Demystifying the Thesis of Chinese Global Revisionist Aspirations

Manuel Galileo

China Analyst, SCRAP Weapons

China’s overarching military strategy has since 2006 increasingly encapsulated what Beijing calls Military-Civil Fusion Development Strategy (MCF, 军民融合Jūnmín rónghé). This civilian/military synergy has been extensively accused, mostly in the West, as being indicative of China’s aggressive global revisionist posture, akin to Imperial Germany’s Weltpolitik foreign policy prior to WWI.  

However, this argument appears overly alarmist and ultimately fails to read Beijing’s geostrategic intentions which are heavily based on China’s historical stance which has been overwhelmingly defensive. While China has undeniably enlarged its military and has substantially increased the sophistication of its capabilities in the last two decades, Beijing’s global geostrategic stance has not fundamentally shifted to pursue competition on a global scale with Washington. Beijing’s priority remains to close the military balance gap in the East and Southeast China Seas, which is still skewed in favour of the United States. Hence, the suggestion that China has the means—or even the willingness—to ‘rule over Asia’, let alone be a global competitor to the US’s still unchallenged military hegemony, appears unsubstantiated in data. This is argued even by the US Naval War College. This overly alarmist inference arising from the West may prove to be a dangerous misreading of Chinese intentions and historical precedents.  

MCF does not equal revisionism 

MCF is a dual-use strategy that seeks to maximise Beijing’s military logistic capabilities by using civilian industrial assets to conjointly operate with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This approach acts as a force multiplier and provides the PLA with a solution to some of its objectives, namely, to strengthen airlift, sealift, at-sea replenishment, and in-air refuelling capabilities throughout China’s maritime periphery. This is not a novel strategy as the US has historically pursued a similar approach to uphold militarily competitiveness against potential adversaries. The synergy between civilian industry and military procurement and R&D have been pivotal to China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD), encompassing artillery and rocket barrages, submarine operations (anti-ship and anti-submarine), and ballistic and cruise missile strikes.  

Yet, despite the adoption of this strategy, Beijing is still fundamentally focused on its ‘near periphery’ predominantly in the Taiwan Strait, and there is little data showing that it seeks a global military foothold. The prospects of the PLA Navy matching the US Navy within the foreseeable timescale are remote, and it may not even be Beijing’s intent for the moment. Succinctly, while MCF does reveal a more assertive military stance by Beijing, the fact remains that the US’s capabilities throughout Asia developed post-WW2 are still favourable to Washington. 

Historical foundation of Chinese military thinking 

Upon a close reading of Chinese military literature, China’s military doctrine is highly influenced by Sun Tzu. One of his fundamental theses is that: “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious”.  

Following this, it does not appear overly optimistic to contend that Beijing merely seeks to protect its mercantile interests and guarantee unobstructed international trade flows while safeguarding its immediate territories in the medium-term. While it is difficult to predict what would happen if China perceives to be under imminent attack, particularly given its stance of being “prepared for the unexpected” (忧患意识 Yōuhuàn yìshí), the reality remains that China is still unable to match the US in military capabilities throughout most of Asia. While historical patterns may not guarantee future events, the thesis of China ‘putting boots on the ground’ in far-flung territories appears to be unsubstantiated. In fact, this would contradict Chinese patterns of neo-mercantilism and desire for business-like relations with other states over the last three decades.

Therefore, it can be deduced that China’s optimal outcome is to prevent any kind of regional confrontation with the US in China’s claimed sphere of influence. Subsequently, it can be concluded that it is in China’s interests to appease the regional military tit-for-tat rhetoric and emphasise that the US’s presence in parts of Asia is highly destabilising to peace and security. This is not a defeat in any way, but rather a calculated victory for Beijing, precisely as argued by Sun Tzu. 

Throughout this text, it has been argued that most Western alarmist discourse vis-à-vis Beijing’s military global ambitions is unsubstantiated and indeed refuted even by US military sources. Accordingly, calling for an SSOD IV would be advantageous to China, precisely as a great power like Brazil has done. This would demonstrate good willingness throughout the world and would show that the US should appease its alarmist rhetoric in Asia. While guarantees that Washington would follow suit are uncertain, rivalries at the height of the Cold War have shown that dialogue and action are possible between willing parties. Nevertheless, one party would have to take the first step. SCRAP Weapons provides this cooperative platform with a simple objective: guarantee global security by adhering to the UN’s New Agenda for Peace, precisely as recommended by Beijing.

Manuel Galileo

China Analyst, SCRAP Weapons