China's Unarmed Arms Race

Beijing's Maritime Build-Up Isn't What It Appears

It’s tempting to conclude, on the basis of China’s recent assertiveness in its near seas, that a naval conflict in Asia is inevitable. Indeed, judging from the military procurement programs initiated by some of China’s neighbors in response -- not to mention Washington’s decision to rebalance its military efforts toward Asia as part of its so-called pivot -- that seems to be precisely what the United States and its allies in the region have concluded.

But before blaming Beijing for initiating an arms race, it’s worth taking a closer look at its policies. Anyone who does will discover that China’s assertiveness usually isn’t armed at all.

First, a little context. China is currently undergoing a huge strategic shift to the maritime domain. This should be seen as the natural progression of a developing power as it moves from seeing itself as a land power primarily concerned with internal convulsions to seeing itself as a maritime power preoccupied with its maritime boundaries. The United States, for instance, turned to the sea only after it had completed its westward expansion, settled its southern boundary following the Mexican-American War, and finalized the purchase of Alaska. Similarly, as Beijing has become more confident in its ability to secure China’s interior and its land borders (many of which were previously disputed but are now resolved), it has shifted its attention to its vulnerabilities in nearby waters.

The importance of this historic shift to the sea is hard to overstate. The counterpiracy operations launched by the PLA Navy since 2008 were the first out-of-area operations for the Chinese military in more than 600 years. More generally, China has come to understand just how much it relies on maritime trade for the supply of energy and raw materials and the passage of its exports, which drive its economic growth. In 2004, President Hu Jintao first mentioned the country's “Malacca dilemma,” noting that 85 percent of China's imported oil transits through the Strait of Malacca

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