Interviews | Security | East Asia

China’s Rise as a Military Power: A View From Tokyo

An interview with Narushige Michishita.

By Jongsoo Lee for
China’s Rise as a Military Power: A View From Tokyo
Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

China’s ascendancy as a military and maritime power is a source of concern for Beijing’s Indo-Pacific neighbors. For a Japanese perspective on the matter, Jongsoo Lee interviews Narushige Michishita, vice president and professor at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo.

Does China have ambitions to become a global military superpower? Or, does China see itself as more of a regional military power?

When we ask these questions, the problem arises as to who is “China.” If “China” is Xi Jinping and he has that ambition, China has that ambition. If Xi changes his mind, China will change. However, the danger is that “China” might not be just Xi. If “China” is a system with its own dynamics, which one person – however powerful she/he might be – or even a large number of people cannot change easily, that would be scary.

My guess and concern is that China is actually becoming a system – a “system” in which the Chinese elite’s personal success and security hinge on unquestioned devotion to the idea of “Great China.” In that “system,” if you express doubts about that “Great China,” that will be the end of your professional life. And when you say “no” to the idea of China becoming a global military superpower, you will be doing so at your great personal peril.

I know that some Chinese people actually think that China should become a global military superpower. But, I am quite sure that there are others who would prefer a more responsible and cooperative China with minimum necessary defense capabilities. That China would devote more resources to the betterment of its people’s lives and less to military power. The problem, however, is that the “system” might not allow the Chinese people to make a choice.

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Please explain the rise in China’s defense spending as compared to the defense spending by the United States, Japan, and other countries and how this may be changing the balance of military power globally or regionally.

The balance of power has been shifting rapidly due largely to the rise of China’s military might. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), while the U.S. defense expenditure declined by 15 percent and Japan’s increased by only 2 percent between 2009 and 2019, China’s defense spending increased by 85 percent in the same period. In absolute terms, the United States still remained in first place globally, with $732 billion spent in 2019, and China was in second place with $261 billion. Japan spent $47.6 billion and was in ninth place. However, it must be noted that while the U.S. military is globally committed and has been engaged in conflicts in the Middle East, the Chinese military is only regionally engaged and has not fought in a major conflict in the past four decades. When one considers the long-term trends, it is clear that in the future it will be difficult for the United States and Japan to keep competing with China on military spending, regardless of how closely the two allies cooperate.

That is why Japan is strengthening security cooperation with the countries in the region, especially Australia, India, Southeast Asian nations, and South Korea. Unlike during the Cold War, the countries of Asia are coming to possess considerable military capabilities of their own. According to the previously mentioned SIPRI data, India’s defense spending increased by 37 percent over the last decade, to a total of $71.1 billion in 2019, making India the world’s third largest spender on defense. In 10th place globally, South Korea’s spending on defense increased by 36 percent over the same period, to a total of $43.9 billion. Australia is in 13th place in defense outlays; its spending went up by 23 percent, to $25.9 billion. If added up, the defense expenditures of India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia would amount to $188.5 billion, only $72.5 billion short of China’s expenditure. If the U.S. defense efforts are taken into account, Japan and its partners in the Indo-Pacific region might be able to maintain the balance of power fairly effectively.

What are the objectives of China’s naval and maritime ambitions? Please comment on the rise in Chinese maritime power and presence in the Indo-Pacific, including in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

There is a pattern that China takes a few important steps in “slicing the salami” when something else is attracting people’s attention. Just within a month or so, China sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea, had its aircraft carrier operate in the western Pacific near Taiwan, established two new districts in the South China Sea “to administer waters in the South China Sea,” and had its coast guard vessel chasing a Japanese fishing boat inside Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands for the first time.

Taking all those actions amid the COVID-19 crisis significantly undermines China’s reputation. Why is China doing so, then? Maybe, it’s not about China but about the “system.” In the worst-case scenario, when the “system” comes under attack for some reason, it might choose to divert people’s attention away from its problems by instigating a crisis somewhere such as the East China Sea.

How are other nations responding to China’s rise as a military power? Is there a coordinated response? In your opinion, how can other nations respond more effectively?

It would probably take region-wide close military-security cooperation to stop China from acting like a bully. And, in fact, that is a good news for China.

When we talk about balancing with China, some people in China hate that. But, in fact, our concerted effort to balance with China is in the country’s long-term interest. Rising powers have a tendency to go out of control. It happened to Japan in the 1930s. Unfortunately, when Japan was rising rapidly and losing control of itself, nobody was there to stop Japan. China was too weak; Russia was similarly expansionist; and the United States remained isolationist. As a result, Japan went out of control, fought a disastrous war with the United States, and ruined itself. It is actually good for China to be balanced. With that, when the “system” tells the Chinese leaders and people to act aggressively, they can say, “We cannot do that because the Americans, the Japanese, the Australians and others are out there to stop us. Sorry.”

Is military balancing enough?

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Military balancing does not solve the fundamental problem. We need to do something about the “system.” When I say “we” here, I mean the people in Japan, the United States, countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and most importantly China. We must work closely with the leaders and the people of China to defy the “system” and pave the way for China to become a responsible, peace-loving, and respected great power.

Jongsoo Lee is Senior Managing Director at Brock Securities and Center Associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004