President's Commentary: Watch China
China is at the heart of many key geopolitical issues confronting the Indo-Pacific region. It has seen dramatic and unprecedented economic growth in the last three decades and is embarked on a path supporting that growth with a major expansion in military capabilities. China is a nation on the move, and its strategic behavior underscores a long-term goal of seeking hegemony over the vast Indo-Asia region where it resides and likely exerting extraordinary influence over global affairs.
China’s growth continues apace. Having surpassed Japan in gross domestic product, China is poised to overtake the U.S. economy as the world’s largest in the next decade. By some widely accepted standards, it has already done so.
China plays by its own rules. To that end, it has shown an open disregard for the rule of law. Of note are its aggressive activities in the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration, bolstered by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea—to which China is a signatory—has declared China’s building of artificial islands and their militarization in that contested area illegal. But China has ignored all legal rulings that are contrary to its strategic goals with little consequence.
Many Chinese military and commercial development efforts are underpinned by widely reported espionage that has raided Western intellectual properties. A quick glance at China’s J-31 fighter aircraft reveals an uncanny resemblance to the allied F-35, which reportedly was the target of successful Chinese design pilferage.
To promote its global standing, China is playing a greater role in world scientific and trade standards organizations, where it can exert influence beneficial to Chinese economic growth. At the same time, U.S. and Western policy has seemingly acquiesced to this shift over the last decade. Coupled with its closed, well-ordered society, where cyberspace, identity technology and authoritarian governance promote increased centralized control over citizenry rather than a free and open society, this approach is providing China greater international sway and power. In time, we could see technical standards adopted within China’s close-knit community that are mandated for the rest of the world. These standards likely would be designed to benefit Chinese industry and policy.
China has invested large sums in artificial intelligence (AI) research, with the goal of being the world leader by 2025. China is most likely dramatically outpacing the United States in the number of patents filed for AI, deep learning and machine learning technologies in recent years. And China is moving out smartly with biogenetic engineering and other related technologies. As with many of its research endeavors, China marches to the beat of its own drum when applying widely accepted ethical norms and trusted research standards.
But the country’s economic and technological influence doesn’t end with standards. Several key Chinese security developments stand out. Among them is the development of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shipbuilding program. After buying and outfitting a former Soviet aircraft carrier, PLAN is now building its own indigenous carrier model that is undergoing sea trials. Other fleet expansion efforts in the shipbuilding pipeline include a nuclear aircraft carrier. This PLAN growth, coupled with other technological advances in space, improved undersea acoustics and hypersonic weapons, portends the development of a significant and threatening capability in the future.
China also has embarked on an unprecedented global project called the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. This megadevelopment aims to establish land and maritime trade routes that link Asia with Europe, Africa, Oceania and even the Americas. It includes large-scale projects such as highways, railroad links, new cities and deep-water ports that could create a new world order of land and sea commerce as well as a security advantage for China.
As it presses forward with it strategic vision, the nation has an advantage because the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, held a year ago, re-elected President Xi Jinping for another five-year term, effectively placing him in an unquestioned leadership role similar to Mao Zedong’s one-man rule. This ensures unity of effort toward developing Xi’s goals of tighter internal control and a stronger influence in shaping international affairs.
China’s creeping hegemony is not a fait accompli. The United States and other democracies must impress upon China the importance of abiding by international law if it wants to be an integral part of the global order. From an international security perspective, the United States and its allies must strengthen their militaries and economic and diplomatic efforts to ensure that China’s unlawful activities don’t go unchecked.