‘Hide your strength, bide your time’

Intent on challenging US hegemony in Asia, China has rapidly translated its economic prosperity into

The PLA openly flaunted its latest stealth fighter prototype, J-31, writes Heydarian [Reuters]

China’s rapid emergence as a full-spectrum regional power has placed Asia on the cusp of a major geopolitical shift, rekindling ancient memories of a Sino-centric order in the region. The recent summits in China (APEC) and Myanmar (ASEAN) have potently demonstrated China’s ever-expanding global ambitions and its determination to supplant a US-led order in the region. For almost seven decades, the US has served as the undisputed hegemonic power in East Asia. In recent years, however, China seems to have abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum: “Hide your strength, bide your time.”

Under Xi Jinping, China’s first paramount leader in decades, China has accelerated its efforts at challenging American hegemony, on both economic and military fronts. Without a doubt, China’s rising economic power has provided tremendous opportunities for neighbouring countries and much of the world. As a global factory, China has provided affordable products for consumers across the world, a large pool of surplus labour for global industries, and affordable loans and technology to developing countries, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

Military behemoth

But China’s growing military muscle has raised alarm bells across the Asia-Pacific theatre and beyond. Today, China is a member of an exclusive club of nations with ocean-roaming nuclear submarines, an aircraft carrier, and two active stealth fighter (J-20 and J-21) programmes. It has the world’s second largest military budget, with a rapidly advancing asymmetrical military capability, which is aimed at denying the US navy access to China-claimed waters and territories in the Western Pacific.

Chinese air show shows off new stealth fighter

The US, by far, remains the world’s most powerful military, but Beijing, with astonishing speed, has chipped away at this superiority.

Throughout the post-Cold War period, the Chinese leadership made a concerted effort to modernise a bloated, antiquated People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which was predominantly oriented towards continental warfare.

Quick and lethal US military victories against its enemies, especially Saddam Hussein’s (Soviet-equipped) military in 1991, encouraged the PLA to step up its capabilities in both advanced, hi-tech “information warfare” as well as asymmetrical warfare, the so-called “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities.

As Harry Kazianis, an expert on Chinese military affairs, recently told me: “China, for the foreseeable future, will not be able to match America’s [conventional military]… Overtime, however, Beijing will have the capabilities to create an ever increasing ‘no-go zone'” across the Western Pacific. Unlike the US, which often acts as the global policeman across multiple theatres of conflict, China has the luxury of concentrating all its forces in its immediate neighbourhood.

So even if China can’t match the US military muscle for decades to come, it can, nevertheless, focus on enhancing its strategic position in the Western Pacific. This partly explains why China has stepped up its territorial claims, paramilitary patrols, military drills, and construction activities in adjacent waters, especially the South China Sea. 

Challenging Pax Americana

In the recently concluded APEC Summit in Beijing, the Chinese leader called for a China-led regional trading agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). To up the ante, China, during the ASEAN summit, promoted its New Silk Road strategy, offering large-scale capital and infrastructure development schemes to countries across the Eurasian landmass as well as the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Worried by the potential loss of its economic influence, the US, which is pushing for its own version of a pan-regional free trading agreement (ie, the Tran-Pacific Partnership) has reportedly opposed the commencement of a feasibility study on the FTAAP, while persuading its top allies to boycott the China-led newly inaugurated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is set to compete against the Japan-led Asian Development Bank.

Alarmed by China’s growing cyber-technology capabilities, the US … went so far as charging certain elements of the PLA with the alleged theft of trade secrets and sensitive commercial information from US companies.

From the perspective of many Asian countries, the burgeoning Sino-American economic rivalry means more trade, investment, and large-scale financing opportunities. Economic competition is largely a healthy rivalry. But Sino-American military competition is an entirely different matter.

During US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Beijing, the PLA openly flaunted its latest stealth fighter prototype (J-31), which some believe are based on hacked designs of Pentagon’s F-35 stealth fighter programme. In 2011, the PLA pulled off a similar stunt, when it boasted its other 5th-generation fighter (J-20) during then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to China.

The aim was clear: To remind the US that China is rapidly catching up in military terms. Alarmed by China’s growing cyber-technology capabilities, the US, earlier this year, went so far as charging certain elements of the PLA with the alleged theft of trade secrets and sensitive commercial information from US companies.

Meanwhile, US defence officials have repeatedly called upon their Chinese counterparts to welcome greater cooperation (or less confrontation) and dialogue in the realm of cyber warfare.

The greatest source of concern, however, are China’s coercive manoeuvres in the Western Pacific, ranging from the harassment of foreign fishing vessels and construction of military garrisons on disputed features, to the (existing and impending) imposition of Air Defence Identification Zone over international waters. There is also growing concern over the rising frequency of incidents involving PLA jet fighters and Chinese para-military vessels taking bold actions against American and Japanese forces, risking a full-blown military escalation.

Overall, it is increasingly clear that China is no longer just an economic powerhouse. An ascendant China – driven by popular nationalism and equipped with advanced technology and vast human and financial capital – has begun to flex its muscle in its backyard like never before.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”