Why you should care

Because this growing power player has emerged.

The lingering myth of the Chinese government’s infallibility recently suffered a grievous blow when officials botched efforts to stabilize the country’s stock market — for the second time in less than a year. But while everyone seems focused on that story, and the increasingly jittery markets in other countries, few have noticed exactly how much China has begun flexing its military might — and driving neighbors into the arms of its chief global rival, the U.S. “Everyone is dialing 911 and hoping the U.S. will answer,” says Ralph Cossa, president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign policy research institute.

That’s not exactly what Chinese President Xi Jinping had in mind, of course. But as China bulks up its own military — launching aircraft carriers and submarines, building artificial islands with military landing strips in disputed territory and sending naval vessels north through the Bering Strait, and south and west to the Persian Gulf — its neighbors have started to respond in kind by increasing their own military spending, including acquiring new weapons and vessels as well as renewing alliances with erstwhile rivals and enemies. All of this puts China’s goal of freeing the region from U.S. domination farther away. “Xi is not quite the strategic thinker people think he is,” says Cossa.

There’s a nervous aspect to this stockpiling, since so many countries have unresolved territorial disputes and fear Chinese domination.

Spending is on the rise throughout the region, unlike in Europe or the U.S. Between 2010 and 2014, Vietnam, for example, upped its military spending by 59 percent, to $4.25 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Over the same period, Malaysia saw an increase of 28 percent, the Philippines 35 percent and Indonesia 51 percent. Of course, none of those smaller and less developed nations can hope to keep pace with China, which over the same period increased spending by 75 percent, to a whopping $216 billion. And experts aren’t willing to call the buildup an arms race yet, which would suggest that war is likely or inevitable. “An arms race, if it exists, is still in an early phase,” says Jeffrey Engstrom, an Asia-Pacific security specialist at Rand Corporation, the research group.

Nonetheless, there’s a nervous aspect to this stockpiling, since so many countries have unresolved territorial disputes and fear Chinese domination. The Philippines, for instance, has rehabilitated Subic Bay naval base — once home to the U.S. 7th Fleet, until 1992 — while the U.S. Navy is back on the base as well. The Philippine navy plans to acquire three submarines plus a range of patrol and fighting ships and helicopters, many aimed at anti-submarine warfare. Meanwhile, Vietnam, which operates six submarines that it acquired from Russia, is building its own high-altitude surveillance drones so it can keep a better eye on what’s happening in the South China Sea, most of which China claims. Every country in the region is getting in on the act, it seems, with Malaysia operating submarines and building its own French-designed frigates.

Japan, the once-hated invader from World War II, now conducts joint naval exercises with Southeast Asian nations, and it’s been providing war equipment too, in the form of decommissioned vessels. Also, for the first time since the Second World War, Japanese legislation has given the green light to its forces fighting to aid an ally under attack, even if Japan is not directly threatened. South Korea is likewise supplying advanced weaponry and working with countries in the area, and while U.S. ties to the region promise to be strengthened by the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact if Congress signs off, there’s one major player that’s been excluded from the pact for now: China.

Even so, containing China, if it ever was an option, isn’t practical. The U.S. military may be shifting forces to the Asia-Pacific region, and it retains a vast technological superiority to the Chinese. At the same time, improved Chinese missile technologies create new vulnerabilities for the U.S. fleet that, at a minimum, make close-in operations more difficult, and could raise questions about U.S. willingness to engage the Chinese in defense of its allies. And while China’s economy is slowing down, it remains the top trading partner for nations in the region. “Countries see that this is a colossus they have to work with,” says Tim Heath, senior defense analyst and Asia specialist at the Rand Corporation.

Indeed, the strong reaction against China’s aggressive behavior in the region might already be serving to moderate the country’s actions. For example, it put on a friendlier face in November when President Xi met with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore. “The Chinese are trying to mitigate the impact of their own policies,” says Heath. And despite U.S. opposition, most countries welcomed China’s initiative to set up a new bank to support regional development, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Most recently, China seemed to reverse track, setting off alarms on news that it was installing radar facilities on artificial islands in the South China Sea. But who knows — maybe Xi will one day restore some of that old mojo of infallibility.

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