New Leaders Forum

Understanding China

A new book offers a balanced view of China’s military rise that relies on a mix of Chinese and Western sources.

By Eleni Ekmektsioglou for

Much ink has been spilled over Chinese acquisition or indigenous production of military assets, not least in the Pentagon’s latest report on the country’s rapid military development.

The launch of China’s first aircraft carrier a couple of weeks ago was just the latest event to fuel speculation over the country’s objectives. The news followed the Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile DF-21D reaching initial operational capability last year and the first flight of the 5th generation J-20 stealth fighter, which took many Western analysts by surprise.

Still, despite the numerous one-off articles, there hasn’t until now been a place in English that brings together all the pieces of the puzzle. That is until the recent publication by the China Maritime Studies Institute of Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles. The volume, a collection of essays, offers a comprehensive overview of all the latest developments, and touches on the whole spectrum of the Chinese aerospace capabilities – from air-refuelling capabilities and space assets to airborne early warning and electronic warfare capabilities. The essays, from some of the most highly regarded analysts in the field, help provide a good understanding of the state of Chinese aerospace modernization. The book not only examines the technical feasibility of Chinese plans, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, but also delves deep into domestic Chinese debates about the weapons systems in question.   

The volume manages to get to the core of the issue through open source analysis that compares and contrasts Chinese writings on the topic from a variety of official and unofficial sources, offering a far broader perspective than volumes focusing only on Western analysis. Indeed, Chinese Aerospace Power delves deeply into the Chinese system, examining inter-service rivalries and integration and training issues.

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Contributions to the volume argue that sophisticated aerospace capabilities offer the advantages of power projection and precision strikes, which considerably widens the range of operational choices for any military power. For example, while the main argument against the accuracy of the Chinese ASBM DF-21D is mediocre Chinese ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities, the country’s rapid aerospace progress raises doubts over the validity of such arguments. The Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson, for example, argues that as China expands its range and improves the accuracy of its weapons, it could render a carrier strike group ‘operationally ineffective without sinking it.’

While a number of contributions focus on the tactical and operational level, there’s also strategic coverage as well. For instance, both The Diplomat blogger James Holmes and Adm. Eric McVadon go beyond the operational and tactical to make some interesting policy recommendations. Holmes offers an insightful analysis of the ways in which Chinese strategy has been influenced, not just by the domestic strategic culture, but also by Western Mahanian ideas. McVadon, at the grand strategy level, emphasizes the misleading distinction between partners and potential adversaries, and opines that engagement-focused approaches should gain ground over attempts at hedging.

Broadly speaking, and based on a comprehensive overview of China’s military capabilities, the book provides strategists and policy makers with one core recommendation: given the highly uncertain outcome of a confrontation between the two countries, effective crisis management mechanisms and long-term cooperative engagement strategy are of paramount importance.

The book is a must-read piece for every government official involved with China-related issues, military or otherwise. If knowing your interlocutor is a prerequisite for successful negotiations, the book should be a big step towards providing a balanced and necessary understanding. 


Eleni Ekmektsioglou is a Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS