China has enjoyed tremendous economic growth over the last thirty years and is on course to remain a key growth engine for the world’s economy. This economic success has enabled China to bolster its military and to take a more active role on the global stage. Leader of China’s Communist Party since 2012, Xi Jinping has envisioned a new “Chinese dream” that would restore China’s lost national greatness. This desire, coupled with global ambitions, has generated a large amount of anxiety in the Western world and Asia, where China’s neighbors are wary of its intentions. That anxiety has translated into several security issues, which can be critically assessed through the lens of realism.
Offensive realism and China’s intentions for regional hegemony
According to realists, the world is in a state of anarchy as there is no central authority. Furthermore, realism emphasizes that the main international actor is the state. Survival is a states’ primary goal, and it can rely only on its security posture as cooperation in the international system is not assumed. Thus, realist state behavior is sometimes referred to as ‘the security dilemma,’ which leads to the capacity building of defense and offensive capabilities within each state, leading to further insecurity. As a subset of realism, offensive realism seeks to maximize the amount of power. For offensive realists, security trumps prosperity as the only safe position is dominance.
As such, offensive realism is a relevant lens to use when assessing China as a security threat, as there are multiple signs that China is seeking to challenge the current international order by becoming the global super power. Indeed, China aims to maximize its military might by building capabilities that translate into insecurity for its regional neighbors and the U.S.
Conversely, Mearsheimer argues, “if China continues to grow economically, it will attempt to dominate Asia.” By 2035, Bloomberg Economics stated “China will have overtaken the U.S. to become the world’s biggest economy“. Some others argue that China faces domestic pressures such as slower economic growth rate and an aging population. But given China’s demography, it is only a matter of time before China surpasses the U.S. both economically and militarily. Also, the U.S. is labeling China as the number one threat to its national security as China builds capabilities to dominate the U.S. and the rest of the world.
A key driver in China’s desire to challenge the international order is nationalism. Chinese nationalism emphasizes the ‘century humiliation’ – a period of Western interventionism in China between 1839 and 1949. China’s nationalist sentiment is seen especially through Xi Jingping’s ‘Chinese dream’ to restore its rightful place as the natural leading world power and contributes to China’s lingering anger and resentment toward Japan and the United States.
China’s Offensive Capacity Building
In the last thirty years, China’s defense spending has grown exponentially to reach $178 billion in 2020. This increase can be explained by the strong performance of its economy and its intention to expand its influence. However, the Chinese government has been inconsistent in reporting its defense budget and has been criticized for its lack of transparency. Some analysts estimate that an extra 33% should be added to get the right level of spending, raising the military expenditures to $230 billion. As the recent white paper about Japan’s Defense highlights, this exponential growth, coupled with a lack of transparency, creates greater concern for states neighboring China. Thus, those conditions create some uncertainties regarding China’s intentions and fuel an arms race as China’s military developments continue to destabilize the balance of power in the region.
China has been steadily investing in offensive capabilities that will allow China to project its power. China is bolstering its “Anti-Access/Area-Denial” (A2/AD) capabilities with additional amphibious helicopter dock ships, anti-ship missiles, and its latest DF-17 hypersonic missile – the first system of its kind to be operational in the world. It has also developed some indigenous capabilities such as fifth generation fighter aircraft (i.e., the J-20 and J-35), comparable with the U.S. F-35 stealth aircraft. Furthermore, China plans to double its stockpile of nuclear warheads in the next decade. While its reserve will remain way below the current U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile (200 versus 3,800), which shows China’s global power ambitions as it seeks to build the most extensive nuclear warhead stockpile in Asia.
Aligned with offensive realism, the development of a blue-water navy will allow China to globally project its power. While some may argue, this development is consistent with the rise of economic power, it is essential to note that the level of China’s blue-water navy capability is in line with its hegemonic ambitions. China has now completed two aircraft carriers with a third in construction. Furthermore, Captain James E. Fanell – former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet – estimates that China will almost double its submarine fleet to reach 110 units by 2030. To address its global ambitions, China is building blue water capabilities faster than Washington can, which demonstrates China’s determination to overtake the U.S. in that aspect. China’s ambitious space program is another area of concern as it seeks to dominate both access and presence in outer space.
Power Competition? China’s Power in the Asia Pacific
According to John Mearsheimer, China is devising its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, much as the U.S. did in the Caribbean and the Gulf, as well as Imperial Japan in the 1930s. To achieve global hegemony, China will seek to push the U.S. out of the Asia-Pacific region. This policy is in line with the offensive realism’s school of thought and the type of military capabilities China is currently building. Indeed, a blue water navy would be instrumental in pushing China’s territories’ boundaries and transforming the South China Sea into a “Chinese lake.”
One of the most strident security threats that China represents is its assertive and revisionist behavior in the South China Sea. In 2009, China claimed an area called the “nine-dash line,” which extends way beyond China’s territorial waters and overlaps with territories belonging to Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan. This area, where transits 80% of China’s oil imports through the Strait of Malacca, bears strategic and geopolitical importance. Besides hosting significant oil and gas resources, it is an area of deep water where Chinese nuclear-powered attack and strategic submarines can navigate with stealth. Furthermore, China has been building airstrips and military bases in the South China Sea to strengthen its ability to project power, raising security tensions with its ASEAN neighbors.
Another severe security issue in the region is China’s claim over Taiwan’s sovereignty. China has launched a “gray zone” warfare, which entails a reunification with Taiwan without firing a single shot. China has been threatening Taiwan with almost daily multiple aircraft sorties toward Taiwan’s airspace, amphibious landing exercises, naval patrols, cyber-attacks, and diplomatic isolation. China has been employing a similar strategy regarding its territorial dispute with Japan in the East China sea, prompting Tokyo to strengthen its Self-Defense Forces.
In addition to its regional revisionism, China has global ambitions with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to expand its sphere of influence in the world. For example, China is gaining more influence at the United Nations, strengthening its ambition to challenge the international status quo. For example, China is leveraging the UN system to support its BRI under the guise of UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). In addition of leading four UN specialized agencies, China was seeking to gain control of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The move sparked some concerns amid multiple violations of property rights through a state-led campaign of cyber exploitation attacks.
In line with offensive realism, the U.S. has been engaged in a containment policy (i.e., Obama’s pivot to Asia, 2012) and is building a coalition with their partners to check Beijing, as the U.S. does not tolerate a peer competitor. However, this containment policy could increase security competition between the U.S. and China, leading to further insecurity: the more the U.S. try to contain China, the more assertive China could become.
To conclude, offensive realism demonstrates that China is a significant security threat to the U.S. and its neighbors in Asia to the extent that it seeks to challenge the status quo by becoming a regional hegemon. While offensive realism shows a pessimistic view of China’s rise, it is also a realistic one. Despite China’s growth recent slowdown, it remains on track to become the leading power globally.
China’s Defense budget’s exponential growth, coupled with a lack of transparency, creates high-level anxiety about its real intentions: does China seek to preserve its survival or desire to become a hegemon? All signs point at the latter, generating significant levels of insecurity with the U.S. and its Asian neighbors.
Based in Asia for more than 10 years, Arnaud Sobrero, a M.A. candidate in International Affairs at King’s College London, is an independent writer focused on defense technology and East Asian affairs.