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China in 2018- A surging PLA, a muscular foreign policy

ANI | Updated: Dec 25, 2018 08:38 IST

Hong Kong [China], Dec 25 (ANI): 2018 turned out to be a rather significant year for China and its relations with the rest of the world, with the nation finally receiving some pushback for its current trajectory in diplomacy, development and efforts to influence others. This article assesses some key developments from 2018, and looks ahead to what may be in store for 2019.
Even as much of the Western world observed Christmas as 2018 drew to a close, China was doing its best to downplay or even ban the festival. In the city of Langfang in Hebei province, for example, Santa Claus, Christmas trees and decorative lights were banned. At the same time, many Christians wore black at final church services of the year to symbolize their protest against the growing persecution the government has initiated against the church.
Military advancement
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) continues to plow on with its build-up and modernization. After shedding excess fat by cutting 300,000 troops, a process virtually completed in early 2018, more money is now available for cutting-edge equipment. A second aircraft carrier is ready to join Liaoning next year, and a third is already under construction. Many estimate that the PLA Navy will eventually acquire six carriers.
Warships such as the Type 052D destroyer and Type 055 cruiser are being mass produced at astounding rates. Chinese naval shipbuilding far surpasses that of the US Navy, and no let-up is in sight. In November the JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile was tested for the first time, this nuclear weapon destined to arm the next-generation Type 096 submarine in the mid-to-late 2020s.
The PLA Air Force, meanwhile, is awaiting a new strategic bomber known as the H-20. This stealthy design is under development, raising questions why a country purportedly only interested in self-defense needs such an offensive weapon.
China's defense budget, announced on 5 March, amounted to RMB1.107 trillion (USD175 billion). It was the fastest increase in the past three years as China seeks to spread its reach farther around the world as it performs a new range of missions. Chinese spending is causing consternation around Asia and, although no arms race exists, others are responding to China's robust stance. Japan's Ministry of Defense, for example, announced in a December report it would buy F-35B fighters able to operate aboard large carrier ships.
The 13th NPC also authorized transfer of the China Coast Guard to the People's Armed Police (PAP), the latter being the enormous paramilitary force responsible for internal security within China. From 1 January 2018, the PAP was placed fully under the command of the Central Military Commission led by Xi.
In fact, Chinese domestic security spending averages around 20% more than the external defense budget, showing the fear that the CPC has of its own populace. An estimated RMB1.24 trillion (USD196 billion) was spent on internal security in 2017, equating to 6.1% of government spending.
Territorial tensions
Pleasingly for China, there was virtually no mention of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's (PCA) ruling in July 2016 that criticized China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Beijing believes this consigned to the trashcan of history, and it has so manipulated the Philippines that Manila has all but forgotten it as well. As President Rodrigo Duterte eyes dual oil/gas exploration deals with China in the South China Sea - within the country's own exclusive economic zone - many are aghast at Duterte's motives.
In 2018 China continued to react furiously whenever foreign warships deliberately sailed through the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The US Navy performed a regular drumbeat of such freedom of navigation operations in 2018, with one of them enticing a Chinese destroyer to perform a dangerous maneuver that could have resulted in a collision. Countries like the UK, France and Canada also maneuvered in the South China Sea, all recognizing the need to remind Beijing that China does not own this area simply because it says so.
In between, China continued to enforce its existing territorial claims and advance its facilities on reclaimed reefs. In May, news broke that the PLA had deployed missiles to Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly Islands. The weapons included long-range YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles.
Chinese aircraft have been conducting more frequent and longer-range operations into the Western Pacific, sometimes passing over Japanese channels, and at other times circumnavigating Taiwan. All these reveal a training emphasis by the PLAAF on long-range maritime strike operations that could one day target Guam, Japan or Taiwan.
India and China experienced major tensions along their shared border at Doklam in 2017. Fortunately, there was no such large-scale confrontation this past year, although the PLA continues to chip away at the border with its "salami slicing" methodology, taking a little bit here and there, stretching the boundaries and taking liberties wherever possible.
In 2018, Xi Jinping's iron grip on China seemed complete however, he would also be well advised to heed Deng Xiaoping axiom "Hide your strength, bide your time." (ANI)

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