The Real Reason for China's Massive Military Buildup
Over several different articles, I have been exploring the dynamics of the budding U.S.-China security dilemma—a high-tech drama pitting anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) against what we used to refer to as Air-Sea Battle (ASB)—and have offered several different ways to lessen the possibility of such a dynamic from becoming cemented into the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture. However, China’s development and implementation of A2/AD clearly has various origins. One such origin that deserves to be explored is the “historical nightmare” of China’s subjugation at the hands of various colonial and Asian powers.
In many respects, China is trying to solve a centuries-old problem that never went away: how to defeat in battle military forces that are at least in a symmetrical sense superior to its own and will be for some time to come. If we alter our perspective and take a much longer view of Beijing’s own military obsolescence, a strategy that emphasizes anti-access makes tremendous sense. According to Admiral Wu Shengli, former commander of the PLA Navy, “in China’s modern history, imperialist and colonists initiated more than 470 invasions of China, including 84 large ones, from the sea.” If China’s military were to deter or halt the deployment of superior military forces into areas of Chinese territory or areas Beijing perceives as a core interest, another period of what leaders in China might see as a new form of subjugation could theoretically be avoided. A2/AD allows Beijing to compete with the United States asymmetrically—an important point when one thinks through how many years away China is from competing with America ship for ship or plane for plane.
The following serves as an account of what many Chinese consider their own historical nightmare at the hands of foreign forces and why A2/AD would protect China from being subjugated yet again.
A Lost Opportunity
The consequences were shocking. When well-armed Western powers forced their way into China two centuries ago, the Chinese were defenseless, thanks to obsolete technology. When Western powers developed mechanized weapons during and after World War II, China was in the midst of internal turmoil and suffered from foreign invasion (i.e., the Chinese Civil War and Japanese invasion); it did not have the capacity to keep up with the developments of new military technology.
“Century of Humiliation” Begins: The First Opium War
The consequences of the conflict—China’s crushing defeat—were felt far and wide. Beijing’s geostrategic position in Asia was weakened dramatically. China’s military was crushed in a series of defeats by a vastly smaller, but technologically superior, British force. Chinese military technology, tactics and strategy were not on par with the West’s. This defeat sparked the first of what has been referred to as the “unequal treaties.” Five ports were opened to foreign traders, and the British colony at Hong Kong was founded (which would not be returned until 1997).
The Sino-Japanese War
A second military defeat, this time at the hands of Japan, during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, also had wide-reaching consequences for Beijing. For several decades, Japan and China had spared in various domains—largely political and diplomatic—over control and influence on the Korean Peninsula. For China, Korea had been a vassal state, having been heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Japan, having undertaken a massive effort to Westernize under the Meiji Restoration, was undertaking efforts to bring Korea under its sphere of influence. Both nations were actively pursuing efforts to modernize their armed forces.
While a larger study of the conflict has been done across many formats and is beyond the scope of this article, the war and its aftermath are of extreme importance. Japan would defeat China convincingly, most importantly at the Battle of the Yalu, an important naval victory. While China had by this time been clearly passed by Western powers and had lost considerable stature and territory, to now be defeated by a neighboring Asian nation-state was even more humiliating. Korea would be declared free of Chinese influence and placed effectively under Japanese control. China would be forced to pay large reparations to Japan. Tokyo would also receive the Liaodong Peninsula, which it was forced to give up, due to Western pressure.
A Chaotic 1930s, Civil War and World War II
A series of events from the early 1930s until the eventual victory of Mao’s communists in 1949, establishing the People’s Republic of China, would also have a lasting effect on today’s China. While each event is worthy of its own larger study, a narrow focus will be utilized for the purposes of this article.
Such a tumultuous period of Chinese history would have far and wide repercussions on the Chinese people, its collective sense of history and its national psyche. Chinese scholars have debated for several decades the role of such a period when thinking about its place in today’s international order. During this century, China would have to redefine itself, its place in the global order, its place in Asia and its own sense of history. As one scholar notes:
China had to redraw its world map: where it had for millennia sat comfortably at the center of a ring of tributary relationships with neighboring countries, it now found itself a weak competitor in a world of dozens or even hundreds of nation-states. Where Chinese rulers and intellectuals had before had little concept of an international arena, they now had to grapple with the notion that there existed a global system of power relationships whose dynamics – though almost entirely out of China’s control – would determine her fate.
History clearly shows us China has suffered from technological obsolescence on the battlefield for some time—allowing various nations to take advantage. A century of humiliation has taught Chinese planners that to allow military forces to be able to approach the coast and be able to build up forces for a possible attack invites strategic weakness and possible subjugation by foreign powers. Beijing does not feel it has the luxury of time to wait for the development of a first-class military if it were challenged by Washington or another great power.A2/AD solves an age-old problem for China and might just be able to at least deter America and others from possible infringement on China's core interests. And if history is any guide, it seems clear that is exactly the outcome Beijing wants.