China’s military provokes its neighbors, but the message is for the United States

In the same week that Chinese and Indian soldiers engaged in a deadly fight, one of China’s submarines sailed through the waters near Japan, prompting a riot of planes and ships to track their stealth movements. Chinese fighter jets and at least one bomber buzzed Taiwan’s territorial airspace almost daily.

With the world distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, China’s military has invaded its neighbors’ territories on several fronts throughout the spring and now in the summer, flexing its military might in ways that have raised alarms in Asia and Washington.

China’s military assertiveness reflects a growing sense of confidence and capacity, but also one of confrontation, particularly with the United States over the pandemic, the fate of Hong Kong, and other issues that China considers central to its sovereignty and national pride.

China claims that all of its recent operations are defensive, but each increases the risk of a military engagement, whether intentional or not. That appears to be what happened on the night of June 15, when Chinese and Indian soldiers fought along their disputed border in the Himalayas.

It was the bloodiest clash on that border since 1967. According to Chinese analysts, Indian news reports and US intelligence reports, it also caused an undisclosed number of Chinese deaths, the country’s first in combat since its war with Vietnam in 1979.

“I think the chance of an accidental shot being fired is increasing,” Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for Southern China Maritime Studies, said at a conference in Beijing this week, presenting a report on US military activity in the region.

China has long acted forcefully to defend the country’s territory and interests, but now it is operating with more military firepower than ever.

“Their power is growing at a much faster rate than the other regional powers,” said Adam Ni, director of the China Policy Center, a research organization in Canberra, Australia. “This has really given Beijing more tools at its disposal to push its more assertive and aggressive agenda.”

The increase in operational pace this year follows a military modernization program that began in the 1990s and accelerated under China’s ambitious and authoritarian leader Xi Jinping. It constantly purged the high military ranks of corrupt or insufficiently loyal officers and shifted the People’s Liberation Army’s focus from heavy ground battles to more nimble joint operations using air, naval, and, increasingly, cyber weapons.

Mr. Xi has also made the military an even higher priority in the wake of the pandemic. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang announced last month that the military budget would increase 6.6 percent this year, to nearly $ 180 billion, about a quarter of the US defense budget, even as overall government spending will decrease due to the global economic slowdown.

At the National People’s Congress, Mr. Xi noted the role the military played in Wuhan, where the outbreak in China began, and warned that the pandemic posed challenges to national security. The country, he said, should “intensify preparations for military struggles, flexibly conduct actual military training and vastly improve the ability of our military to carry out military missions.”

The Chinese military is widely believed to be far behind the US military, but it has caught up in some areas, including expanding its naval power and deploying anti-aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles.

At the end of last year, China was believed to have at least 335 warships, more than the United States, which has 285, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service last month in Washington.

The report says China now poses “a great challenge to the ability of the US Navy to achieve and maintain control of oceanic blue water areas in the western Pacific, the first such challenge that the Navy of the US has faced since the end of the Cold War. ”

China has stepped up its military activity near Taiwan after the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, won re-election in January by defeating a candidate considered less hostile to Beijing.

One of China’s two aircraft carriers sailed along Taiwan’s east coast in April, accompanied by five other warships. Chinese planes have repeatedly buzzed Taiwanese airspace in the past week, in what analysts said was evidence of the island’s defenses. China plans to conduct a military exercise in August that will simulate the capture of Taiwan’s Pratas Islands, a group of atolls known in Mandarin as the Dongsha Islands.

China has also expanded its claims to the South China Sea, creating two new administrative districts to govern the islands it controls in the Paracel and Spratly chains and threatening other neighbors.

In April, the Chinese Coast Guard rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat. The same month, a Chinese government research ship stalked an oil tanker in waters claimed by Malaysia as its own, prompting the United States and Australia to send four warships to control the situation. The Philippines filed a formal diplomatic complaint after a Chinese warship aimed its attack radar at a Philippine naval ship.

In the East China Sea, the patrol conducted by a Chinese submarine last week was the first detected since 2018, when Japanese warships forced a nuclear attack submarine to the surface. It follows mounting tensions over the Japanese administration of the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands.

“When China sees that it is being questioned in these other sovereignty disputes in this era, it will respond with a very harsh line,” M. Taylor Fravel, director of Security Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on the Chinese military, said.

“China never had the ability to assert itself in the maritime domain until really in the last 10 or 15 years,” Fravel said, noting the steady build-up of China’s naval and air forces. He added: “That has allowed China to file its claims in the East and South China Sea more than before.”

It has also intensified patrols in the skies of the region. General Charles Q. Brown Jr., commander of the Pacific Air Force, who will soon take up the post of chief of staff of the Air Force, said Wednesday that until recently, China had only occasionally flown missions from its H-bombers. 6, but I was doing it now. almost daily.

Those bombers, while old, have been renovated and outfitted with new missiles that China displayed at the military parade last October to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Despite all its recent activity, the Chinese military remains untested. The confrontation with the Indians was an isolated fight with rocks and sticks, not with firearms, so it was not a test of Chinese military readiness. He did raise questions about training and discipline.

Details of the incident remain incomplete and impossible to independently verify, but according to some reports in the Indian media, a tense but manageable situation got out of control because inexperienced replacements from other parts of Tibet failed to observe customary protocols for disable confrontations. .

China has not disclosed the number of victims on its side, although a report by India Today, a major news outlet, said that Indian forces turned over the bodies of 16 Chinese soldiers. A US intelligence official in Washington suggested that China deliberately concealed its losses, which were comparable to India’s, ranging from 20 to 30.

Song Zhongping, an independent military analyst, said the figure was lower than the Indian claims, but that it would not be released “to avoid stimulating intense sentiment in India.”

While tensions with India are significant, they are not China’s top military priority: confronting what it views as US aggression in China’s neighborhood.

The United States has also intensified its military activity in the region. It sent American warships through the South China Sea and increased support for Taiwan and its military, issues that emerged this month when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in Hawaii. .

The Chinese blame the United States for the tensions in the region, accusing the US military of routinely interfering in a region where it has no territorial claims.

Zhu Feng, executive director of the China South China Sea Center for Collaborative Studies, who also contributed to the report on U.S. military activity there, warned that the possibility of confrontation would increase as the U.S. presidential campaign heated up.

“The United States has immobilized China with both claws of the problems of the South China Sea and Taiwan,” he said.

The reports and investigation were contributed by Julian Barnes in Washington, Claire Fu in Beijing, and Motoko Rich in Tokyo.