders on the ground, in the air, and at sea.

The objective is to leverage the military to protect national interests throughout the region, shape the decisions of regional actors, and perhaps play a greater role in the regional security architecture.

Chinese procurement, emphasis on development of C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance], training and doctrine all suggest that this is currently the strategic objective.

Second, China does not yet have the national power to move to a regional hegemony strategy. A national military strategy of regional hegemony takes power projection one step further to exclude other countries' military activities. In the case of China, this would mean adopting a military strategy that would allow Beijing to push the US military out of East Asia.

This is China's preferred end state, but it would include a major conflict with the US military, in which China is currently not prepared to prevail.

Also, China would have to convince Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand to abrogate their alliances with the United States — a highly unlikely feat in the short term.

Third, while the Chinese military is still far from being able to project power globally, its current military strategy has some global aspects.

A globally relevant military includes extensive military engagement, exercises, or arms sales with countries beyond one's immediate region, but not necessarily a forward presence, unrestricted global reach, and constant pace of global operations.

The determining factor for this category is whether the military predominantly concerns itself with conducting operations around the world in pursuit of global aims. China does not have a sufficient power base to pursue this strategy. Moreover, it perceives most of its threats to be regional, and therefore its focus will remain there.

Lastly, ideas about how China wants to be a different type of great power push Beijing away from mimicking the US global military presence.

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is also assistant professor of security studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and serves in the United States Air Force Reserve as a political-military affairs strategist at Pacific Air Forces.

For more in-depth analysis on the factors that shape China's military strategy and the conditions under which it may change, see Dr. Mastro's contribution to the 2017–2018 Strategic Asia volume.

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