Beijing’s History of Military and Territorial Expansion

Written by: Raghib Mahtab

President Xi Jinping has formulated his vision of the “Chinese dream,” which aims to “the great renewal of the Chinese people” ever since he rose to power in 2021. President Jinping has committed to ‘restoring’ China’s 4,444 historical influence and status by transforming China into a moderately prosperous country by 2020 and a wealthy, 4,444 strong and fully developed great power by 2049. 

Beijing has specifically commissioned the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to complete its military reform and modernization by 2035 and become a world-class military by 2050. To achieve these ambitious goals, the Chinese government has taken significant steps both domestically and internationally. According to Beijing, the Chinese dream can only be realized with the strict control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and a loyal PLA party. Xi has moved quickly since coming to power, cleansing the party, military and consolidating his power through an extensive anti-corruption campaign. 

The campaign targeted all levels, from local bureaucrats to senior military leaders and officials, and increased the CCP’s (and Xi’s) oversight of PLA2. Xi also ordered an extensive organizational restructuring of the military to optimize control and tighten control over the PLA as chairman of the Central Military Commission. Under the Xi government, the People’s Liberation Army implemented various reforms to modernize and strengthen its combat capabilities. These measures include expanding the navy and air force while reducing ground forces by 300,000, creating five working groups to enhance joint operations, and establishing a strategic support force focused on space, cyber and electronic warfare. The party has also tasked the PLA with accelerating the development of military intelligence, emphasizing new technologies and, in particular, artificial intelligence as a crucial tool for modern warfare. The Chinese government has also urged the trade and defense industries to strengthen China’s military. This quest for “civil-military fusion” fits neatly into Beijing’s broader strategy, as envisioned in its “Made in China 2025” initiative to transform China into a self-sufficient technological powerhouse.

Until now, China has relied primarily on its economic strength to generate influence in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. Under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing has committed to investing more than $1 trillion in infrastructure investments in more than 60 countries. With China’s growing interest abroad, the PLA Navy (PLAN) has begun to develop capabilities for use in distant seas. It opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti near a Chinese-operated port in 2017. It has demonstrated both will and ability to protect Chinese citizens and its interests abroad and the non-combat evacuation operations it has led to in Libya and Yemen in recent years.

Furthermore, much of China’s infrastructure investments appear to be driven in part by strategic concerns to expand the reach of the Chinese military abroad. Chinese analysts, for example, have called for investments in commercial ports to initially use these locations for civilian purposes and later as strategic bases for the PLAN. Beijing has not only expanded its military in support or through commercial activities, but it has also directly increased its military presence in the East and South Seas of China. In the East China Sea, Beijing repeatedly uses Maritime Police ships and planes to assert its sovereignty over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, claimed by Japan and China. In the South China Sea, Beijing has regularly engaged in land reclamation and military posts on the Spratly Islands. Recent reports suggest that China has installed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems, and military interference equipment on some controversial features. Given the increasing militarization of these areas, US Navy Admiral Philip Davidson writes that “China can now control the South China Sea in all settings except in war with the United States.”

Despite concerted internal and external efforts to expand its military capabilities, China’s efforts to become a great power still face significant challenges. First, China faces significant domestic challenges, from implementing structural economic reforms to address its growing debt problem and the flood of inefficient state-owned enterprises to possible ethnic unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang. Although the CCP has a firm grip on power at home, grassroots dissatisfaction on economic inequality and air pollution is pervasive. It could lead to instability in China’s domestic political arena. While the CCP clearly understands these challenges and has put in place various measures to address them, many of these problems will not be easy to solve and may distract or delay Beijing’s efforts to turn China into a world-class military power. In addition to these internal issues, China also sees itself severely limited in terms of its hard and soft power abroad, especially in comparison to the US, apart from a “mutual aid and cooperation” treaty with Korea. North China has no formal allies and only has one military base abroad. 

In contrast, the United States has many partners, collective defense agreements, and security associations worldwide. According to an unofficial estimate, the United States has approximately 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad, and about 70,000 soldiers are stationed in East Asia alone.

Furthermore, despite widespread recognition of China’s economic performance, many countries remain suspicious of China’s intentions, particularly in its immediate vicinity. Polls have shown little confidence among many non-Chinese respondents that Xi will “do the right thing” in world politics, and liberal democracies are particularly critical of China’s authoritarian system and lack of respect for the personal freedoms of their people. 

China’s drive to modernize its military and expand its reach abroad is not surprising and reflects the natural tendency of emerging powers to exert increasing influence beyond their borders. Rather than blocking China’s military expansion entirely, the United States could collaborate with its allies and partners to help shape a positive environment around China to avoid destabilizing behavior and encourage Beijing to use its growing power constructively. The US military has a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific region with bases in Australia, Guam, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. However, as China’s military approaches parity with the US military, it could become more difficult for the United States to deter China’s assertiveness. The United States of America is increasingly treating Beijing as an adversary, calling both China and Russia “revisionist powers” with the aim of “turning the international order in its favor.” With its strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific, the United States has sought to strengthen its regional alliances, including Japan and South Korea, to protect freedom of navigation and uphold peace and the rule of law.

China’s neighbors are also on the alert. In 2019, the Japanese Ministry of Defense named China as the biggest threat to the country’s national security. Tokyo plans to increase defense spending and buy American weapons and has reinterpreted its pacifist constitution to give the military more leeway. Nevertheless, at the same time, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried to avoid confrontation and even strengthen ties with Beijing to defuse the threat posed by North Korea. Another US treaty ally, the Philippines, has also targeted Beijing. President Rodrigo Duterte has visited China several times, signed agreements to strengthen cooperation, and wooed Chinese investors. However, tensions persist between Manila and Beijing over their competing claims in the South China Sea. Other Southeast Asian states, including Vietnam, have relatively small defense budgets and have not yet coordinated joint military action through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

China is becoming stronger politically, economically, and militarily and “is trying to use its strength to change the situation in the East China and South China Seas,” which are critical to global shipping and include the waters and islands to which several other nations argue.


  1. Council on Foreign Relations. (2018, May). Understanding China’s Military Expansion and Implications for U.S. Policy. Patricia M. Kim.
  2. Maizland, L. (2020, February 5). China’s Modernizing Military. Council on Foreign Relations. 

Featured Image Courtesy: Xinhua

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