Report from the Pentagon: China’s Military Modernization

Last month, the US Department of Defense released their annual report to Congress on the state of Chinese military capabilities, revealing a Chinese strategy of military modernization and expansion accompanied by bilateral targeting of key neighboring states. This strategy is resulting in increased military capabilities and influence abroad, according to the report.

This report focused on Chinese strategy, the state of China-Taiwan relations, the South China Sea, and the growing capabilities of China’s military. All these aspects of the report indicate that China is focusing their military and security strategy on securing its borders and advancing its national interests overseas.

Taiwan and the South China Sea

The report points to Taiwan and the South China Sea as examples of how China is using its growing economic and political power to assert itself through unilateral and bilateral actions.

China-Taiwan relations have remained cold in the last year. China continues to advocate for peaceful reunification while developing and deploying advanced military capabilities in the region. Taiwan has considered this military activity as an “enormous threat to security in the Taiwan Strait.”

Taiwan is rapidly losing allies to China while international organizations continue to deny Taiwan participation or observership to representatives from Taiwan. El Salvador became the third country this year to leave their allegiance with Taiwan and join China. Last month, eSwatini, formerly Swaziland, announced that they will not switch sides to China, remaining Taiwan’s last ally in Africa.

Further south from Taiwan, China continues to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea. In 2017, there has been no additional land reclamations by the Chinese, but infrastructure development has continued. This development is a part of China’s strategy to achieve control of the disputed waters.

“China ultimately wants to settle its claims with each claimant through bilateral frameworks to achieve the most favorable terms for China,” the report said.

Military modernization and restructuring

China’s first step in achieving its greater strategy is the modernization of a comprehensive military force. The report claims that China is achieving this through a combination of restructuring and technological advancement.

Restructuring of China’s military and strategy infrastructure has resulted in a shift from the People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA) to the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF). This restructured force has the intended capability of winning “informatized local wars”: regional conflicts characterized by “real-time, data-networked command and control, and precision strike,” the report said.

In addition to restructuring, China’s military is undergoing rapid modernization. The report claims that this modernization “targets capabilities with the potential to degrade core US operational and technological advantages,” the report said. Such core operations include information, cyber, and space operations. When paired with anti-access and area denial strategies, degradation of these core operations limits the US ability to intervene in Chinese operations, particularly in China’s near seas. The potential inability of the US to intervene is a part of China’s greater strategy to “dissuade, deter, or if ordered, defeat potential third-party intervention during a large-scale theater campaign”.

China’s regional dominance

According to the DoD report, modernization and restructuring of China’s military and security infrastructure has resulted in Chinese forces becoming dominant in the region, and competitive to the US.

A strong navy that outcompetes other regional neighbors, such as India and Japan, would allow China to assert power regionally and abroad.

“PLAN is the largest navy in the region by number of ships (more than 300) … expanded; it will consist of seven brigades and will be capable of overseas expeditionary operations,” the report said.

In conjunction with the naval modernization, a modernized air force would support the distant goals of the Chinese military. This modernization has resulted in the PLAAF as “the largest air force in the region and the third largest in the world,” the report said, with the aim of becoming a “strategic” air force.

Growth in the PLAAF “is closing the gap with the U.S. Air Force across a spectrum of capabilities, gradually eroding longstanding U.S. technical advantages,” the report said, a strong statement for the strength of the PLAAF.

All of this modernization is part of direction from China’s leadership for the PLA “to be capable of fighting and winning “informatized local wars” with an emphasis on “maritime military struggle,” the report said.

A period of strategic opportunity

China’s national interests under President Xi Jinping have been characterized by the idea of the 21st century as a “period of strategic opportunity” and that the current state of the world will allow China to develop and expand its “comprehensive national power”. This belief has driven China to push the boundaries, metaphorically and literally, of international law in order to “establish a powerful and prosperous China”. Associated with this physical expansion is an expansion of the Chinese image.

“China continued to contribute more peacekeeping forces than any other UN Security Council permanent member, supporting national objectives of improving China’s image abroad, gaining PLA operational experience, and gathering intelligence,” the report said.

A strong image abroad allows China to involve itself in key strategic regions abroad.

The diversity of tactics used in Chinese strategy places China in key partnerships with targeted states while they continue underhanded methods to pursue their national interest, if they deem necessary. The report identified certain state initiatives as a vehicle for this strategy, such as the massive “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI).

“The BRI is intended to develop strong economic ties with other countries, shape their interests to align with China’s, and deter confrontation or criticism of China’s approach to sensitive issues,” the report said.

By developing strong economic ties, China can pursue bilateral relationships with key strategic states that provide leverage in negotiation. Multilateral involvement limits China’s ability to utilize their growing economic and political power. Bilateral relationships are a concern for the DoD as they play to China’s strengths and limit US involvement in areas of concern to the US national interest.

China is supplementing its military build-up with “targeted foreign direct investment, cyber theft, and exploitation of private Chinese nationals’ access to these technologies,” the report states.

These findings demonstrate the growing concern in the US government about the economic relationship with China. Business and investment have tied the two economies together, while issues surrounding intellectual property and forced technology transfer have continued, creating concerns for US businesses and the DoD, which relies on technological advancement as a leg-up in its security and military strategy.

The DoD report recognizes this dilemma, stating that “the United States will continue to seek areas of cooperation with competitors, while preserving the ability to compete successfully from a position of strength. The United States seeks a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China.”

Through this statement, the DoD recognizes the growing status of China as a “competitor” but avoids limiting the space for engagement on certain key economic and security issues.

China’s military and security capabilities are clearly growing and are rapidly closing the gap with US capabilities. Meanwhile, China continues to advance its foreign policy agenda through a more active military and economic stance in its periphery. This report shows that the DoD is clear about the realities of China’s capabilities and national interests, yet the Department’s plans for dealing with this closing gap remains ambiguous and potentially limited by economic considerations.

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Michael W. Andrews

Michael is a Master of International Affairs student at GPS focusing on International Economics and China. His research interests focus on the intersection of Economics, Security, and the Environment in the Pacific region. Prior to GPS Michael received a B.A. in Global Studies and Maritime Affairs from CSU Maritime Academy.

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