The People's Republic of China has more men actively under arms than any state at peace in history, and yet it doesn't possess an aircraft carrier. The commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Admiral Wu Shengli, promised in state media yesterday a new generation of warships, submarines, fighter jets and missiles, fueling speculation that an aircraft carrier was also on the cards. An aircraft carrier would be particularly significant because it is a prerequisite for a blue-water navy, which would allow China to project conventional military power anywhere across the globe. This would be the first time a non-US ally had possessed such a capability since the end of the Cold War.
The crucial question is not if, or even so much when, China will be able to so deploy forces in any theatre it wishes. It is what its goals will be in deploying them. China, like any major player in the global economy, had a stake in maintaining shipping routes off Somalia - and has duely sent PLAN vessels there to help secure the area against piracy. But China, like any major player in the global economy, also has a stake in a stable middle east to make sure that the oil found there keeps flowing. The time will soon come when China emerges as a crucial player in the region.
This could be a boon. US actions are viewed sceptically across the world, but it is in the Middle East that there is the greatest hostility. America is seen as irredeemably pro-Israel and prone to armed aggression, and its future interventions will be seen through prisms coloured by its past actions. China, in contrast, barely has a record at all in the region so by default it is unblemeshed. In future, it may well be able to act where the US cannot by dint of its percieved greater neutrality. If China so wishes, the People's Liberation Army could be the peacekeeping force that finally settles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yet there is also a more sinister world in which we could find ourselves as China begins to project military power in the far abroad. China's growing interest in African resources - which has seen diplomatic support for despotic regimes in countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe - could take a military turn, with oil and metals secured against other powers by Chinese force of arms. That truely would be a repeat of the 19th century's 'Scramble for Africa', and could spread across the Middle East and even into Latin America, risking armed escalation with the US and Europe and destabilising the globe.
The choice between a destabilising and a peaceful rise is largely Beijing's - and so far its Communist Party leaders have stuck to preaching the latter. But the choice is also partly that of the developed democracies of the world - the established powers who must give ground in the decision making bodies of global economic governance to accomodate the rising Asian giants. If China has a stake in a global economy operating to its benefit, it will assert itself to protect the globalised world order. If it doesn't feel like it has such a stake, it will feel compelled to assert itself to secure its exclusive interests at the expense of others', and China, the developed democracies and everyone else on the planet would suffer as a result.