Opinion: China's military is gearing up to compete with the U.S.

How big is China's military?
How big is China's military?

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    How big is China's military?

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How big is China's military? 02:20

Story highlights

  • China is setting up its first military base overseas
  • It's also changing its command structure and cutting troop numbers
  • Do these efforts undermine China's claims of a "peaceful rise?"

Yvonne Chiu is an assistant professor at The University of Hong Kong specializing in China's military and diplomacy. The views expressed here are solely hers.

Hong Kong (CNN)China's military is sending strong signals that it's gearing up to compete with the U.S. as a global superpower, engaging in a multi-faceted reform effort to modernize and professionalize its military.

One of the most significant developments is China's plans to establish an overseas military base—which would be contemporary China's first—in Djibouti. Construction started last month.
    There has been some speculation that China negotiated a 10-year contract, although China will not confirm details for what it carefully calls "military support facilities."
    The stated purpose is to provide "better logistics and safeguard Chinese peacekeeping forces in the Gulf of Aden, offshore Somalia and other humanitarian assistance tasks of the U.N." including anti-piracy missions, according to Ministry of National Defense spokesman Wu Qian.
    China's new base will be near the only U.S. military base in Africa, also in Djibouti.
    It is an extremely strategic location and would offer greater ability to protect oil shipments from and give greater access to the Arabian Peninsula.
    China parades military hardware in streets of Beijing
    China parades military hardware in streets of Beijing

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    Budget cut; troops trimmed

    China announced Saturday that its military budget would grow by 7.6% in 2016 -- slower than the double-digit increases in previous years --- but the real increase will likely be much higher.
    Its announced 300,000 troop reduction in September at a massive military parade initially seemed to be about trimming a little deadweight, as the People's Liberation Army would still be over two-million strong, but there are recent indications that cuts will target the officer corps—including political officers.
    This is part of a broader transformation program over the next two years to restructure the military.
    In February, the seven military command regions were streamlined into five (north, south, east, west, central); some agencies governing armaments, logistics, personnel, and politics have been placed directly under the authority of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission.
    And there are ongoing efforts to turn the PLA from a military dominated by the army to one that better integrates ground forces with the now-peripheral navy, air force, and missile (PLA Rocket Force) units, into joint command operations.
    These are efforts to not only upgrade the military's efficacy but also to bring to bear more Party control over the PLA, which has been more autonomous in the past.

    Weapons sales

    In nearly doubling its weapons sales during this decade so far, China has become the world's third-largest weapons exporter behind the U.S. and Russia, and last month, it displayed its older J-10 fighter jet at the Singapore Airshow in order to sell it.
    (Potential buyers might include Pakistan, Iran, or Syria, although this is speculative.)
    Being able to sell weapons is not only a source of revenue, but also a sign of military influence and global leadership, and can help bolster political alliances.
    China also acquired its first aircraft carrier by retrofitting an incomplete former-Soviet carrier, and had its first successful carrier-based fighter (J-15) landing in 2012. It is also trying to build its second carrier indigenously.
    This is commonly taken as an indication that it will develop a blue-water navy (one capable of operating across open oceans), which at the time of its aircraft carrier purchase seemed less plausible, but must now be reconsidered in light of institutional restructuring to enable joint force command.

    Beyond its borders

    With each of these developments, China is trying to tick off the boxes for the characteristics required of a global superpower. This marks a significant historical and ideological shift.
    The PLA has until recently focused on protecting China's own borders, in part because, ideologically, China has rejected activities (especially maintaining overseas military bases) that it considers fascist or imperialist.
    Efforts to restore and reclaim China's rightful standing in the world also serve a domestic purpose and they have also unwittingly become one of the benchmarks for the Party's legitimacy, insofar as it is able to deliver on the nationalist flames it fans.
    Taken together, do these developments belie China's claim of pursuing a "peaceful rise?" Yes and no. Clearly, China wants to compete with the U.S. and not just in the Asia-Pacific.
    It has started doing so regionally by laying claim to the South China Sea and building "islands" in order to test international reactions to its attempts to extend its sovereign territory.
    Future long-range capabilities that will be afforded by joint operational command, aircraft carriers, and overseas bases, however, unmistakably indicate that China intends to be a global superpower one day.
    This doesn't mean that China wants a conflict in either the South or East China Seas. It would likely lose against most significant enemies in the near future, especially the U.S.
    China has not fought a war since 1979, and a contemporary war would require very different practices from those used in Vietnam. In the meantime, a significant military loss would call into question the very legitimacy of the Party and have enormous consequences for its longevity.
    A "peaceful rise" is clearly prudential: the Party would like China to become a global superpower without ever fighting a war, but it is walking a dangerous line.