China surpassed every American security planners’ expectations in its successful building and deploying of the world’s largest maritime fleet in just 20 years, a leading naval strategist said Wednesday. The question now is what Beijing’s military and paramilitary forces will look like in the future.
Toshi Yoshihara, a co-author of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ new report “Which Way the Dragon?,” said looking ahead 15 years the “structural difference in 2030 [ will be when economic headwinds become stiffer.” Then, China’s aging and declining population are likely to force its leadership to make hard choices to balance defense and domestic spending.
Yoshihara, a senior fellow at CSBA and a former chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Naval War College, said the report looked out at China into the 2030s because that is the timeframe used to make acquisition decisions for U.S. military forces. The report presents a host of potential scenarios covering China’s domestic politics, its economy, relations with neighbors and Beijing’s global commitments like the “Belt and Road Initiative” for decision-makers to consider.
The panelists said the report is meant to reduce “the scope for surprises” down the road. The idea is to allow more flexible thinking about changes within China itself. Various potential future regimes could emerge, as different as one that seeks global hegemony to one that embraces democratic reform.
But as the recent Pentagon report on China noted, Yoshihara said, Beijing “is now a shipbuilding superpower. There is little doubt the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping has been willing to pay any price to go to sea” to extend its influence.
How long China can continue that level of defense spending with a slowing economy is in doubt. Complicating matters among Chinese leaders is “the closing window” on reuniting Taiwan to the mainland, Ross Babbage, an Australian-based security expert, said.
“Many things are going to become more costly” if China is to continue modernizing its forces. The Chinese “have heavily invested in fourth-generation” aircraft, for example, giving it the largest air force in the Indo-Pacific, he said.
That spending has implications for the Chinese Communist Party in the long term.
Already, Toshihara and Babbage agreed, these earlier investments in ships and aircraft also expose vulnerabilities that the United States, its allies and partners are addressing, “making Chinese military capabilities marginal” in a future crisis.
But it’s the pull of the economy and the demographics that may “force a marked change in China’s trajectory,” Babbage said. Xi’s strategy of dealing with the West by “fighting while embracing” could shift to one of “nationalist adventure abroad” to keep the Communist Party in power.
The “abroad” likely would be close-by Taiwan. When it comes to the straits, “the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] faces a local versus global dilemma.” Right now its focus is on Taipei. Yoshihara said, “the allies should think keeping the PLA hemmed in the ‘near sea'” will be to their benefit. This will “force sharper tradeoffs” in the leadership’s thinking about Chinese future strategy and ambitions.
Aaron Friedberg, a co-author, said “the Quad” – the informal security arrangements developing among the United States, Japan, Australia and India – may be an avenue that others follow to balance China’s regional ambitions. The informal approach to security appeals to other nations beyond the four powers. Exercises recently undertaken by Indonesia, Australia and India show a broader regional willingness to cooperate and share information.
Right now, “no one in the region has any interest” in developing the Indo-Pacific equivalent of NATO. Friedberg said “that could be back on the table [if the Chinese] continue to behave” as they have been in the South China Sea during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent presentation, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong termed China’s most recent actions, “gangster tactics.”
The accent is “on the need to be resilient across the region, economically and in military security,” now and in the future, Babbage said.
“The big question is whether the United States, its allies and strategic partners have the means and resolves to come together” to balance China, Babbage said.
Yoshihara warned that “should local disputes be resolved in China’s favor [like Taiwan], the PLA can grow globally.” He said that means more investment in “general purpose forces” – army, navy, air force – for their wider deployment in the Indo-Pacific.
That kind of expansion “is running up against a very different economic and demographic future” most analysts predict, Julian Snedler, a co-author, said.