Home/Articles/Realism & Restraint/The Pentagon Sizes Up China, Sees a Serious Military Threat

The Pentagon Sizes Up China, Sees a Serious Military Threat

Yet projecting power is also expensive for an America with little money to spare. How should Washington proceed?

China's tank crew members take part in a tank biathlon competition at the 2020 International Army Games at the Alabino training ground. Sergei Karpukhin/TASS (Photo by Sergei KarpukhinTASS via Getty Images)

The purpose of America’s military is to protect the United States. That requires imagining all manner of potential dangers. And in the Pentagon’s eye, the People’s Republic of China is moving from theoretical to serious military threat.

The “2020 China Military Power Report” is the 20th such document from the Department of Defense. When the first issue appeared, America had little reason to worry. Explains the latest analysis:

DOD’s first annual report to Congress in 2000 assessed the PRC’s armed forces at that time to be a sizable but mostly archaic military that was poorly suited to the [Chinese Communist Party]’s long-term ambitions. The report recognized the CCP’s objective was for the PRC to become a “strong, modernized, unified, and wealthy nation.” Despite these great power aspirations, the [People’s Liberation Army] lacked the capabilities, organization, and readiness for modern warfare. Yet the CCP understood these deficiencies and set long-term goals to strengthen and transform its armed forces in a manner commensurate with its aspirations to strengthen and transform China.

In the intervening two decades, China’s economy has exploded. Today, China is second only to the U.S.—first if you base it on purchasing power parity—and has created a modern, high-tech society. As a result, Beijing has acquired enormous economic and political influence abroad.

The CCP has taken advantage of the torrent of new wealth and steadily increased military outlays. Although Beijing still lags behind America militarily, the gap has closed substantially. China is not a power to be trifled with and its ambitions have expanded accordingly. Observes DOD:

Two decades later, the PLA’s objective is to become a “world-class” military by the end of 2049—a goal first announced by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2017. Although the CCP has not defined what a ‘world-class’ military means, within the context of the PRC’s national strategy it is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military, or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat. As this year’s report details, the PRC has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect. Indeed, as this report shows, China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas.

The most immediate role for this growing military is regional, which means direct defense of China and domination of the surrounding area, rather like U.S. treatment of the Western Hemisphere. However, Beijing’s expanded global role has increased the number and importance of its foreign relationships. The PLA is expected to support a broader and more aggressive foreign policy intended to advance those interests and, in the Pentagon’s view, support the PRC’s “aims to revise aspects of the international order.”

Unsurprisingly, given the rapid growth and transformation of the PLA, there remain “major gaps and shortcomings,” according to the Pentagon. However, Chinese officials are seeking to address such weaknesses. Defeating China would be no cakewalk.

For a United States used to the status of dominant power, China’s transformation poses a particularly daunting challenge. Increasingly military leaders and political officials are calling for higher military expenditures to confront this allegedly growing and potentially dire threat.

The nature of the Chinese “threat” is unique. It is not against America directly, an existential challenge that could eliminate the U.S. as a free and independent society, highly integrated in the world system and exceedingly influential around the world. Rather the challenge is primarily over Washington’s continuing dominance of the Asia-Pacific up to China’s coast. In effect, the U.S. currently enforces the Monroe Doctrine in Asia as well as North America (along with Europe and the Middle East too!). This hubris, that Washington can continue to dictate international arrangements everywhere, especially in Asia, looks increasingly uncertain.

The most threatening armament for any nation is a strategic nuclear force. Today, only Russia possesses a nuclear arsenal equivalent to America’s. Beijing is focused on improving its deterrent and moving towards great power and even superpower status.

Explains the Pentagon: “China’s strategic ambitions, evolving view of the security landscape, and concerns over survivability are driving significant changes to the size, capabilities, and readiness of its nuclear forces.” The PRC will modernize its forces and increase their readiness. Most important for the U.S., “Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile—currently estimated to be in the low-200s—is projected to at least double in size.” Moreover, “China is pursuing a ‘nuclear triad’ with the development of a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improving its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities,” which will bring these forces to a closer match with those of the U.S. and Russia.

