The military rise of China remains unclear, and authorities prefer to resort to cyber warfare instead

On the second day of the 2BS Forum, participants discussed China’s influence in geopolitical upheavals, as well as the significance and capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA), which, according to its own plans, aspires to be one of the strongest in the world. Panelists who participated in the discussion on Beijing’s Long Arm: Deciphering China’s Military Rise and its Ripple Effect on European Security believe that China is not inclined towards traditional warfare but rather prefers sophisticated methods of warfare such as cyber warfare. They also suggest that China carefully controls the information it releases, both domestically and internationally.

Helena Legarda, a lead analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), mentioned that we still lack a comprehensive assessment of China’s military capabilities.

We have to say it’s a bit of a mixed picture. We’ve heard many policymakers, including the Secretary-General of NATO, calling on China to be more transparent about its military modernization process. And that’s because there are many things that we don’t know when it comes to China’s military capabilities. What we do know is that China has been engaged in a process of military building and modernization, and that’s been going on for several years, but it’s really accelerated since 2015 or 2016. We know that at this point, China has the largest navy in the world in terms of the number of ships. I think it’s currently around 355 ships, Legarda assessed.

She mentioned that China also has the largest aviation capabilities in the region and is third in the world currently.

We know that China’s defense budget or defense expenditure has increased very rapidly over the last few years. It’s roughly tripled since 2010. But the process is quite opaque, so we don’t have a complete assessment of the details, even more so in terms of certain areas or specific military services or types of capabilities they have. If we go back to the defense budget, for example, we know the total official number that the Chinese government publishes, but it also seems quite clear that significant spending categories are left out of this number, things like research and development, Legarda explained.

Mark Cozad, a Professor and Senior International Defense Researcher, stated that we are currently witnessing a significant expansion of China’s nuclear forces and capabilities. He mentioned that for a long time, since the early days of China’s nuclear development, we had a good understanding based on their explanations of the state policy regarding the purpose of these nuclear forces. This understanding was based on the nature of the force structure, the types of systems they possessed, and perhaps even more importantly, the types of systems they did not have. Additionally, it was understood procedurally through the way they managed these forces. However, currently, we are at a moment when we are seeing a very significant expansion of China’s nuclear forces and capabilities. Cozad believes that it is important to try to interpret the reasons behind these changes, which he considers inherently destabilizing.

He also pointed out that the fundamental point to note is that we can very easily see that China’s policy of non-use of nuclear weapons remains consistent, as it has been since the beginning. When considering why they are doing this and examining their equations for this behavior, their role in the context of U.S. and allied conventional strike capabilities, and the role of missile defense, some of the earlier discussions from the early 2000s shaped China’s thinking about these issues. However, Cozad emphasized that it remains unclear whether these are the driving factors for these changes or if there is something more to it.

David Toman, an analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy, commented that when he studies China, he often thinks of what former US President Bill Clinton once said: Trying to censor the internet in China would be like nailing jello to the wall.

However, a few years later, we can see that China has been quite successful in building this great protective wall that prevents the entry and exit of information. So, to a large extent, we only know what China wants us to know. As mentioned earlier, we know that it has the largest military in the world in terms of active personnel. We are aware of some of its capacities and capabilities. We know the goals and ambitions they have – to be fully modernized by 2035 and to be a world-class top-notch military by 2050. But one thing we haven’t touched on yet and is, in my opinion, one of the biggest weaknesses – a significant lack of combat experience – said Toman.

The last military conflict, he says, occurred in 1979 in a conflict with Vietnam, and the outcome was not very flattering for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Thus, there is this negative experience and an additional lack of combat experience. But, of course, the PLA is aware of this problem and is trying to compensate by bringing in elite personnel. So, they are trying to get close to former military officials from NATO countries, especially from the United States, because these retired experts and officials are easy targets. It’s not like the PLA can approach them directly, you know, but it can be done in other ways. So, it doesn’t even seem that simple for these former officials to provide their knowledge to the PLA – assessed Toman.

He said that, in the case of the PLA, it’s good news that they lack that kind of combat experience.

Chinese society is not inclined towards war at all because they are accustomed to their living standards. There is this narrative that war is something negative, something costly and that peaceful growth is much better. So, there are other aspects. I would say that, in some sense, the PLA is now at the peak of its game because, in addition to military construction, there are many things they have to pay attention to in the future. The economy is slowing down, the population is aging, and China has to deal with the consequences of its one-child policy, which is reflected in Chinese demographics. And as you can imagine, Chinese parents are not very excited about sending their only child into war. So, of course, that’s why the PLA is now focusing a lot, as you said, on cyber warfare, and psychological operations, and they are also investing heavily in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems and technologies like drones, and so on. So, if they decide to gain some combat experience, it doesn’t cost as many lives – Toman concluded.