"China's Military Has Global Aspirations."
Perhaps someday. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet military vessels prowled the world's oceans, and its aircraft patrolled international airspace. By contrast, China's navy rarely leaves its home waters; when it does patrol farther afield, it still does not cross the Pacific.
But there is little doubt that China is steadily building its ability to project power beyond its shores. Milestones such as the PLA Navy's around-the-world cruise in 2002 and its anti-piracy mission off the African coast indicate that China is looking to operate more globally.
Although Beijing has not yet sought to deploy combat-capable military units to the sites of international natural disasters, in the not-too-distant future Chinese military aircraft might be delivering Chinese-made disaster-relief supplies. Having recently commissioned a hospital ship, Chinese naval strategists have already identified disaster relief as a key mission for a future Chinese aircraft carrier, while military writers discuss how to conduct regional missions to protect China's interests outside its territorial waters.
Undoubtedly, Chinese war planners see a future in which China will be able to defend itself offshore and its navy will operate beyond what is sometimes referred to as the "first island chain" (an imaginary line stretching from Japan, through Okinawa and Taiwan, and south to the Philippines and the South China Sea), eventually encompassing much of the Western Pacific up to the "second island chain" that runs from Japan southward past Guam to Australia. But whether Beijing envisions one day establishing overseas bases, or simply having the capability to project power globally when needed, is unclear.
Some wonder whether China and the United States are on a collision course. Kaplan raised the ominous possibility in the Atlantic that when the Chinese navy does push out into the Pacific, "it will very quickly encounter a U.S. Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland," resulting in a "replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe but, rather, among Pacific atolls." Unquestionably, there is deep strategic mistrust between the two countries. China's rapid economic growth, steady military modernization, and relentless nationalistic propaganda at home are shaping Chinese public expectations and limiting possibilities for compromise with other powers.
This does not make conflict inevitable, but it is cause for long-term concern and will shape U.S. efforts to avoid hostilities with China. Military-to-military contacts lag far behind the rest of the U.S.-China relationship. Taiwan is an obvious point of disagreement and the one place where the two powers could conceivably come into direct conflict. U.S. maritime surveillance activities inside China's exclusive economic zone are another contentious point. There is, however, a growing recognition that the United States and China should engage one another and seek to avoid a conflict that would almost certainly be destructive to both sides.
Despite the goose-stepping soldiers at Chinese military parades, the PLA is far from a carbon copy of the Soviet threat. For all the jargon-laden, prideful articles about China's inevitable rise in the world, Chinese strategists are cautious not to openly verbalize aspirations to conquer the globe or establish distant bases, outposts, or supply stations.
Perhaps a generation from now, Chinese military planners might be strategizing more openly about how to acquire overseas basing rights and agreements with allies where they might station their forces abroad, just as the French and British have done since the Napoleonic wars and the Americans have done more recently. But with China, that process has not begun in earnest. At least, not for now.