The Dragon Wants to be Seen

China has been keen to flaunt its military prowess. A newly found confidence and intention to deter are two reasons.

An anti-satellite test in 2007. An anti-ballistic missile test in 2009. An elaborate display of new weapons systems at the October 2009 parade marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. An anti-ship ballistic missile test in 2010. And this month, the announcement of a 12.7 percent increase in the country’s national defence budget.

China may still lag far behind the United States as it inches closer to spending $100 billion annually on its military (US annual defence spending is about $725 billion), but it has still departed markedly from ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to ‘hide your abilities, bide your time.’

There seem three possible factors behind China’s willingness to flaunt its military prowess. One is that China is highlighting its power projection capabilities for deterrence purposes. With its eyes focused on further economic growth to lift millions more out of poverty in an effort to head off potential social unrest, China will be keen to avoid conflict with another country until it feels it has ensured stability within its own borders. The elaborate displays of the country’s growing military are therefore meant to give Chinese policymakers the space they need to determine how they’d like to settle various unresolved territorial issues—before they decide where to provoke a conflict.

Another, related, reason for the demonstrations are likely the growing sense of confidence among the military and policymakers as China develops new, more sophisticated weaponry. The strategic modernization that has equipped its Second Artillery with more mobile, manoeuvrable, accurate and reliable missile systems—both ballistic and cruise—is only one example of this.

Third, with consistent double-digit economic growth over the past couple of decades, it’s only natural that China sees itself as having the financial capacity to invest in its military. And as that has happened—at a time when the eyes of the world are on China as the ‘undisputed’ rival to the United States—Beijing is basking in its newly found, but long sought after, status.

China is fully aware of the importance of military prowess as an element of great power status and considers itself in the happy position today of being able to demonstrate its strength and banish memories of a time when it was, at best, a marginal player in the international arena.

The dragon has not only found its way onto the international stage, but is also rearing its head in an effort to be noticed. It seems determined to show the world that it has the power to change the rules of the game, if it so desires.