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  • Writer's pictureAdriana Santamaria Duthon

Is China a security threat?


For the past fifty years, China’s economic development and political influence have been remarkable in several ways. In fact, economic success has enabled China to become an active, yet controversial, international actor whose role on the global stage is more active and contested than ever. While China’s rise has been the ‘greatest development of the 21st century, it has come to be seen as a major threat by the West, especially the United States.’[1] As we move toward a post-pandemic world, China is almost certain to become a military powerhouse and its Grand Strategy will inherently generate important international and regional frictions. This uncertain future prompts an important question: is China a security threat? To answer this question, we will first analyze China’s intention for regional hegemony through the lens of offensive realism. This will prove that China has set specific goals to achieve strategic parity and superiority. Second, we will examine China’s offensive capacity building. This will illustrate that China has transitioned from defensive to offensive capabilities and how it currently translates in the international system. Finally, we will explore China’s revisionist behavior and its effect in certain regions. Together, these observations will allow us to understand how China’s strategic presence and growing civil and military capabilities pose a threat to the Western world.


According to realists, the world is in a constant state of anarchy, as there is no international central authority. Such reality supposes that the main international actor is the state and that its primary goal is to survive the world “as it really is”. This perception postulates that ‘the absence of a higher authority that states can turn to in crisis, coupled with their interests in survival, leaves states little choice but to compete with each other for power’.[2] In fact, such a view of the system assumes that international politics forces and conditions states to behave in certain ways and creates an environment of suspicion, competition, and hostility. As Mearsheimer notes, the international system is an “iron cage” in which states ‘have to compete with one another for power if they hope to survive’.[3] Overall, ‘realism tends to emphasize the irresistible strength of existing forces and the inevitable character of existing tendencies, and [this] lies in accepting and adapting oneself to these forces and these tendencies’.[4] This unique trait of realist state behavior is also referred to as “the security dilemma”. Said ongoing pursuit of capabilities would lead groups to ‘acquire more capabilities, in the process rendering their opponent insecure and thus compelling both sides to engage in a vicious circle of security and power accumulation’.[5] As a subgroup of realism, offensive realism argues that ‘states face an uncertain international environment in which any state might use its power to harm another and that under these circumstances, […] security requires acquiring as much power compared to other states as possible’.[6] This school of thought stipulates that ‘achieving complete hegemony is almost impossible and that the most a state can hope for is to be a regional hegemon’.[7] As such, offensive realism proves to be a relevant lens when assessing China as a security threat due to Beijing’s continuous willingness ‘to reshape the rules of the system and institution by force […] in order to change the status quo’.[8]


Since 1980, China’s capability to ‘compete at given levels has increased radically in virtually every civil and military area, setting broad goals for achieving strategic parity and superiority’.[9] These strategies are intended to construct a set of objectives that have a direct impact on diverse levels of threats that strengthen China’s power. In fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union, ‘China’s leaders have been implementing a patriotic education campaign that aims to stimulate national pride and cohesion by teaching China’s history of resisting foreign aggression.[10] The purpose behind this policy has been to legitimize the Chinese state as the sole guarantor of the country’s future. Such strategy supposes that nationalism is a key driver that explains why complex regional and international issues are subject to internalized nationalist scripts and intentions.[11] Under Xi Jinping’s rule, China’s nationalism has been centered around the discourse of the “Chinese Dream” and its arguments of “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. The rise of Chinese nationalism supports Mearsheimer’s argument on the impossibility to predict China’s current or future intentions. In addition, since 1978 and after years of state control of all productive assets, the government of China embarked on major economic reform. In an effort to awaken a dormant economic giant, it encouraged an ‘open-door policy’ which directed foreign investment in the country.[12] From 1978 to 2012, China’s GDP grew more than twentyfold and by the end of 2014, it had gained the status of the world’s largest economy[13]. According to the Communist Party Central Committee’s fifth plenary session, Beijing’s 2035 vision of its “basic socialist modernisation” projected that China will stay on its growth trajectory to replace the U.S. as the world’s top economy ‘with significant improvements in its economic, technological and comprehensive power’.[14] As such, these economic strategies are in line with offensive realism because according to Mearsheimer, ‘there is no question that states sometimes start wars to gain power over a rival state and enhance their security. But security is not always the principal driving force […] as ideology or economic considerations are sometimes paramount’.[15] However, much of China’s contemporary military capability building is not only a direct effect of domestic policies, rather, it responds to the changes in the global economic power structure which reveal the revival of a multipolar world rhetoric. Over the last three decades, we have seen a rapid transformation in the distribution of power which has inherently shaped most of China’s military and political strategies. In fact, since the 1990s, Russia and China have ‘repeatedly agreed on [multipolarity] and have included it or alluded to it in nearly all their joint declarations, states, and treaties’.[16] Today, such “complex multipolarity” illustrates the existence of three dominant economic poles: the US, China, and the EU[17]. Nonetheless, holding such a place has not been enough to avoid conflict and the Sino-American political bipolarity has pushed China to pursue a unique offensive capacity building.


