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China Made Military History Three Times Last Week

Last week, a group of initially unidentified foreign troops disembarked in the Yemeni port city of Aden which is currently under siege by Iran-backed Rebels seeking to capture one of the last remaining major holdouts still controlled by fighters loyal to President Hadi. When the mystery soldiers arrived, the media made the somewhat logical assumption that a Saudi-led ground incursion had indeed begun. Surprisingly, the soldiers turned out to be Chinese and were in Yemen to ensure the safety of more than 200 civilians evacuating the city in an “unprecedented” move that at least according to one Chinese professor, makes China “look really good.” Here’s Reuters:

A Chinese naval frigate evacuated 225 foreign citizens from strife-torn Yemen, its foreign ministry said, marking the first time that China's military has helped other countries evacuate their people during an international crisis.

 

Ten different nationalities were among the evacuees picked up on Thursday afternoon from Aden, Yemen's second city, and transported to Djibouti, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on its website late Thursday.

 

A diplomatic source familiar with the operation said it was "very risky" and that fighting had come close to the Chinese warship.

 

"The Chinese ship was in the right place at the right time," the source said.

The broadcaster showed footage young children stepping off a Chinese warship waving Chinese flags, and in one case, kissing a seaman on the cheek.

 

The evacuation of foreigners bolsters China's image at home and abroad, according to Shen Dingli, an international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.

 

"We wouldn't look very good if we have the capacity to help others but no heart to do it," Shen said.

 

"Now we look really good," he added.

This was a history-making moment for the Chinese and as FT reports, it wasn’t the only time Beijing made military history last week:

China’s military made history practically every day last week. On Thursday it was the Lin Yi, a guided missile frigate, which spent 75 minutes moored in war-torn Yemen’s port of Aden before setting off to Djibouti with 225 evacuees.

Billed by Beijing as the navy’s first international maritime rescue evacuation, the mission helps show the rising ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army.

 

A few days earlier, state television showed a satellite photo of three submarines anchored at a top-secret base on China’s southern island of Hainan. The report identified them as the navy’s most advanced Type-093G nuclear powered attack submarines, which experts say will start China’s first patrol by nuclear powered subs later this year.

 

And to top off a busy week, Pakistan agreed “in principle” to buy eight Chinese submarines in a deal that could be worth up to $5bn — the most lucrative Chinese arms contract ever.

 

China also announced last month that it is building a second aircraft carrier and that its defence spending would rise this year by 10.1 per cent, marking 27 years of double-digit or near double-digit increases. Over the past five years, China’s arms exports have grown by 143 per cent, making it the world’s third-largest arms trader, according to a new study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

The increase in defense spending has some, not the least of which are Tokyo and Washington, uneasy, especially when The White House’s western allies aren’t spending on the military the way the US thinks they should be in the face of Russian “aggression” and China’s rising superpower status. But as FT notes, there’s a difference between building up the military and “militarizing” and it may be that China’s maneuvers need to be placed in the context of the country’s overall economic growth.

But measured another way, as a part of the overall economy, China’s military spending starts to look more normal. For all the talk of trophy armaments and aggressive rhetoric from Beijing, military expenditures are small by international standards if measured as a percentage of GDP. In fact, if militarisation means increasing the role of the armed forces relative to wider society, China’s military spending is actually less than many of its neighbours as a percentage of GDP.

 

“We focus so much on what the PLA wants and what the PLA will do, it’s easy to lose focus on what the PLA is actually doing,” says Jack Midgley, director of the strategy consulting practice at Deloitte in Tokyo. “When people say China is engaging in an aggressive military build-up, the numbers tell a different story.”

 

Defence should be seen as a component of China’s overall economic development, he says. 

 

“There is more of everything in China now, there are more cellphones, there’s more air pollution, there are more babies [and] there are also more tanks and one more aircraft carrier.”

*  *  *

Whatever Beijing's true military ambitions may be, one thing that is clear is that between China's efforts to rewrite the global economic order via the establishment of multilateral institutions designed to supplant (or at least to complement) the multinational funds that have for decades presided over the global economy in the post World War II dollar-dominated world and now with the country looking to establish a larger presence for its military on the world stage (whether for humanitarian purposes or otherwise), the global power balance is most certainly shifting due east.