Such a force structure is not adequate for a first strike or an attempt at coercion, neither of which would be easy even with a larger arsenal, given America’s active stockpile of 3,800 warheads, of which 1,365 are currently actively deployed. Indeed, this array almost guarantees that the continental U.S. will not be attacked by China regardless of how relations develop.

In contrast, the Chinese homeland is at potentially great risk. The most likely Sino-American confrontation would be a conventional clash in East Asia. The U.S. would rely on land bases scattered among friendly states and naval forces centered on aircraft carriers to battle China over contingencies involving Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. The PRC would mostly operate from the mainland. That means any war almost certainly would entail American assaults on China proper, though Washington would not seek to occupy the mainland. Thus, the American threat facing China is serious, if not existential.

In this environment, it is unsurprising that Beijing is focused on preventing U.S. action against China, not attacking America. According to the Pentagon:

  • The PLA is developing capabilities to provide options for the PRC to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale, theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency.
  • The PLA’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are currently the most robust within the First Island Chain, although the PRC aims to strengthen its capabilities to reach farther into the Pacific Ocean.
  • The PRC also continues to increase its military capabilities to achieve regional and global security objectives beyond a Taiwan contingency.
  • The PLA is developing the capabilities and operational concepts to conduct offensive operations within the Second Island Chain, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in some cases, globally.

Although overall China’s military lags behind America’s, there are areas of vulnerability for the U.S., according to the DOD. One is shipbuilding. Indeed, by number, Beijing currently deploys the world’s largest navy. Moreover, notes the Pentagon: “The PRC has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The United States currently fields one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs.” Beijing also has a substantial, well-integrated air defense system.

It is worth noting that the latter is defensive, reducing Washington’s ability to attack. China’s missiles could be used for offense but in practice they primarily represent a deterrent to American offensive action. Beijing’s naval build-up offers both defensive and offensive possibilities, though China possesses limited ability to launch a D-Day-style amphibious invasion against its island neighbors. Although the U.S. maintains a superior force overall, China can concentrate on the Asia theater. In response, Washington would look for assistance, most notably from Japan and Australia, in a serious conflict with Beijing.

There is much detail in the Pentagon report, which offers a sobering warning for those who imagine Pax Americana lasting throughout the 21st century. Nevertheless, at base, the news remains good. The U.S. is fundamentally secure, with geography still a natural defense, a world filled with allies and friends, soft power that attracts even those skeptical of Washington’s pretensions to global leadership, and a military that will be able to deter the PRC even if the latter achieves the military superiority that its leaders may crave.

In contrast, China faces serious economic, demographic, and political problems. Overall, it remains surprisingly poor, the benefits of growth having been shared very unevenly, and its population is rapidly aging. The regime spends more on internal security to subjugate its own people than on the PLA to defend against foreign threats. Its contentious “wolf warrior” diplomacy has driven nations toward America. The brutal crackdown at home and aggressive stance abroad have lost Beijing much of the soft power it might have had.

The ultimate challenge for America is how much it is willing spend and risk to impose its will on China in its own neighborhood. No matter how worthy the objectives, such as ensuring Taiwanese independence, projecting power is far more expensive than deterring attack. The burden on Washington will grow even as American finances face ever greater challenge in coming years.

There is an alternative strategy for Washington: aiding friendly states in creating their own deterrents, based on A2/AD capabilities similar to those being created by Beijing. Indeed, at some point, the U.S. should consider the wisdom of dropping its objection to proliferation among friends, most notably Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia. The objections are obvious and serious. Nevertheless, the most effective way to safeguard the independence of such states while minimizing the risk to America would be for each to possess the ability to retaliate with great force against Chinese aggression.

Dealing with Beijing is likely to be the greatest challenge for the incoming administration, whoever is president. In a changing world, Washington can no long can assume that it will always possess the largest and most sophisticated military on earth. Abundant creativity and ingenuity will be required to fashion a cost-effective defense in the decades ahead.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

leave a comment

Latest Articles