"The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government."
China is as exotic as it is complex. It is as focused as it is unpredictable. Furthermore, it is powerful in some regards while it is inexplicably weak in others. Across China’s expansive land mass there resides a diversity of language, customs, and ethnicities of unimaginable scope. Yet, hidden within the halls of its government lies the forces of a regional power that extend beyond those halls and penetrates the entire region, and often beyond. Considering China requires stepping out of any Western-centric mindset and viewing circumstances with a much more Asian flavor. After doing so, and only then, should the conclusions be put through an American filter to understand Chinese actions and ascertain potential intentions on a more solid footing.
One aspect to consider is time. In this regard, China plays a long game and normally thinks in centuries or millennia vice decades or years. This enduring culture finds solace in its proven resiliency and ancient history. Compared to the strength of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or American hegemony - China usually has a common answer waiting in the wings...Just wait. While other nations dabble in elections, character assassination, partisan politics, faltering coalitions, and so forth. China slowly plods along on a turtle-like pace, yet ever pressing forward on several simultaneous fronts.
One reason it can do this is because of its history as a global merchant. This aspect has consistently propelled the nation forward to the point where China is now an economic juggernaut. With a GDP projected to rival that of the U.S. within the next decade, China continues to prove that it is a force to be reckoned with, especially in regards to the economic instrument of national power. Owing much of its current success to reforms enacted by Deng Xiaoping decades ago, China continues its meteoric financial rise, and there is currently no concrete end in sight. It is this exponential growth coupled with emergent aspirations to increase its influence in the region, and potentially globally, that has resulted in a “not so subtle” shift in Chinese power politics.
As China’s trade within its sphere of influence increases, its ability to sway respective economies also surges. Struggling economies often profit (although at a Chinese-favored balance) from the massive manufacturing and abundance of goods/labor available due to the Sino-based commercial apparatus. Stronger economies, on the other hand, tend to gain more synergy and momentum from the variety and expansiveness of trade with China. This spigot of goods flows as freely or as restrictively as China allows. Those nations treating China favorably reap the benefits. Those testing their mettle usually just suffer from some form of neglect.
Either way, China employs and operates the power politics aspect of its economy pretty much to its liking. From thumbing its nose at the now dying Trans-Pacific Partnership to ignoring its internationally highlighted human rights violations, China continues to thrive, and it persuasively uses the strength and resiliency of its economic engine to adeptly play the power politics game. In this light, China is presented with options, heretofore unexplored.
China’s powerful economy enables it to play power politics through an increase in military expenditures and the corresponding results of that spending. China’s military is not currently a top-of-the-line force. Using the U.S. as a baseline for measurement, China continues to lag in several areas. For starters, China suffers from a lack of power projection in areas such as carriers, rapid deployment, and airlift/tanker capabilities. Its exercises are not anywhere close to a RED FLAG type undertaking, and its command and control efforts are barely scratching the surface of a basic, entry-level U.S.-NATO-led exercise’s fidelity. However, the tide is shifting.
After decades of observing and analyzing Western-NATO-U.S. led Coalition military capability over numerous conflicts spanning the spectrum of operations, China appears ready for a more prominent and professional role in military matters. Across all domains, China is employing both substantial quantity and rising quality. They have obviously taken notice of America’s capabilities and demonstrated, to some degree, their ability to counter U.S. strengths while exploiting America’s vulnerabilities (electronic warfare, stealth, cyber, etc.). Technology that the U.S. military-industrial complex spent billions on, China steals for pennies. In areas of America’s lopsided advantage, China demonstrates the ability to degrade. Where America seems unwilling or uncertain, China boosts its engagement. Whether in the creation of A2AD environments or shooting down a satellite, China’s military is rapidly closing the gap. Their acquisition strategies are more streamlined, and their manufacturing capacity is impressive. In short, their leverage in the militaristic realm is increasing their ability to play power politics from a position of authority.
The result is in several areas, while America plays checkers, the Chinese play chess. At the junction of U.S. “pivots,” re-balancing, and policy shifts, China’s retroactive maneuvers negate the optimism of pro-U.S. entities within the region while simultaneously, China adroitly maneuvers proactively. Truth be told, military expenditures are only the tip of the iceberg. The proof of China’s economically-emboldened increase in military expenditures and its resulting influence is largely demonstrated by their new approach to something as simple as a map.
Probably the most evident aspect of China’s power politics is in its rekindling of old territorial debates, initiation of new ones, and an overall multi-faceted territorial enlargement. Whether in the Diaoyutai (Japanese Senkaku) islands or in the South China Sea, China appears determined to find the international “red line” exists - if it exists at all. Reverting to the first point, China’s economic ability to place a stranglehold on the region also gives it the ability to enter into contested or disputed territory and behave almost uninhibitedly. After all, who would risk stopping them? Added to this is the second main point. Militarily, who can stop China from being the regional hegemon? This too, from a purely regional standpoint, is a question met with silence.
Therefore, China wields power politics by building islands in disputed areas and then placing people and infrastructure on top of them. Even more provocatively, these people are their military personnel and the infrastructure includes early warning radar. China also expands its claims to areas beyond the purview of common or international law into a place of a questionable maritime good will. It declares new “old borders” and reasserts claims to bygone areas in ways that it has heretofore disregarded.
Building islands and asserting claims to disputed islands is not China’s only course of action. By pure proximity and geography China also exerts significant influence. The petroleum industry in Kazakhstan, the rivers flowing into Southeast Asia, the unsatisfied Chinese demand for Mongolian precious metals/minerals all sound like economic factors. However, upon further analysis, these superficial economic ties hide deeper, surreptitious truths. In essence, China is enlarging its “territory” without enlarging its “borders.” The demonstrated ability to exert significant control on areas beyond internationally recognized “lines on a map” borders on the height of dominance. In this arena, China excels.
The primary reason for China’s territorial enlargement seems obvious. China can. The secondary reason is almost as apparent. No one is stopping them. The true “power” in power politics means that while many countries may disagree with China’s actions in the region, no one within the region or with considerable investment in the region appears willing to directly confront Chinese assertions. Failing to confront China's current assertions obliquely implies an unwillingness to address future Chinese aggressions directly. The only way that China will know when they have crossed the line is when a nation is willing to suffer, in unthinkable ways, for repelling China’s regional advances.
The end of China’s emphasis on power politics appears to be far from over. It is conceivable that without firing a shot, China may create a “co-prosperity sphere Take 2” and crowd out the U.S. and all others attempting to infringe upon its dominion. Ever the wide-ranging merchants, China utilizes its economic advantage for greatest self-benefit. The resulting financial status offers China the ability to increase military spending which further emboldens its political ventures. This, in turn, presents China with the opportunity to explore territorial endeavors heretofore inconceivable or unrealistic. Yes, China’s power politics are here to stay, and the entire region must not only take notice…it must also ready itself for potential conflict and future infringement.
Colonel Lance A. Wilkins entered the United States Air Force in 1994 as a distinguished military graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He is a Command Pilot and Weapons Instructor with over 2,500 hours in several different aircraft including 1700 hours in the F-15. He has over 350 combat hours in the Middle East. His diverse background includes extensive experience in DoD programs of the highest classification as well as over 6 years of weapons evaluation and testing.