In the same week that Chinese and Indian soldiers engaged in a deadly brawl, one of China’s submarines cruised through the waters near Japan, prompting a scramble of aircraft and ships to track its furtive movements. Chinese fighter jets and at least one bomber buzzed Taiwan’s territorial airspace almost daily.
With the world distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, China’s military has encroached upon its neighbors’ territories on several fronts throughout the spring and now into summer, flexing its military might in ways that have raised alarms across Asia and in Washington.
China’s military assertiveness reflects a growing sense of confidence and capability, but also one of confrontation, particularly with the United States over the pandemic, the fate of Hong Kong and other issues that China considers central to its sovereignty and national pride.
China claims all of its recent operations are defensive, but each increases the risk of a military clash, whether intended or not. That appears to be what happened on the night of June 15, when Chinese and Indian soldiers fought along their disputed border in the Himalayas.
It was the bloodiest clash on that frontier since 1967. According to Chinese analysts, Indian news reports and American intelligence reports, it also caused an undisclosed number of Chinese deaths, the country’s first in combat since its war with Vietnam in 1979.
“I think the possibility of an accidental shot being fired is rising,” Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said at a conference in Beijing this week, unveiling a report on American military activity in the region.
China has long acted forcefully to defend the country’s territory and interests, but it is now operating with greater military firepower than ever before.
“Its power is growing at a much greater rate than the other regional powers,” said Adam Ni, director at the China Policy Center, a research organization in Canberra, Australia. “This has really given Beijing more tools at its disposal to push its more assertive and aggressive agenda.”
The increased operational tempo this year follows a military modernization program that began in the 1990s and accelerated under China’s ambitious and authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping. He steadily purged the military’s top ranks of corrupt or insufficiently loyal officers and shifted the focus of the People’s Liberation Army from heavy ground battles to more agile joint operations using air, naval and, increasingly, cyberweapons.
Mr. Xi has also made the military an even greater priority in the wake of the pandemic. China’s premier, Li Keqiang, announced last month that the military budget would rise 6.6 percent this year, to nearly $180 billion, about a quarter of the American defense budget, even as overall government spending was set to decline because of the global economic slowdown.
At the National People’s Congress, Mr. Xi noted the role the military played in Wuhan, where the outbreak began in China, and warned that the pandemic posed challenges to national security. The country, he said, should “step up preparations for military struggles, flexibly carry out actual military training, and comprehensively improve our military’s ability to carry out military missions.”