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China’s substantial investment in the modernization of its military forces to better support its broader geopolitical objectives both in East Asia and beyond is perhaps the most consequential event among a series of geopolitical transitions shaping security and geopolitical environments in the Western Pacific.
The pace and trajectory of this modernization is rooted in to two galvanizing events of the 1990s. The overwhelming success of U.S. operations against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War underscored how ill-prepared the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was for the high-tech battlefield of modern warfare, while the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis demonstrated China’s impotence to resist U.S. naval power projection even in pursuit of the most core of China’s core interests.
The result has been a substantial and prolonged budgetary commitment to the development of a suite of linked asymmetric and advanced capabilities designed to deny access to the Western Pacific to potential competitors.
Prioritized investment areas include:

  • Increased operating range—Development of a more capable “blue water” navy, including China’s first aircraft carrier, and strategic lift to enable operations further away from China’s coast and, eventually, to effectively project power;
  • Challenging key competitors—The introduction of two stealthy fifth-generation fighter jet programs to rival the F-22 and the in-development F-35 as well as enhanced undersea capability to challenge U.S. undersea dominance;
  • Lethality—The development of a large quantity of a wide-variety of longer-range ballistic and cruise missiles designed to overwhelm missile defenses of ships at sea—including carriers—and military installations out to Guam;
  • Space / C4ISTAR: The deployment of the Beidou Navigation Satellite system that will increase the resilience and sophistication of China’s C4ISTAR capabilities, a critical component in ensuring that all potential adversaries in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) cordon are detected and effectively targeted;
  • Information Operations: The implementation of cyber capabilities designed to collect intelligence and intellectual property and put at risk advanced and highly-networked platforms and systems.
The steady development of these A2/AD capabilities has created considerable concern and competitive responses from Washington, Tokyo and elsewhere in East Asia. It also has implications for corporate planners and risk managers.

China’s continued efforts to acquire advanced technologies to further the country’s military modernization and its broader national development are reliant—in part—on cyber-espionage and linkages between China’s academic community, civilian economy and indigenous defense industry, which allow China to circumvent Western arms export bans.
Companies and governments seeking to trade in dual-use and high-tech items with Chinese commercial entities face complex export control challenges—and therefore political, geopolitical, economic and reputational risks—as well as intellectual property perils that are increasingly difficult to detect and manage.
Moreover, China’s modernization is challenging the stabilizing imbalances in military competitions critical to the configuration of power along the Western Pacific. This transition is occurring within the competitive context of intensifying border and boundary disputes, increased incidents of “near misses” and provocative activities in the East and South China Seas and a growing sense of hyper-nationalism in Northeast Asia. All these factors raise the possibility of rapidly evolving geopolitical or military crises emerging from miscalculation, miscommunication or accidental escalation in the Western Pacific.
Tate Nurkin is managing director, consulting and thought leadership, for IHS Aerospace, Defense, and Security
Posted December 5, 2014

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