China’s People’s Liberation Army is in a bad temper. Although a part of this could be attributed to rising tensions along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, the majority of the briefings and commentaries from the PLA are focussed on the actions of the United States and its officials. These include a virtual declaration of imminent conflict by Defence Secretary Mark Esper, followed by a speech in Hawaii. In both, the overall message was that the US was ready for confrontation with a power that has the temerity to challenge a ‘near-peer’ rival and has little respect for other countries’ interests.
Then there was the Pentagon’s annual report on China, which provided the detailing of the threat. There’s more from Esper’s deputies, but this was enough for the PLA spokesperson to see red, even while Beijing’s media went ballistic.
For India, warnings of Chinese aggressiveness are superfluous given the ongoing conflict. Forecasts of superior Chinese power did not affect Delhi’s decision to meet the threat head-on, something that other countries need to acknowledge. China is certainly a power to reckon with, but it is not quite the dragon that the Pentagon – or Beijing – paints it to be.
When Esper poked China
What seems to have raised China’s ire is Esper’s bold statement: “Unlike America’s Armed Forces, the PLA is not a military that serves its nation, or a constitution – rather, it serves a political entity, the CCP”. Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, declared it “groundless nonsense” and cited the Chinese Constitution to declare the PLA “an armed force created and led by the CPC” with the goal of serving the people wholeheartedly.
One wonders what the families of those unnamed soldiers who died at Galwan on 15 June have to say about that. Esper then went on to call the Indo-Pacific “the epicenter of great power competition with China”. That bears thinking about, especially when the US has now declared the Chinese Navy as “the largest navy in the world“.
US military still superior
According to the report to Congress, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has “an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020”, thus giving an estimate of overall strength, not a ship-to-ship comparison. As naval experts point out, the US is far superior in terms of its nuclear-powered submarines not including the emerging Columbia class dubbed as the quietest in the world.
The US is also far superior in its aircraft carriers, with China’s only two being conventionally powered and thereby losing out on cruising endurance, apart from onboard tech. China does have a formidable fleet of smaller frigates, corvettes and fast attack craft, all of which means that it has an ascendancy in its claimed waters.
The US also has 40 bases at home and nine overseas, which doesn’t include stopover ports like those off the Indian coast. China has three large home ports and one overseas port at Djibouti, but according to the Pentagon, is planning a dozen more, including in Pakistan and Myanmar.
China has caught up fast
But as the report points out, China’s shipbuilding pace is enormous, commissioning 18 naval ships in 2016 to the US’ five. But here again, countries buying Chinese naval ships are primarily Pakistan and Bangladesh, and less so Thailand, Malaysia, Nigeria, Algeria, and Egypt. None are among the top navies, but two are India’s neighbours.
There’s more — that the PLA has the third-largest aviation force in the region, though even paupers like Pakistan would rather buy US F-16 than produce JF-17; that the PLA is the largest army in the world, but hasn’t fought a war since 1979; that the rocket forces are set to double their warheads, though they are now at a low 200 (India has around 150). In sum, a RAND analysis of 2017 concludes that China can now challenge the US in its immediate periphery. Beyond that, it’s at a severe disadvantage. In short, while there is no doubt whatsoever of Beijing’s intention of maintaining a rising trajectory, it’s not there yet.
China’s range of woes
Maintaining the pace is going to be difficult in a pandemic-hit world. China is in a major food crisis as floods hit farmlands, pushing the second-largest wheat producer in the world to import heavily. Domestic soya prices doubled 30 per cent despite release of inventories. China cannot feed itself, and imports of US corn are at its highest since 2014.
Reports also point to 80 million jobless post pandemic even as another 8.7 million joined the ranks of job seekers this year. Experts note an even more serious development. Large banks such as China Construction Bank and the Bank of China have posted the biggest profit drops in a decade. Official figures put the drop in GDP at 6.8 per cent, with the actual figures likely to be higher, despite, or because of, the $559 billion revival package.
Heavy government borrowing has led to Standard & Poor estimating a rise in debt to GDP ratio to 273 per cent. Corporate debt, in particular, is massive, causing a closed loop of bad loans and bank stress. Additionally, data indicates delay in Belt and Road (BRI) projects due to the pandemic, including in Pakistan; cancellation of mega projects such as the $10 billion refinery by Saudi Arabia; and the declared thrust to ‘decouple’ from China by major powers.
Pentagon’s ‘bigger is better’
None of this means that China is collapsing. But it does mean that Esper’s point about China being outwardly strong and inwardly weak may not be that far off the mark. If that is so, then the thrust to power may not be as rapid or as efficient as the Pentagon foresees.
It’s worth remembering that even as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Pentagon’s 1989 report was still extolling its prowess. Xinhua’s accusation that US ‘fear mongering’ is aimed at getting more appropriations from Congress may have some truth; but the threat is fleshed out by the PLA’s own aggressive actions.
The problem, however, is this. An exaggeration of the ‘Chinese threat’ may be counter-productive in keeping that country in check, particularly since the first talk of China’s ‘rising’ power emanated from Beijing itself. This perception is then used for ‘diplomatic dissuasion’.
Analysts need to break down the myth of an indomitable China, without, however, dismissing the very real threat. In some ways, that is what India’s armed forces are doing on the Ladakh border — showing resolution in defence, even while recognising that we are confronting a powerful enemy, who we once thought we could befriend.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.