Has China surprised the Pentagon?

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For several months, observers of the Defense environment in the United States will not have failed to notice the obvious excitement which is agitating the Pentagon as well as American think tanks and political institutions. And if in Europe, our attention is mainly focused on the Middle East and Russia, in Washington, there is only one subject: China. To the point that we can now wonder if, like the Japanese Empire in the 30s, the development of Chinese military tools would not have taken the Pentagon completely by surprise...

It must be admitted that China has remarkably carried out the modernization of its defense tools, just as it carried out the economic reform which propelled it from the status of an emerging nation to that of a global superpower in less than 30 years. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and despite the massacre in Tian'anmen Square, Beijing was able to position itself as an economic and political partner of the West on the majority of international issues, attracting investments, and technology transfers, with the promise of a huge construction market, and an efficient and cheap workforce. All major Western companies, American and European, jockeyed to gain the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party, which retained control over all of the country's strategic issues. And Western states even turned a blind eye to the obvious evidence of reverse engineering and espionage that presented itself to them, so as not to offend the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Chinese Harbon Z9 Defense Analysis | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts | International technological cooperation Defense
The Z-9 combat helicopter is a modified licensed version of the Aerospace Dolphin

Internationally, Beijing took the opportunity to establish close relationships with many international defense companies, so that it could modernize its forces, in an effort that began in the late 80s but continued until not long ago: Italian embedded systems, Israeli electronics, French missiles and helicopters, American materials, no one wanted to leave these promising markets. At the same time, and in a manner as discreet as it was effective, Chinese defense industries stocked up on skills, relying on technologies acquired (or stolen) from the West and the Russians, as well as on a new generation of engineers and researchers, often trained partly in Europe and the United States. This is how this generation of highly competent technicians was born in the major industrial centers of Beijing and Shanghai. Here again, no one noticed Beijing's discreet shift from the position of customer to that of manufacturer of its defense equipment, despite the appearance of new combat planes like the J10 or surprisingly modern ships like destroyers. Type 052 or the Type 039 submarines. Nor did we pay attention to the de facto embargo gradually imposed by Chinese diplomacy on the subject of Taiwan, by requiring Western companies to choose between Beijing and Taipei, before extend this embargo not only to companies, but to their supervisory countries. This is how many European and American defense companies were forced to remove the island, independent since 1947, from their list of clients, so as not to suffer the ire of the Chinese Communist Party.

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China thus continued to lead the West by the nose until 2012, and the coming to power of current President Xi Jinping. Appointed general secretary of the Communist Party and president of the central military commission on November 15, 2012, the “young” 59-year-old Chinese leader quickly undertook to bring China out of its ambiguous position, to implement an openly nationalist program, based on a rapid reform of the People's Liberation Army through the professionalization of part of the workforce and the deflation of the rest, as well as the acceleration of defense investments. Thus, the Chinese Defense budget will have multiplied by 8 in less than 20 years, with an increase of more than 10% per year since 2012, to now be the second largest budget in the world after the United States. At the same time, the Chinese defense industry and defense research were provided with very significant additional credits, leading to the acceleration of research programs and deliveries, thanks in particular to the modernization and extension of industrial infrastructures. Thus, for example in the naval field, the production of combat ships increased from less than 50.000 tonnes per year in 2012 to more than 150.000 tonnes today. And yet, until 2015, the West continued to see China as a privileged political and economic partner, and in no way a competitor or potential adversary.

Corvette Type056 Defense Analysis | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts | International technological cooperation Defense
More than 056 units of the Type 056 and 40A corvette were built in just a few years by the Chinese naval industry.

What was supposed to happen, eventually happened. In just a few years, Beijing acquired an industrial and technological base producing equipment comparable to the equipment in service in Western forces, with production rates long forgotten in Europe or the United States: more than 1500 new armored vehicles each year, 600 new aircraft, 25 combat ships and 3 submarines of different types. In addition, many systems still experimental in the West have already entered service with the Chinese forces, such as missiles and hypersonic gliders. Even in disruptive technologies, such as directed energy weapons, electromagnetic propulsion or quantum radars, Chinese engineers seem to have taken precedence over their American and European counterparts. Thus prepared, with a new armed force in full evolution designed not only to protect the national territory, as was the case of the PLA for 75 years, but to be able to constitute expeditionary forces which can be projected, and for, if necessary , gain the upper hand over the US Navy in "proximity" to the Chinese coast (including a radius of 3000 km), the Chinese authorities openly revealed their ambitions: to be able to match, and exceed, the American military power of by 2050.

Like Vladimir Putin's Russia which designates NATO as its main adversary, Xi Jinping's China therefore designates the United States as the rival to be dethroned, without having a doctrine as directive as the Russian doctrine. In fact, in just a few years, Washington has gone from President Obama's Pivot to the Pacific, to an open trade war with Beijing started by President Trump shortly after his election, facing a China now perfectly armed economically and militarily to respond. . And the Pentagon, which in 2014 still considered the Middle East and counter-insurgency issues as major, and the Russian emergence as the agitation of a regional power, to find itself in a few years facing two potential adversaries with important means of high-intensity combat, projection and deterrence, which moreover act in concert, and having already made significant technological breakthroughs giving them notable tactical and strategic advantages.

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Putin Xi Jinping Analyzes Defense | Armed Forces Budgets and Defense Efforts | International technological cooperation Defense
Is the good Sino-Russian understanding real or a facade? the fact is that it makes the Pentagon fear the possibility of a double front in Europe and the Pacific.

We can therefore admit, today, that China has indeed surprised, if not the Pentagon which has been carefully following Chinese and Russian developments for many years, in any case the American and European political elite, like a wolf in disguise. sheep. And these two countries, whose international trajectory is relatively similar, managed to reconstitute major military and industrial tools without the slightest Western reaction for more than a decade.

However, the transformation of these two military powers into a real superpower is not complete. Thus, China does not yet have sufficient submarine assets, a high seas fleet and a modern air force to openly challenge the United States, and Russia still lacks modern air assets and armored vehicles to gain the advantage over NATO. In addition, these two countries must perfect their global network of influence vis-à-vis non-openly aligned third countries. But the current load and investment plan, both in Russia and in China, as well as the significant efforts deployed by Moscow and Beijing to seduce or economically force countries to support them, tend to bring the ultimate deadline closer, at beyond which the advantage will indeed have changed sides.

This explains the American excitement today, which intends to implement technological, military and economic means to close the gap and regain the ascendancy over the Sino-Russian couple. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Europeans, who still remain locked in a probably idealized vision of the world, refusing to see that each day that passes without awareness reduces the chances of rebalancing the balance of powers, and therefore of guarantee peace.

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