In addition to nationalism and economic development, China’s military expansion illustrates a transition from a defensive to an offensive strategy. In 2000, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was slowly adapting to the trends in modern warfare. In fact, China’s capabilities ‘focused largely on waging large-scale warfare along China’s borders, while its ground, air, and naval forces were sizable but mostly obsolete’.[18] However, in 2017, General Secretary Xi Jinping declared that the PLA’s new objective was to become a “world-class” military by 2049, proving that China has prioritized the strengthening and modernization of its current resources, technology, and political will.[19] Today, China has already surpassed the U.S. in certain areas, such as shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic, cruise missiles, and integrated air defense system.[20] From this perspective, we should expect a rising China, which would indeed support Mearsheimer’s argument concerning the value of being a regional hegemon and the importance of dominating one’s own geographical area. In addition to modernization, China’s military budget portrays the offensive realist’s argument, which stipulates that states are always looking for opportunities to gain more power whenever it seems feasible. According to a report from the Department of Defense of the United States, China’s economic development supports its military modernization by providing the means for larger defense which would explain why in March 2021, ‘China projected a defense spending growth of 6.8% ($208 billion by 2022), amid tensions with the U.S. and key neighbors’.[21] This action came after the border conflict between India and China in January 2021, which illustrates that power struggle and offensive strategies are still important motivators, even between two Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS).


China has been steadily investing in offensive capabilities that allow it to project its power regionally and globally. China has been the main actor in the ongoing regional tensions in the East and South China Seas due to its constant military modernization. According to Xi Jinping, China does not intend to pursue the militarization of the zone, but the fact that Beijing postulates that such behavior responds to ‘their right to self-defense to which a sovereign state is entitled under international law’, exhibits a different approach to the regional security environment.[22] As such, the South China Sea dispute shows that China is constantly strengthening its ability to project power, raising security tension in the ASEAN region. In addition, in June 2021, commercial satellite images showed the acquisition of more than 100 new missile silos. This building spree could signal a major expansion of Beijing’s nuclear capabilities and an important historic shift for China, whose nuclear stockpile represented a modest 250 to 350 nuclear weapons.[23] Even if difficult to prove, this nuclear strategy reinforces the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent in the region and to the Western alliances. Another important assertive step concerns China’s newly commissioned nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), also known as the 094A. This type of vessel is the only one in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) dedicated to launching nuclear weapons which possess a range between 7,200 and 9,000 km.[24] If launched from waters near China, ‘it would have sufficient range to strike nuclear states in the region, such as Russia and India’, two major NWS.[25] Overall, China’s ongoing nuclear weapon modernization efforts exhibit a state seeking to pursue nuclear influence in the region. Finally, China’s ambitious and comparative success in ‘cyber conflict, space, use of artificial intelligence, and use of third-party state and non-states actors’ has undoubtedly dominated the future of military competition and will continue to expand as new international cyber and space races advance.[26]


One of China’s most conspicuous behaviors has been its tendency to revisionism. As demonstrated above, China is simultaneously seeking status recognition and ‘security from what is perceives to be an American-dominated and ideologically-threatening order’.[27] As Mearsheimer noted, China ‘is devising its own version of the Monroe Doctrine’, much as what the U.S. did in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.[28] Similar to its offensive revisionist behavior in the South China Sea, China’s claim over Taiwan sovereignty has created a gray zone phenomenon, also referred to as hybrid threats and modern deterrence. Such a strategy would allow China to swiftly subdue Taiwan without firing a single shot. In fact, in the first days of Biden’s presidency, Taiwan reported ‘a large incursion by Chinese warplanes over two days’.[29] This prompts the conclusion that regardless of the U.S.’s security pressures, China continually seeks to make an assertive presence in the region. More recently, Afghanistan’s crisis after the Taliban takeover in August 2021 has prompted China’s intentions both in the region and its global standing. While it is difficult to know with certainty China’s intentions, Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban may encourage them to be attentive to China’s security concerns. As such, China may attempt to advance its affirmative interests in Afghanistan even if the U.S. will continue to maintain a strong military posture in the western Pacific. In addition to its regional revisionism, China will continue to pursue its global ambitions with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expanding Beijing’s economic and political influence. This modern economic and maritime “silk road” has the capacity to expand the international use of Chinese currency and its geographic influence, strengthening China’s regional hegemony.


