In the decade under Xi Jinping, China has created the world’s largest navy, restructured its largest professional army, and developed a nuclear and missile arsenal that worries adversaries.
China’s neighbors are scrambling to keep up, so Xi’s third five-year term is likely to be accompanied by an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region.
In South Korea, which is developing its maritime force with a long range of action, or in Australia, which is acquiring nuclear submarines, the volume of arms deals has increased. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, military spending in the region exceeded one billion dollars last year.
In the last ten years, China, the Philippines and Vietnam have doubled their defense budgets, and South Korea, India and Pakistan are not far behind that pace. Even Japan presented a record military budget this year, putting an end to the traditional reserve, on the grounds that the security environment is “increasingly violent”.
“All the key players in the Indo-Pacific region are reacting as quickly as they can to the modernization of the Chinese military,” says Malcolm Davis, a former Australian defense official now an analyst at the Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
For a long time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA, the official name of the Chinese military) was considered outdated and ineffective; one historian even qualified it as “the greatest military museum in the world). Equipped with old weaponry produced in the Soviet Union and plagued by corruption, China’s military force relied primarily on infantry with less than glorious results in international theaters.
During the Korean War, when it intervened on the side of the North, the AEP had losses of 400,000 soldiers according to Western sources; Beijing recognized only 180,000. In 1979, the Chinese military fought a short but bloody war with Vietnam.
In 2013, when Xi Jinping became supreme commander, reforms were already underway. The process had begun in the 1990s, under the presidency of Jiang Zemin – who had been impressed by US military performance in the Gulf War – when the third Taiwan Strait crisis occurred. But it was only after Xi came to power that those efforts really began to be reflected in capabilities, says strategic consultant Alexander Neill.
AEP had recently launched its first aircraft carrier, sourced from Ukraine, and the J-15 fighter-bomber aircraft built on the basis of the Soviet Sukhoi model.
China’s military budget has grown steadily over the past 27 years, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Beijing now has at its disposal two active aircraft carriers, hundreds of long- and medium-range ballistic missiles, thousands of fighter jets and the largest military navy in the world, larger even than that of the United States.
“They have a very large military navy and if they want to intimidate and place ships around Taiwan they can do that very easily,” Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the US 7th Fleet, told US media.
At the same time, China’s nuclear arsenal has grown exponentially. According to the United States Department of Defense, Chinese atomic bombs can be launched from land, sea and air. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists records an inventory of 350 Chinese nuclear weapons, double the number during the Cold War, and the American intelligence services estimate that in the next five years it could reach 700. In the northwest of the country they are building new silos for nuclear missiles.
China is “the only adversary capable of combining economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to pose a long-term challenge to a stable and open international system,” the Pentagon said in a 2021 report. “Beijing is trying to reshape the international order for to better align with its authoritarian system and its national interests”, the same document said.
This prospect is worrisome, and many projects in the region have the clear objective of strengthening deterrence capacity. South Korea wants to develop a naval force that can operate off the coast, and Australia is considering equipping it with eight nuclear warheads, with the help of the British and the Americans, according to the AUKUS agreement between Canberra, London and Washington. The Australians are also discussing the acquisition of hypersonic weapons, ballistic missiles with a longer range and “invisible” bombers that can strike anywhere in the world without being detected.
Malcolm Davis believes that such projects reflect the awareness that China is increasingly able to shape the region as it wishes. “The era in which the US Navy dominated the seas in the western Pacific region is coming to an end,” the analyst says. “We would not have had AUKIS if Xi Jinping had not been there. In a way, he did us a huge favor”, he concludes.
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