Correction Note: A previous version of this story failed to note that the Institute for China-American Studies is funded by the Hainan Nanhai Research Foundation in China. It also miscredited the quote by Helena Legarda, who was speaking in a Mercator Institute for China Studies podcast to Johannes Heller. The original story failed to properly identify the source of that quote.
China's military says it is focused on harnessing new technologies to "fight and win wars" in the future and is competing with the United States in boosting the regional influence of its People Liberation Army.
A new government "White Paper" highlights how new technologies like artificial intelligence and cloud computing are essential for the military, saying new capabilities under development are “long-range precision, intelligent, stealthy and unmanned." At the same time, the paper laments that China still lags behind other countries in terms of military technology.
"While it is true the PLA still lags behind other militaries, in particular the United States', in some technologies, Beijing has launched a major campaign to close this technological gap with the West. Policies and strategies like civil-military integration or Made in China 2025, among others, are helping the Chinese military to quickly catch up with or surpass foreign militaries," said Helena Legarda in a Mercator Institute of China Studies (MERICS) Podcast with Johannes Heller.
The PLA has made huge strides over the past decade-and-a-half in terms of technological catch-up, said Sourabh Gupta, senior fellow at the Institute for China-American Studies in Washington, which is funded by the Hainan Nanhai Research Foundation in China.
"That said, from a strictly military-technological perspective, the PLA is still clearly out-matched by key Western militaries as well as by the Russians. So while they have downplayed in the White Paper how competitive they have become, it is true that still lag quite-some-way behind the leaders in this space," Gupta said.
In the paper, China claimed that it has reduced military spending as a share of gross domestic product.
A different view was provided by defense think tank, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which said China is the second-largest spender of defense after the United States. Beijing increased its military expenditure by 5.0 per cent to $250 billion in 2018, it said. By comparison, the U.S. spent about $639 billion on its defense the same year.
US Tech Concerns
Beijing's emphasis on high-tech military solutions is significant because the U.S. government this past year has voiced increasing concerns over China's involvement in cutting-edge technologies such as ultra-fast 5G data networks. Washington has effectively barred Chinese companies such as Huawei from building 5G networks in the U.S. and argued U.S. allies should enact similar bans.
U.S. officials say China's trade and foreign policies are aimed at boosting Chinese influence overseas and stealing foreign technology to enhance Chinese capabilities.
“Many of these emerging technologies are inherently dual-use, meaning that they have both civilian and military uses,” Legarda said adding, “Therefore, it is likely that the Trump administration is considering how these sensitive technologies could give China an economic advantage, but also how they may aid in the modernization of the PLA,” Legarda said.
China's trade and defense policies were highlighted by the new U.S. defense secretary during his first trip to Asia this past week.
“We also stand firmly against a disturbing pattern of aggressive behavior, destabilizing behavior from China. This includes weaponizing the global commons, using predatory economics and debt for sovereignty deals, and promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations’ intellectual property” the new U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in Sydney during his first ever overseas trip on Sunday.
Foreign military bases
Beijing's policy paper also argues that China should build military facilities in foreign locations, signaling that Beijing would continue with efforts in this direction. China has already established a military support base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
“The PLA actively promotes international security and military cooperation and refines relevant mechanisms for protecting China’s overseas interests,” said the white paper titled ‘China’s National Defence in the New Era’, which was released by the Information Office of the State Council, China’s cabinet.
“To address deficiencies in overseas operations and support, it builds far seas forces, develops overseas logistical facilities, and enhances capabilities in accomplishing diversified military tasks,” the ministry said trying to justify its program of building overseas facilities.
Military experts including Chinese academics have been debating for some time whether China would try to create more military bases in different foreign locations as it has done in Djibouti.
“While there is no official information on this, it seems very likely that China is already considering where it will set up its new overseas military facility,” Legarda said. “Potential locations include somewhere near the South China Sea, Gwadar in Pakistan or other places in the Indian Ocean”.
There have been reports that China is close to obtaining access to a naval base in Cambodia, although the Cambodian government has denied it.
“Much like we have seen in Djibouti, tensions and conflicts between the two countries are likely to emerge if China builds another base near a U.S. military facility,” Legarda said.
Gupta thinks such attempts by China might result in conflicts with the host country concerned rather than with the U.S.
"Already there have been tensions with host countries, Australia being an example, which have allowed Chinese bidders to make private acquisitions near sensitive facilities,” he said.
He pointed out that U.S. and Chinese military representatives have operated at the same time out of Karachi’s naval air station on piracy matters.