A contingent from the People’s Liberation Army during the Moscow Victory Day Parade, May 2015
The tremendous progress the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made in its weaponry and combat capabilities has been recorded in detail by many China watchers and therefore does not warrant another depiction here. Suffice it to say that the Chinese military, with its state-of-the-art warships and fighters, has already become a force to be reckoned with by other major powers. Less widely noticed, however, are the effects of military modernization on Chinese nationalism. A close examination of Chinese online military posts yields an intriguing observation: many Chinese nationalists already consider China’s military power as considerably superior to (or at least on par with) that of the U.S. in a number of key areas, but at the same time they feel increasingly threatened by the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific.
The confidence of Chinese netizens in their country’s military is readily apparent in numerous online reports and analyses about global military developments. In fact, in many of them, the new weaponry of the PLA is depicted as not only the best in the world, but also as nearly invincible. One salient example is the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile. Commonly referred to as the “aircraft-carrier killer,” this missile generates more pride than perhaps any other weapon among China’s military fans. Because neither the U.S. nor any other nation possesses similar technology and because the missile is (allegedly) difficult to intercept, many Chinese netizens believe that it can turn any aircraft carrier into a sitting duck.
Another example is the myth that China’s laser weapon — rarely mentioned officially — exceeds US military capabilities by at least several years. One article claims that China’s laser weapon is capable of shooting down satellites and stealth fighters, which — according to the author — is somehow consistent with his latter claim that China remains “very humble.” Some other areas in which China is thought (by its netizens) to be leading the U.S. include global satellite systems, Airborne Warning and Control aircrafts (AWAC), ship born sonars, and the army (yes, the entire army).
This confidence in China’s military power is coupled with contempt for America’s military strength. More and more negative information about the U.S. military is beginning to appear on China’s military websites. These reports do not necessarily originate in China, but their frequent publication after translation demonstrates that many Chinese netizens like to belittle the U.S. A recent report, for example, called the most advanced U.S. missile defense radar — the sea-based X-band radar — a piece of “garbage that devours gold.” In another instance, one Chinese official claimed that “it is a certainty” that China’s J-31 could take down a F-35, a U.S. fighter jet subjected to constant mockery.
More astonishingly, however, is a recent opinion poll in which over 85 percent of respondents agreed that China already has the capability to take back the disputed islands in the East and South China Sea. Even when they were told that the U.S. military would intervene, that number dropped only to 73 percent. These supposed military facts, coupled with China’s success in leading the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and in evacuating citizens from Yemen (compared to the sluggish US response), have convinced many netizens that China has already surpassed the U.S. as the world’s strongest power.
Nonetheless, Chinese netizens also view the U.S. as increasingly threatening, especially since it is actively pushing its regional allies to contain China. The U.S. intention to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, for example, is widely interpreted in China as a ploy to neutralize the strategic nuclear deterrence of China and Russia. More recently, when two U.S. F-18 fighters made an emergency landing in Taiwan, Chinese netizens immediately speculated that the U.S. is trying to reinforce its containment of China in order to counter the glamor of the AIIB. Other areas where the U.S. is seen as extremely threatening include the growing U.S.-Japan defense relations and the U.S. determination to interfere in the South China Sea.
One explanation of the seemingly contradictory attitude of Chinese netizens is that they perceive the U.S. as a hegemon falling from grace — one that is desperately trying everything it can to thwart China’s development. Another possibility is that there exists an internal division among Chinese netizens between those who think that China is invincible and those who still advocate caution. After all, it would be a huge mistake to view all Chinese netizens, let alone the entire Chinese public, as arrogant zealots.
However, given China’s continuing military development and nationalist media coverage, there is little chance that Chinese military nationalism will be subdued. The prevalence of military nationalism can create political uncertainty, especially if policy makers mistake it for a genuine representation of the public will. Furthermore, it demonstrates that something more than a security dilemma is at work in Sino-U.S. relations: the Chinese public is increasingly confident that China can successfully challenge America’s military hegemony, and with the U.S. becoming more provocative, China will react more forcefully, increasing the risk of escalation.