China’s Race for Arms

Date01 June 2016
Published date01 June 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, India.
Advisor, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, India.
Corresponding author:
Pratnashree Basu, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, India.
China’s Race for Arms
Pratnashree Basu1
Rakhahari Chatterji2
China has been investing considerable financial as well as intellectual
resources for strengthening, improving, and maintaining its defense esta-
blishment. The Chinese military establishment continues to constantly
keep itself abreast of advances in both technology and tactics. However,
China’s race for arms and the urgency with which it wants to acquire
competence in weapons technology are matters of serious concern
for its big and small neighbors, not only those with many of whom it
has territorial and maritime disputes but also countries of the Asia-
Pacific region like Australia and the USA. It remains to be seen how
far China, despite its race for arms and competence, is able to convince
its neighbors and the world that its rise would indeed continue to
be peaceful. In this backdrop, this article tracks the evolution of
Chinese military policy in the recent years in terms of strategies, struc-
tures, finances, and development, and identifies the weaknesses of the
military establishment. It attempts to understand China’s race for
arms in the light of the significance of realist thought in understanding
world politics.
China’s military, military modernization, Chinese military strategy, China’s
defense budget, China’s arms exports, China’s arms production
Jadavpur Journal of
International Relations
20(1) 1–32
2016 Jadavpur University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0973598416661571
2 Jadavpur Journal of International Relations 20(1)
In the post-World War II world, armed forces for any country comprising
army, navy, and air force are or at least claimed to be reserved primarily
for defense purposes. But they also serve another important purpose. The
strength of the armed forces of any state speaks for its economic resources
and, therefore, its ability to effectively defend itself as well as launch
offensive moves, should that be necessary. Despite the fact that the
frequency of inter-state warfare has comparatively decelerated in the
post-World War II era, its possibility no state rules out.
In today’s world some kind of a defense force is required simply for
the entitlement to statehood. But how strong the defense force should
be or how much resources should be committed to defense depends on
the threat perception as well as the ambition of individual states. These
are most evident in the steady rise in China’s defense spending and in its
efforts to obtain and develop better equipment and technology.
The rise of China in the Asia-Pacific over the last decade has gene-
rated considerable interest within the region as well as globally and fuelled
speculations on its implications for world politics. However, despite the
fact that China has increased its defense budget dramatically, and is in
the process of acquiring advanced weapons systems on one hand and
investing in research and technology to develop its own weapons systems
on the other, the possibility of any military confrontation does not look
imminent. Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that the atmosphere in the
Asia-Pacific is becoming tenser and states within the region, big and
small, are feeling a sense of uncertainty, or even insecurity.
The central inquiry that concerns this article is how the rise of China in
terms of its military strength is an inevitable incidence following from
its economic boom and efforts to regain what it perceives as its rightful
place in Asia or the world. This article will discuss the dramatic rise in
China’s defense capability and draw a parallel with the country’s race for
arms and the significance of realist thought in understanding world politics.
The discussion, however, will be confined to conventional weapons.
The Evolution of Chinese Military Strategy
and Modernization
China of the twenty-first century is different from the China of previous
decades in that it is much more vocal, assertive, and willing to engage.
The country has come a long way from the time of Deng Xiaoping
when the guiding principle was ‘hide your strength and bide your time’.
Basu and Chatterji 3
The time is probably nearing because China is no longer hiding its
strength. Defensive realism teaches us that nations strive for power for
reaching the goal of self-preservation. Offensive realism, on the other
hand, teaches us that nations aim for power so that they can project it.
If the standard code during the 1980s and 1990s was to develop strength
and capability (primarily economic and, therefore, subsequently military),
from the turn of the century there has been a gradual but marked move
toward utilizing that capability in making its presence felt. It can be
argued, therefore, that China has moved from practicing defensive to
the offensive form of realism.
Military modernization in China started largely under the aegis of Deng
Xiaoping. There took place a marked shift from Mao Zedong’s strategy of
people’s war, which entailed active defense to one of forward defense
(Rajagopalan 2009: 29–31). Before the 1970s, the People’s Liberation
Army (PLA) was guided by the doctrine of people’s war, which revolved
around political mobilization of workers and peasants, mobile guerrilla
warfare, protection of bases, and constantly eroding the strength of the
enemy. These principles, accepted and introduced by Mao, became the
key elements with regard to the conduct of the PLA for the better part
of the twentieth century. Once the military modernization process began,
the approach of the PLA was changed to a great extent. The Chinese
military doctrine underwent a number of new accommodations and
alterations in its outlook under the new viewpoint of ‘people’s war under
modern conditions’.
In a recent commentary, Michael Raska (2014) writes that there have
been four waves of defense modernization in China. The first is the
Maoist era when China relied on Soviet Union’s assistance for techno-
logical advancement as well as for defense industrial strategy in which
the country focused on the development of conventional and special-
ized weapons and innovation was limited. The second wave was the
demilitarization era under Deng Xiaoping during which the promotion of
science and technology was primarily geared toward economic develop-
ment marking a shift from militarization to economic liberalization. The
aim was to apply technology to both civilian as well as military uses,
known as the Junmin Jiehe strategy. Of special importance during this
period was the ongoing national high technology programme, also
referred to as the 863 Programme, otherwise known as the National
Hi-tech Research and Development Programme, which sought to expand
seven tactical priority areas, namely, space, biotechnology, manufac-
turing technology, energy, laser technology, and advanced materials.

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