When one considers the nations with which China shares a common land frontier and mentally calculates the “comprehensive national power” of North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia, it is clear that China need not worry unduly about the threat of invasion from a neighboring state. Today there are no serious continental military threats—save for nuclear weapons which China deters with her own nuclear weapons—to China’s continental predominance. Being secure against invasion is only part of the continental dominance equation.
Being able to intimidate continental neighbors with the capability to invade is the other side of the dominance coin. This capability exists, but with some important caveats. Although Vietnam gave China a bloody nose in 1979, the operational capabilities of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and PLA have gone in opposite directions since that time. The PAVN is a shadow of its former self while the PLA has continued to gradually improve. If China chose to invade Vietnam and to pay a heavy price, Vietnam would lose. It is hard to imagine how India and China could find enough suitable terrain to get at one another in a militarily decisive way. They can punish but not conquer one another.
To a certain degree, the same situation exists between China and Russia. But if we consider just the Russian Far East, the balance tips decisively in favor of China. The Chinese could seize much of the Russian Far East and hold it for a very long time. The threat of nuclear war obviously makes this a fanciful proposition in terms of intentions—but the capability is there. An important exception to being able to intimidate militarily its continental neighbors might be a united Korea. It is possible to imagine a united Republic of Korea (ROK) Army dug in along the Yalu and Tumen, with the United States alongside, holding off a Chinese attack.
With this possible exception, this brief analysis appears to confirm the truth of the observation that China is the dominant power on the continent of Asia. While this power is real, it is also limited by the other realities of the geography of Asia. The vastness of the East Asian region is a major limiter, as is the fact that many of the most important countries of Asia, in terms of wealth, resources, technology, and military capability, do not about China. They are on the rimland of the Asian continent or are island and archipelagic states. They are beyond the direct grasp of China’s single most important military capability: its huge army.
Geography limits the ability of China to be militarily preeminent in all of Asia because the PLA is woefully unbalanced in terms of military capability. Its ability to project militarily decisive force beyond China’s immediate neighbors is almost non-existent. The sort of military capability required to accomplish a projection mission, principally naval and air forces, is in most cases either rudimentary, obsolete, small, or nonexistent. Forces to control the sea and airspace around and over a non-contiguous objective, to lift large numbers of troops by sea or air, to conduct surveillance around “maritime Asia,” and to conduct sustained long-range bombardment from the air are not in the PLA inventory. (The PLA’s conventional ballistic missile force is an obvious strength and exception to this litany.)
There are good and sensible, as well as uniquely Chinese, reasons why the PLA developed as it has. The threat, Japanese or Nationalist, was in China; manpower was abundant, but technology and modern equipment were not; the very nature of a revolution means that the decisive military action takes place on the ground; and the fact that in Chinese military history, at least until the 19th and 20th centuries, threats have come from the north.
Military historians and geo-strategists can also discern some more universal factors at work when they compare China and traditional European “continental” powers. Certainly Germany, Russia, and, for much of its modern military history, France have also neglected maritime and force-projection capabilities and lavished resources and prestige on ground forces. Like China, these historically army-dominated military cultures developed because of the geographic circumstances of the respective nations. But, unlike China, none of them had the luxury of militarily dominating their continent except for fleeting periods under Napoleon and Hitler.
Throughout modern history the successful domination of Europe by a single power has been seen as very destabilizing and worth fighting unlimited wars to prevent, while China’s implicit domination of Asia today is greeted with near equanimity—certainly in the United States. (The closer geographically to China, the less equanimous, particularly if a territorial dispute is involved.) The fact that China is the dominant military power on the Asian continent is not considered destabilizing and has not triggered an arms race. Continental neighbors, following the withering of Communist solidarity, have not sought collective security regimes to balance China’s dominance, although one can make the case that Vietnam’s eagerness to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was as much driven by strategic interests as by economic considerations. Vietnam is an exception to the rule precisely because China has been militarily assertive about competing claims in the Tonkin Gulf and South China Sea.
Another reason for equanimity in the face of continental dominance is because so many of Asia’s most important nations lie beyond China’s military reach on the continental rimland or are separated from the continent by expanses of open ocean. Because of geography and the U.S. military presence, Asia is considered stable today, despite the very real concerns over conflict in Korea or between China and Taiwan. Beyond these two pieces of unfinished Cold War business, one other action could destabilize Asia. That would be an attempt by China to grow from a continental to a region-wide “suzerain.”
Geography and China’s economic development now present China with a strategic dilemma. Should it take advantage of its continental dominance and the absence of a serious neighboring threat to reallocate defense resources in a fundamental way toward redressing the projection shortfalls it has? Or, does it accept the fact that important countries of Asia will remain beyond its ability to influence through military intimidation? Certainly, were China to make a choice to become truly serious about developing a region-wide projection capability, those countries currently beyond China’s reach would attempt to restabilize the situation through the development of counter-projection military capabilities, e.g., submarines, surveillance, air defense, and local air superiority, or through alliance with the United States, or both.
We see hedging by rimland and maritime Asian nations in this direction today. But realistically, it is important to appreciate that it would take decades for China to develop such a capability. Security analysts must be able to differentiate between token Chinese military capabilities intended for prestige and showing-the-flag, for example a single medium-size aircraft carrier, which has no real strategic weight, and an attempt to create a truly dominant projection force. One example that comes to mind of the latter would be Wilhelmine Germany’s attempt to outbuild the British Royal Navy. China has apparently decided not to take this destabilizing road. Hopefully this is because it has no desire to seek such a military predominance, but also presumably because it can appreciate that, with the proper mix of U.S. forces in the region, rimland and maritime Asia will always have the ability to “trump” Chinese projection attempts.