In addition to modern rail lines, airports and telecommunications, a modern military is also seen as essential by the Chinese government. Its purchase of new tanks, ships, and missiles is being billed as a "modernization" here; in the West, however, it's viewed more as "arms stockpiling." Neither term is wrong, but arms stockpiling is more emotionally charged. The underlying assumption is that a country that equips its military must want a war. That currently does not appear to be the case in China. But there's no denying that building a modern military means at least considering the role of the aggressor.
Last week, the Chinese leadership became much clearer about its intentions. For the first time in the country's history, it published a White Paper about its military strategy. In the future, "defense" will be transformed into "active defense." In concrete terms, that means an expansion of the navy. In the past, China only monitored its own coastline. But now, its navy is expected to offer "protection on the open sea." That begs the question, from whom? The answer, which is not in the White Paper, is: "Protection from anyone who might impede China's ships."
China surprised by reaction in the West
According to the state newspaper Global Times, China is surprised by reactions in the West. It wrote that it's only logical that an ambitious world power such as China needs more strategic leeway, and to prepare itself for worst-case scenarios. The preface to the White Paper states that China's prosperity is largely linked to global peace. China itself will not seek military expansion, but remain defensive, it reads. That's a friendly reference to the United States, which has frequently sent its troops into foreign countries in past decades, for reasons good or bad.
In Beijing, the construction of islands in the South China Sea counts as active defense. But the governments in Hanoi and Manila see China's behavior as expansive, and they are protesting.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam are fighting over the islands in their waters. With the exception of Brunei, they have all built bases or at least footholds on islands and cliffs. But no one has built as many as China in the past 18 months. Expansive or defensive is a matter of perspective.
Protest from neighboring states more convincing
One thing is clear: The concerns and protests of the neighboring states, mainly victims of the colonial era, are more convincing than the political outrage in the US. The Americans didn't hesitate to annex Hawaii around 120 years ago, and the islands aren't exactly on their front door step. Hawaii was important because of its strategic advantages, but it only became the 50th state in 1959. The Polynesian population continues to call for independence. Even the military terms used in the Chinese White Paper are borrowed from the West. They recall the names of NATO strategies in the 1960s and '70s. Back then, the phrase wasn't "active defense" but "forward defense."
Then, as now, the message was: "If you provoke me, I'll retaliate." It's just that now, there isn't one sole party determining what constitutes a provocation. No one can prevent China from positioning itself militarily in international waters, like the Americans, who crisscross the world in their naval ships. And the West can already prepare itself for the fact that other countries will also allow the Chinese to station troops on their territory – just as South Korea or Japan have done with the Americans in Asia. That doesn't automatically increase the risk of a war. On the contrary, the more balanced the power relations, the more stable the balance of power. That was a central doctrine of the West. In that respect, it would be difficult to forbid China from creating this balance of power.
China a threat to US dominance
China has never permanently stationed troops or war ships outside of its national territory. The Americans, on the other hand, have military bases all over the world. It's mainly a monopoly that's under threat, not world peace. And as the holder of that monopoly, the US is understandably annoyed that, 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its monopoly is being questioned. In light of the current conflict over islands in the South China Sea, Washington has declared the White Paper to be a "clear provocation." The Americans are flying their surveillance drones particularly close to the disputed Spratly Islands, where China has been artificially reclaiming land for itself. A crew from CNN was even allowed aboard a spy plane, and filmed how the Chinese military warned the plane to leave the area.
On recent visits to Hawaii as well as a security conference in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that the US would stop sending ships and planes to the region when China stops its construction activities on the islands. He didn't say that the US would try to stop China. None of the Asian neighbors expects that. Doing so would put their biggest sales market - and with it, economic prosperity - at stake. As for Beijing, it knows that it would be the underdog in a conflict with the US. At the same time, Washington doesn't have the financial leeway for further military adventures. US citizens also have no desire for their army to march in and attempt to restore order in yet another part of the world.
The West will continue to protest, but that's about all it will do. And China will continue to modernize its army and reclaim land on the islands in the South China Sea.
DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.