In conclusion, China’s constant challenge to the status quo has strengthened its odds with the West. More importantly, China’s assertive and revisionist moves keep raising doubts about its global intentions and its commitment to being a peaceful partner. Offensive realism allows us to illustrate a realistic view of China’s rise in power and future frictions in specific regions of the world. As such, China’s growing economy and military capacity building mixed with unforeseeable intentions remain an important destabilizing factor for both its neighbors and the West.


 

References


Books


Buzan,Barry and Hansen, Lene. The Evolution of International Security Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.


Buzan, Barry & Magnette, Paul. People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era. Rowman & Littlefield International, 2007.


Brødsgaard, Kjeld Erik, and Koen Rutten. From Accelerated Accumulation to Socialist Market Economy in China: Economic Discourse and Development from 1953 to the Present. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017.


Carr, E. H. The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964.


Dunne, Timothy, Kurki, Milja, and Smith, Steve. International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Fourth ed. 2016. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.


Williams, Paul D. and McDonald, Matt. Security Studies: An Introduction. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

Journal Articles


Ghazala, Yasmin Jalil. "China’s Rise: Offensive or Defensive Realism." Strategic Studies 39, no. 1 (Spring, 2019).


Lake, David. “Why ‘Isms’ Are Evil: Theory, Epistemology, and Academic Sects as Impediments to Understanding and Progress.” International Studies Quarterly 55 (March 2011).


Schneider, Florian. "Introduction." In China's Digital Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. doi: 10.1093/oso/9780190876791.003.0001


Turner, Susan. “Russia, China and a Multipolar World Order: The danger in the Undefined”. Asian Perspective 33, no. 1 (2009).

Websites


Bloomberg News. “China’s Defense Budget Climbs 6.8% as Economy Recovers”. March 4th, 2021. Accessed August 16th, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-05/china-s-defense-budget-climbs-6-8-as-economy-recovers


Borrel, Josep “How to revive multilateralism in a multipolar world?”, European Union External Action Service. March 16, 2021. Accessed on August 12th, 2021. https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/95111/how-revive-multilateralism-multipolar-world_en


BBC. “What’s behind the China-Taiwan divide?”. May 26,2021. Accessed online August 16th,2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34729538


Chatzky, Andrew and McBride, James. “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative”. Council on Foreign Relations. January 28th, 2020. Accessed August 16th, 2021. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative


Clarke, Michael. “Is China Heading Towards Revolutionary Revisionism?”. Australian Institute of International Affairs. September 4th, 2020. Accessed August 16th, 2021. https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/is-china-heading-towards-revolutionary-revisionism/


Cordesman, Anthony H. “Chinese Strategy and Military Forces in 2021”. Center for Strategic Studies and International Studies, Accessed August 11th, 2021. https://www.csis.org/analysis/updated-report-chinese-strategy-and-military-forces-2021


Department of Defense of the United States of America. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”. 2020. Accessed August 14th, 2021. https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF


Funaiole, Matthew P., Bermudez Jr., Joseph and Hart, Brian. “A Glimpse of Chinese Ballistic Missile Submarines”. Center for Strategic Studies and International Studies. August 4th,2021. Accessed August 13th, 2021. https://www.csis.org/analysis/glimpse-chinese-ballistic-missile-submarines


Holmes, James R. “China’s Monroe Doctrine”. The Diplomat. June 22nd, 2012. Accessed August 15th,2021. https://thediplomat.com/2012/06/chinas-monroe-doctrine/


International Monetary Fund. “Why is China growing so fast?” Economic Issues, June 1997. Accessed August 13th,2021. https://www.imf.org/EXTERNAL/PUBS/FT/ISSUES8/issue8.pdf


Politics in Theory and Practice. “A Critique of Offensive Realism”. March 6th, 2016. Accessed on August 16th, 2021. https://politicstheorypractice.com/2016/03/06/a-critique-of-offensive-realism/

Sakamoto, Shigeki.“The Global South China Sea Issue”. The diplomat. July 4th, 2021. Accessed online August 11th, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/07/the-global-south-china-sea-issue/


Warrick, Joby. “China is building more than 100 new missile silos in its western desert, analysts say”. The Washington Post, June 30, 2021. Accessed August 13th, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/china-nuclear-missile-silos/2021/06/30/0fa8debc-d9c2-11eb-bb9e-70fda8c37057_story.html


