Beijing has implemented a shift in the geopolitical focus of its global strategy, which has seen the relationship with the US and with the European Union displaced as first priority ties for the country. At the same time, China has strengthened its sea power, with many speculating that the power of the PLA Navy is set to overtake that of Japan in 2015.
At the end of November, as the US was scrambling to find a way to contain Russia, a low-profile but important meeting was being held in Beijing — the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs. At the meeting several leaders made key speeches that indicated a change in China's external geopolitical strategy.
China is no longer putting the main emphasis on its ties with the US and the EU. It has instead shifted its focus to another group of countries: Russia and its other BRICS partners, Brazil, India and South Africa, in addition to its Asian neighbors and other developing countries.
In his speech, President Xi said that China is aiming to increase its cooperative ties with major developing countries. Commentators have said that this likely refers to Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia and Mexico. China has also stopped referring to itself as a "developing country," which shows a change in its self-definition, according to Duowei.
Although Beijing's ties with Washington are still of utmost importance due to the military and economic might of the US, China is likely to be more vocal in its opposition to US intervention as the year goes on, Duowei said. This was clear from a state-run media commentary on the Umbrella Revolution or Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong published last year, which accused a US government-sponsored organization of encouraging the student-led protests against Beijing's controls over Hong Kong's leadership elections.
China appears to have decided to place relations with Russia at the center of its new strategy. Although Sino-Russian relations have undergone a period of mutual suspicion since China broke off relations with the Soviet Union, the two countries have already entered into an unprecedented cooperative relationship. In the words of US diplomatic strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, it is in Eurasia that one can find "all the potential political or economic challengers to American primacy."
In the official photograph taken of leaders at the recent APEC summit in Beijing, the position of US president Barack Obama clearly shows that he has fallen a few pegs in the estimation of China's leadership. He was given a spot beside the wife of an Asian leader, whereas Putin stands together with Xi. This is of major symbolic significance in China. China is well aware of the geopolitical game being played by Washington and the strategy of the neoconservative faction in the US.
China and Japan's positions reversed on naval power
In 2014, a Japanese research institute published a comparative report which said that in the event of war between China and Japan, the PLA Navy would sustain disastrous losses in the first few hours of the conflict. This is according to predictions made based upon Japan's position as the second-strongest navy in the world after that of the US. However UK-based military affairs magazine Jane's Defence Weekly has stated that the PLA Navy will surpass Japan for the first time in 2015. In addition to increasing deployments to deal with the dispute over the Diaoyutai islands (Diaoyu to China, Senkaku to Japan) in the East China Sea, China is also stepping up its deployments in the South China Sea, where multiple countries contend over the resources around the seas reefs and archipelagos.
In addition to the country's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning; the JL-2 intercontinental-range submarine-launched ballistic missile and the DF-41 ICBM, both believed to be under development, China has started to build a guided missile destroyer, the Type 052D, nicknamed the Chinese Aegis, which suggests its naval power has grown to a size at which it can threaten Japan and even the US. In response, Japan will start to build two ships incorporating the Aegis combat system in 2015, as part of a plan to increase their numbers to eight ships by 2020.
In terms of Aegis combat system ships, China is already leading Japan. In 2014 the PLA had eight of the warships, comprising five Type 052C destroyers, one Type 052D destroyer and two Type 051C destroyers, more than Japan's six; in 2015, China plans to add another Type 052C destroyer and a Type 052D along with two other destroyers.
In December, China began to build a new-generation Aegis combat system ship, the Type 055 destroyer. The destroyer will be have four combustion turbine engines with up to 100,000 horsepower and be armed with long range anti-aircraft defense and S-band radar guided missiles and extremely low-flying attack missiles, which can also respond to X-band radar. The destroyer is likely to be deployed by 2017.
In terms of the numbers game, China is gradually increasing its already substantial lead over Japan. China's navy has 235,000 personnel, compared to the 45,800 of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. In terms of the total number of warships, Japan, with 120, only has 12% of China's 970. In 2013 alone, 27 ships were launched or commissioned in China, double the number in Japan.
In terms of submarines, China has a fleet of 56 including its five nuclear submarines, whereas Japan only has around 18. On Dec. 12, 2013 in Bohai Bay in northern China, a Chinese Type 094 nuclear submarine test-launched a JL-2 intercontinental ballistic missile and is right on Japan's tail in terms of quality. The Type 093 nuclear attack submarine and the Type 094 ballistic nuclear submarine, replacing the first generation Type 091 and Type 092 nuclear submarines, have gradually entered service over the past five years. In terms of naval air power, China has 468 aircraft while Japan has 339. China has one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, while Japan has four helicopter carriers.
Despite this, many people do not think that China's naval power will overtake that of Japan, as Japan's ships and weapons systems are all better in terms of quality than China's. According to one military expert, the offensive and defensive capabilities of Japan's Aegis combat system ships have been tested and proven in joint exercises with the US, while China's Aegis combat system ships have yet to be proven. Furthermore, although Japan has fewer submarines than China, their combat capabilities far surpass those of China's.