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Decoding China’s Maritime Nuclear Potential

The topic of China’s expanding maritime military has been one that has captured the public imagination for over two decades now. China is constantly reported to be investing into modernizing its navy and yet, analysts argue that the gap between China’s ambitions and the reality on the ground- or the water, as the case may be- is far from bridged. Has China’s interest in appearing mighty gotten in the way of actual capacity building? Is China investing in posturing instead of actual power?

China Prioritizes Naval Advancement

The development of the People's Liberation Army-Navy has been at the heart of China’s military agenda for several years now. It is no secret that the government of China is keen to build a naval fleet that cements its position as a great power and helps it achieve all of its military, trade and geostrategic goals.

Beijing’s defense expenditure points to China’s ever-increasing military ambitions. As per statistical data shared by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s yearly defense budget has increased manifold in a span of ten years alone: from $30 billion in 2000 to close to $120 billion in 2010. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute maintains the practice of incorporating an additional 50% to the defense budget officially announced by Beijing; this is done because China is known to keep several standard military expenses off the official list. By adding to the figures shared by Beijing, SIPRI hopes to arrive at a more realistic defense budget in its estimations.

Even though the United States currently boasts of a greater military budget than China, the latter’s growth and expenditure patterns indicate that it may surpass the U.S.’ defence budget by 2035.

Prestige vs. Power

On the surface of it, the pursuit of a mighty naval force and the development of a modern naval force may appear to be the same thing. At the very least, the ambition and the action point to the same desired end results. However, as China’s case proves, the subtle difference between pursuing prestige and pursuing actual power is big enough to distract from real results.

For all the reportage on China’s formidable naval expansion, when we measure the country’s actual progress against its stated milestones, the results are far less extraordinary than they seem. For the layperson, this difference is best explained as choosing between capacity and appearances. China wants the world to regard it as a military superpower and it is investing heavily into acquiring a naval fleet that befits this title; however, China’s current capacity is not always in line with its ambitions and so, by investing in a title it cannot quite uphold just yet, China is prioritizing positions over actual capability.

Balancing Military Priorities: A Historical Conundrum

Choosing between what’s real and the desired reality is a military conundrum that is not new to China.

Towards the end of the 19th...