Adjusting to China’s global presence

Adjusting to China’s global presence

Are Chinese policymakers aiming only to play a major role in the Asia-Pacific region in the coming decades, or do they harbor more extensive goals?  The answer to this question has tremendous implications for political and economic risk in locations around the globe.

China harbors hegemonic ambitions in the Asia Pacific region—ambitions that have significant ramifications for economic interests and political stability throughout the region. Chinese leaders and strategists have, after all, hardly been quiet concerning these goals. However, the broader scope of Chinese geostrategic aspirations remains a subject of debate. It is beyond doubt that the rise of China will be an important consideration for individuals with economic interests in the Asia Pacific. However, if China aspires to a position of global leadership, business interests and investors will need to be prepared to deal with the implications of Chinese policy in places as far ranging as Venezuela, the South Pacific, Central Asia, and Africa. So how are observers to discern the ultimate extent of Chinese ambitions?

To understand a country’s ultimate ambitions, it is often helpful to look at that country’s acquisition of military capabilities. Militaries are, after all, the defenders of the sovereign interests of nations—thus, to understand a nation’s interests, one ought to see what duties that country intends its military to perform. The U.S. Department of Defense issues an annual report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” that provides a helpful overview of Chinese defense trends that can be useful for such analysis (reports from the Chinese themselves, while certainly providing ample material for analysis, can be misleading, as the Chinese government is not above providing misleading numbers on occasion).

So what can the most recent Department of Defense report on Chinese military capabilities tell us about Chinese ambitions? For quite some time, since the U.S. Department of Defense began offering these reports (mandated by the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act), the Department of Defense has identified a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait to be the primary goal of Chinese defense planning. However, this years’ report notes that as “China’s interests have grown…its military modernization has also become increasingly focused on investments in military capabilities to conduct a wide range of missions beyond its immediate territorial concerns.” China has identified peacekeeping operations, relief missions, and antipiracy missions all as vital concerns for its armed forces—all of which require the capability to project power far beyond China’s immediate borders. This would appear to be substantiated by China’s recent development of a domestically manufactured Y-20 transport aircraft, as long-range aircraft capable of delivering supplies around the world are crucial to such missions

Similarly, China’s development of drone technology—such as the Yi Long, a cheaper version of the U.S. Predator drone, which costs only $1 million USD—is a clear sign of China’s far-reaching ambitions. Drone technology, while useful for surveillance of areas such as the Taiwan Strait, would be of limited utility in any direct Taiwan conflict—however, it provides an easy way to expand Chinese power worldwide. Chinese officials acknowledged that in February 2013 they considered using a drone strike to target a Burmese drug lord. Additionally, the Pentagon’s report notes that drones such as the Yi Long would likely be marketed to developing nations, due to their low costs and China’s lack of concern for human rights abuses. China’s development of unmanned aerial vehicles thus not only directly expands China’s ability to project force, it also promises to give a powerful new capability to a host of states (potentially including developing Chinese clients such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Venezuela) that might not otherwise be able to afford it.

Additionally, the Department of Defense notes that China’s space capabilities continue to progress at a tremendous rate. China’s 2012 launching of six Beidou navigation satellites have created a regional counterpart to the U.S.-based Global Positioning System, setting the foundation for a global Beidou system that the Department of Defense estimates will be created in 2020, enabling the Chinese military to travel accurately—and conduct precision-guided strikes—around the world. China also launched eleven new remote sensing satellites and three communications satellites in 2012, all of which help give China a global ability to utilize military force.

In short, a cursory examination of Chinese military capabilities makes clear that while China’s short-term strategic goals relate to its immediate surroundings in Asia, China harbors very explicit global ambitions. This is, in and of itself, not necessarily a negative thing for business concerns. A China that utilizes its global capabilities to counter piracy and secure international trade, or to lead relief efforts to disaster areas, is a welcome contribution to the international community. However, a China that arms states such as Sudan and Zimbabwe with cheap drones and attack helicopters to promote international instability is most decidedly not. Regardless of how China uses its global capabilities, any individual or company seeking to make plans over the next decade—most specifically in emerging markets—must plan on dealing with China as a global presence.

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