Academic journal article Parameters

Chinas "Power Projection" Capabilities

Academic journal article Parameters

Chinas "Power Projection" Capabilities

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This article examines China's ability to influence conflicts beyond its immediate area through both conventional and unorthodox means. Decision-makers and intelligence analysts at all levels should note America's influence within the Pacific region is becoming increasingly linked to its influence in Africa, the Middle East, and other areas of interest to rising East Asian powers. For the United States to maximise its strategic capabilities, it would need to maintain a robust military presence in all these regions.


The United States has compelling reasons to maintain a commanding military presence in the Western Pacific. This has been apparent since US Commodore Lawrence Kearney's timely intervention to secure American trading privileges with China at the close of the first Opium War, 1839-1842. Nevertheless, at a time when the United States is moving an increasing proportion of its military assets to the Far East as part of a so-called "rebalance" to Asia, those with an interest in strategic affairs do well to ask where the fulcrum of the metaphorical scales might be. If America shifts forces to the Far East at the same time as the emerging powers of that region significantly improve their ability to act where the United States is reducing its presence, Washington may find the challenge of engaging those powers more complicated than ever. Although this shift may remain the wisest course of action, military commanders and civilian decisionmakers would be wise to prepare for its complexities.

The emerging Asian power of greatest interest to the United States is undoubtedly the People's Republic of China (PRC). Happily for American leaders, persuasive scholarly and professional literature suggests the PRC's long-range power projection capabilities remain unexceptional. Such literature, however, rests on a relatively narrow understanding of power projection. This article reviews the PRC's ability to act in potentially violent conflicts beyond its borders and argues Beijing is pursuing a strategy which magnifies its influence beyond what its current military assets seem to allow.

US Army Field Manual 100-7 defines power projection as "the ability ... to apply any combination of economic, diplomatic, informational, or military instruments of national power." (1) This article suggests China will be able to use civilian political activists, private security personnel, co-operative foreign forces and other non-traditional assets to replace "military instruments" in this mosaic. (2) Clearly, non-traditional assets will only be available at times, in places, and under political circumstances which favor their use. Such assets will seldom be strong enough to defeat conventional armed forces of any size, but the PRC's current "economic" importance and "diplomatic" situation permit them to combat other non-traditional forces, such as criminal gangs, and even to play a symbolic role in disagreements among states. Field Manual 100-7 goes on to note "an effective power-projection capability serves to deter potential adversaries, demonstrates ... resolve, and carr[y] out military operations anywhere in the world." (3) This article suggests China's nontraditional forces will be useful for the first two of these purposes and may--in situations of interest to the PRC--even be valuable for the third.

The first section of this article reviews the argument that the PRC's long-range power projection capabilities are modest and easily quantifiable. A second section questions this argument, drawing on the "empty fortress" concept introduced to Western scholars and policy analysts by Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross in their early study of China's post-cold war security policy. A third section re-examines China's developing power projection capabilities taking a wider range of possibilities suggested by the "empty fortress" and related concepts into account. Finally, a conclusion returns to the issue of American policy, noting that although it may be sensible for the United States to base a greater proportion of its forces in East Asia, Washington's challenges remain global and it must maintain its own global power projection capabilities in order to meet them. …

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