Qioptiq logo Raytheon

China Defence Capability Continues To Grow By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


chinaflag03 Sep 15. China’s decision to parade an unprecedented level of defence capability to its own people and to the rest of the world in Beijing yesterday supposedly to mark the 70th anniversary of the ending of its war with Japan in 1945 will hopefully not have escaped the notice of western governments that have chosen to close their eyes and ears to China’s determination to dominate the South East Asia region.

Until relatively recently it was the US that in terms of overall defence capability had dominated the seas of the South East Asia region and while US strength remains very prevalent in the region maybe this will not be the case for much longer. China’s rapidly expanding Navy and Air Force may still be smaller than that of the US and have been rather less on display in Beijing than it huge Army and array of tanks and other ground offensive equipment but make no mistake that within just a few more years China will in terms of air power and maritime defence capability be at least equal to the US.

The White House and Pentagon got the message about China’s objectives and intention to rapidly expand its defence capability a long time ago and over the past three years US defence policy has been increasingly directed away from the Middle East and Europe and more towards defence of the South East Asia region.

While China, unlike Russia, poses no immediate threat to the West, save for its claims over Japanese territory in the South China Sea and the speed with which it is seeking to increase both regional and global influence I suspect that there will be few prepared to believe President Xi Jinping when he says that China would never seek hegemony or expansion or to inflict its own past suffering on any nation as he did in Beijing yesterday.

While it is fair to say that in terms of geo-political issues that the US and China both share the same concern over North Korea potentially having and using nuclear weapons they have little else in common. Both are at odd over China’s dangerous claims in the South China Sea and at the centre of all this is Japan, a nation that the US through military defence guarantees and Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security the US has sworn to protect.

The underlying threat to Japan posed by China is one that the US takes very seriously indeed just as the Japanese government does itself. So should the rest of us because if any act of aggression was to occur it would almost bound to impact on the rest of us. Japan is very well protected though and Article 5 of the agreement with the US covers protection of all East China Sea islands administered by Japan including the disputed Senkaku islands.

Japanese military operates on the basis of being a self-defence force (self defence against aggression) but that does not mean that it doesn’t have a formidable array of land, maritime and air power defence capability strength. The Japanese Air Force in 2014 comprised 552 combat capable aircraft, 529 transport aircraft, 741 Helicopters. The Japanese Navy consists 32 Destroyers, 11 frigates, 2 Cruisers, 16 Submarines, 2 aircraft carriers with 78 combat capable aircraft and the Army has 678 tanks and 2,850 Armoured Fighting Vehicles. These figures which exclude massive support equipment capability ISR and vast amounts of land equipment and missile capability are but a small representation of what this island nation has in terms of defence capability. I would estimate that the total number of frontline military personnel in Japan including Ground< Maritime, Naval and Air Defense Forces to be around 247,000 with 57,900 in the reserves.

Unlike countries such as Britain which maintains by comparison miniscule numbers of armed forces personnel and air and maritime equipment capability compared to that of Japan and yet is still the world’s sixth largest economy and you get the picture of just how advanced Japan’s defence forces currently are. We should all be thankful that Japan has, unlike western nations, not taken its eye off the need to maintain adequate defence capability. Japan is than in a very strong position to defend itself from Chinese aggression alone although there is little doubt that Japan would not act against China without US support. In terms of the potential for Chines aggression the hope is that with the US alongside a would-be aggressor of Japan would think twice.

Japan has been increasing spending on defence equipment in recent years and is likely to continue doing so in the years to come. Other South East Asia nations have also expressed concern about the dramatic rise in China’s defence forces and its increasing regional and international dominance. Australia which has strong defence capability of its own but also has the benefit of the US is in support of regional defence has recently signed a 25 year defence cooperation deal with the US. Separately, New Zealand is also protected by the US through defence related partnerships known as the Washington/Wellington Declarations and that were signed between the two nations in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Both Australia and New Zealand see China as being the greatest threat to regional security.

Adding even more relevance to the determination of the Beijing administration to place China on an equal footing with the US in terms of global reach and dominance I venture to suggest that it was no coincidence that yesterday on the same day as the Beijing rally no less than five Chinese navy ships including three combatants were spotted by the US Navy sailing in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Given that President Obama has been touring and speaking on subjects such as global warming in Alaska during this very week the passing of the three ships close to Alaska is a poignant reminder of China’s new relevance and intentions. Indeed, following recent joint Chinese/Russian navy exercises while no actual threat was posed by the five passing Chinese Navy ships and all remained in international waters another sensible suggestion for choosing this particular days is China presenting a signal that it is not prepared to see Russia and the US to dominate the now fast opening up Arctic region.

Yesterday’s military parade by China is a timely reminder of its military strength even if it is well known that its 2.3 million strong Army is rife with corruption. Ill equipped as most of the recent spending emphasis has been concentrated on ships, submarines, military fast jets and missiles the real strength of the China Peoples Liberation Army lies in its pure mass. The Chinese President said last night that the Army will itself be cut back by 300,000 personnel bring the total strength to 2 million. Chinese Air Force personnel numbers are just under 400,000 and another 26,000 are employed by Naval Aviation. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) had no fewer than 2,193 combat capable aircraft in 2014 whilst Naval Aviation has an additional 332. The Navy (PLA has no less than 70 submarines including 4 SSBN (Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear) and 70 surface combatant ships including one aircraft carrier, 15 Destroyers, 54 Frigates, 216 Corvettes, 53 Mine Warfare and Countermeasure ships together with another 212 logistics and support vessels. The total number of ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) launchers that China has is estimated to be 66, MRBM (Medium Range Ballistic Missile) 134, SRBM (Short Range Ballistic Missile) 252. Details of Peoples Liberation Army equipment are far too vast in terms of numbers, type and scale to list here although in terms of personal protective equipment the PLA is considered to be very weak.

The above gives the reader some idea of the scale of the Peoples Liberation Army in terms of its Navy, Air Force, Marine and Army make up. In a word ‘massive’ springs to mind. While the US$130bn China defence budget appears small when set against the $581bn that the US spends it should be remembered that China is able to produce and operate defence equipment at maybe as much as 50% below the cost of the US.  Currently the US has considerably more reach than China and from a technical standpoint US defence equipment can be considered as being far superior to that of the PLA. But for how much longer? Over the years China has, just as Russia did sixty years ago, ‘acquired’ significant amounts of technical data from the West and other sources. How it has done that is not for me to question here but the point is that it would be wrong to consider China’s technical and build expertise as being that far behind that of the West. While the growing strength of its air power and submersible capability demonstrates this well nowhere is this perhaps more obvious than the 60 satellites communications, navigation and positioning, including sophisticated ELINT/SIGINT (Electronic Intelligence and Signals Intelligence respectively) satellites that China now has in orbit.

CHW (London 3rd September 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785



Back to article list