Zhou Xin, “Beyond propaganda : China’s 2035 vision”. South China Morning Post. November 2nd, 2020. Accessed online August 12th, 2021. https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3108109/beyond-propaganda-chinas-2035-vision-assumes-it-will-overtake

[1] Yasmin Ghazala, "China’s Rise: Offensive or Defensive Realism." Strategic Studies 39, no. 1 (2019): 41. [2] John Mearsheimer, “Structural Realism” in International relations theories: discipline and diversity ed. Timothy Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 56. [3] Idem, 78. [4] E.H. Carr. The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), 14. [5] Barry Buzan and Lene Hansen. The Evolution of International Security Studies. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 12. [6] Paul D. Williams and Matt McDonald. Security Studies: An Introduction. (Milton: Taylor & Francis Group, 2018): 24 [7] Ibid. [8] Yasmin Ghazala, "China’s Rise: Offensive or Defensive Realism." Strategic Studies 39, no. 1 (2019): 42 [9] Anthony H. Cordesman. “Chinese Strategy and Military Forces in 2021”. Center for Strategic Studies and International Studies, Accessed August 11th, 2021. https://www.csis.org/analysis/updated-report-chinese-strategy-and-military-forces-2021 [10] Schneider, Florian. "Introduction." In China's Digital Nationalism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) : 3. [11] Ibid. [12] International Monetary Fund. “Why is China growing so fast?”. Economic Issues, June 1997. Accessed August 13th, 2021. https://www.imf.org/EXTERNAL/PUBS/FT/ISSUES8/issue8.pdf [13] Brødsgaard, Kjeld Erik, and Koen Rutten. From Accelerated Accumulation to Socialist Market Economy in China: Economic Discourse and Development from 1953 to the Present. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017):1. [14] Zhou Xin, “Beyond propaganda: China’s 2035 vision”. South China Morning Post. November 2nd, 2020. Accessed online August 12th, 2021. https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3108109/beyond-propaganda-chinas-2035-vision-assumes-it-will-overtake [15] John Mearsheimer, “Structural Realism” in International relations theories: discipline and diversity ed. Timothy Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 58. [16] Susan Turner, “Russia, China and a Multipolar World Order: The danger in the Undefined” Asian Perspective 33, no 1 (2009): 159. [17] Josep Borrel, “How to revive multilateralism in a multipolar world?”, European Union External Action Service. March 16, 2021. Accessed on August 12th, 2021. https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/95111/how-revive-multilateralism-multipolar-world_en [18] Department of Defense. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”. 2020. Accessed August 14th, 2021. https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF : i. [19] Idem. [20] Idem, ii. [21] Bloomberg News. “China’s Defense Budget Climbs 6.8% as Economy Recovers”. March 4th, 2021. Accessed August 16th, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-05/china-s-defense-budget-climbs-6-8-as-economy-recovers [22] Shigeki Sakamoto. “The Global South China Sea Issue”. The diplomat. July 4th, 2021. Accessed online August 11th, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/07/the-global-south-china-sea-issue/ [23] Joby Warrick. “China is building more than 100 new missile silos in its western desert, analysts say”. The Washington Post, June 30, 2021. Accessed August 13th, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/china-nuclear-missile-silos/2021/06/30/0fa8debc-d9c2-11eb-bb9e-70fda8c37057_story.html [24] Matthew P. Funaiole, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., and Brian Hart. “A Glimpse of Chinese Ballistic Missile Submarines”. Center for Strategic Studies and International Studies. August 4th,2021. Accessed August 13th, 2021. https://www.csis.org/analysis/glimpse-chinese-ballistic-missile-submarines [25] Idem. [26] Anthony H. Cordesman. “Chinese Strategy and Military Forces in 2021”. Center for Strategic Studies and International Studies, Accessed August 11th, 2021. https://www.csis.org/analysis/updated-report-chinese-strategy-and-military-forces-2021 [27] Michael Clarke. “Is China Heading Towards Revolutionary Revisionism?”. Australian Institute of International Affairs. September 4th, 2020. Accessed August 16th, 2021. https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/is-china-heading-towards-revolutionary-revisionism/ [28] James R. Holmes. “China’s Monroe Doctrine”. The Diplomat. June 22,2012. Accessed August 15th,2021. https://thediplomat.com/2012/06/chinas-monroe-doctrine/ [29] BBC. “What’s behind the China-Taiwan divide?”. May 26,2021. Accessed online August 16th,2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34729538


Image source: Davoudi, S., Raynor, R., Reid, B., Crawford, J., Sykes, O., & Shaw, D. (2018). Policy and Practice Spatial imaginaries: Tyrannies or transformations?Town Planning Review, 89(2), 97-124. https://doi.org/10.3828/tpr.2018.7

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