It is generally unusual for both those with a pro-China stance and anti-China stance to both spread equal and opposite rumours regarding China’s participation in foreign military conflicts. Two recent examples of such completely baseless claims regarding China’s alleged participation in two of the world’s major conflicts illustrate how China’s military modernisation programme instigated by President Xi Jinping is getting all sides talking.
Recently, reports originating at the anti-Beijing South China Morning Post and later reported (albeit as unconfirmed) by one of Russia’s official state media outlets Sputnik stated that China had imminent plans to build a military base in Afghanistan. Today, Beijing denied such rumours which were not based on any solid evidence from the ground in Afghanistan nor any state bordering Afghanistan. This follows on from similar untruthful allegations suggested by the Pentagon that China plans to build a military base in Pakistan. China also denied these rumours. In any case, as a long-time ally of Pakistan there would not be anything sinister about Beijing agreeing with Islamabad to build such a base. The fact however remains that at present, China’s only military base overseas is a logistics facility in the Horn of Africa state of Djibouti. This base only opened in 2017 while Britain and France have maintained overseas bases for centuries. The US got into the business of overseas bases later than the major European powers but currently has more overseas bases than all other nations combined by an exponential amount.
In the past months, rumours that were spread happily by supporters of the Syrian government indicated that China would be sending troops to Syria. While the rumours regarding China’s alleged military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan were originated primarily from Sinophobic sources in the US and India, in the case of Syria, the rumour was cultivated by those who wanted China to offer military assistance to Syria, a country whose government Beijing has supported at the United Nations Security Council throughout the present conflict. Of course, China denied this rumour which in terms of likelihood was far more absurd than those regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While China continues to offer straightforward denials of these rumours which were not based on any credible information in the first place, the fact that the rumours have such staying power is itself a kind of unintentional compliment paid to China both by those seeking to sow fears about China using its power irresponsibly as well as those who yearn for the support of one of the world’s most powerful armed forces.
China’s plans for military modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and People’s Liberation Army Airforce have been openly touted by Chinese officials and are in-line with China seeking to attain further defensive advantages based on being at the forefront of technological innovation. At the same time, it is a fact that China’s military engagement with foreign powers remains limited to conducting drills with partner nations including neighbouring Russia and anti-terror training programmes even with rivals like India.
But beyond this, China’s single naval logistics base overseas is quite modest when compared to the overseas facilities or zones of occupation maintained by other major military powers. This is not to say that China’s military is weak – it is in fact one of the top three military powers in the world while China also maintains a legal nuclear arsenal. But the reality is that China rarely projects its military power abroad compared with the United States which incidentally appears to be on the verge of re-starting provocative joint military drills with South Korea. Likewise, while Russia has prominently intervened in the Syrian conflict at the legal request of the Syrian government, China has not engaged in anything remotely comparable in the 21st century.
In this sense, while China is frank about its military modernisation programme and while China is equally straightforward in denying being in places where its military is not, the wider world including both China’s friends and ill-wishers are projecting their own fears or alternatively their desires regarding Chinese military power. In short, both opponents and admirers of China are seeing China everywhere.
Taken in totality, it is clear that the wider world is acknowledging China’s towering military status far more vocally than Chinese officials tout such a status themselves. The only conclusion one can reach from the media domination of such rhetoric is that as the 21st century progresses, China’s military might will be a force to be reckoned with even though it will likely not be used in any of the ways that many are assuming or hoping that it is being used at the present time.