China has strengthened and modernized its military capabilities in recent years to the point where its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is “already ahead of the United States” in some areas, the Pentagon said in a report to Congress published on Wednesday.
China now has the world’s largest navy, with an overall battle force of around 350 ships and submarines compared with the U.S.’s 293 ships, the report said.
Its ruling Chinese Communist Party now commands more than 1,250 ground launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, while the U.S.' arsenal contains GLBM with ranges of up to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs, it said.
China also boasts one of the world’s biggest advanced long range surface-to-air defense systems, the report found.
But it said recent improvements in the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations, its combat readiness, and its overseas reach were “more striking than the PLA’s staggering amounts of new military hardware.”
China under Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping also looks set to embark on a further three decades of PLA modernization and reform, it said.
The report was in stark contrast to a similar report in 2000, which found China’s armed forces to be “a sizable but mostly archaic military that was poorly suited to [Beijing’s] long-term ambitions.”
The report warned that China’s foreign policy seeks to change the rules-based international order and mold it into something closer to its ideology, and that the PLA looks set to be an effective tool with which to achieve those aims.
“It is likely that China will aim 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 China views as a threat to its sovereignty, security, and development interests,” the report said.
It said the PLA is developing capabilities to provide options for China to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale, theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency, the report said.
China has said Taiwan, a democratic island that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China, must “unify” with China or face a potential invasion by the PLA.
"For the U.S. to come out with a report like this means that it is letting the rest of the East Asia region know that it is watching what the PLA does very closely and ... and that if they cooperate with the U.S., they will have nothing to worry about," Taiwan military analyst Lee Cheng-hsiu told RFA.
"They also want to send the message to China that the U.S. military stands ready [in the Asia Pacific region], and isn't going anywhere," he said.
A growing nuclear power
China is also a growing nuclear power, according to the report.
“The number of warheads on ... land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years,” the report said.
“China’s nuclear forces will significantly evolve over the next decade as it modernizes, diversifies, and increases the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms,” it said.
A Chinese military commentator, who gave the pseudonym Li Feng, said the estimates likely stemmed from traceable, international transactions involving materials needed for the production of nuclear weapons.
"There are many clues, especially from the declaration, supervision, and verification mechanisms under the International Atomic Energy Agency," Li said. "China has participated in those processes, so it's possible to form a scientific estimate of the amount of weapons-grade nuclear material China can produce."
He said any significant expansion of the country's nuclear arsenal would also become apparent to the international community.
"There will be many clues to expansion that cannot be covered up," Li said.
Once China increases its nuclear weapons, it will become more isolated internationally
Surge in production
Li said a recent comment by Global Times editor Hu Xijin on social media to the effect that China should expand its nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads to curb U.S. strategic ambitions had likely made the job of Chinese negotiators at forthcoming strategic arms reduction talks with the U.S. far more difficult.
"The question is, what will the international community think of you if you suddenly produce 400 additional nuclear warheads, while claiming to want to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether?"
According to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has around 4,300 warheads, followed by the United States with 3,800, and China with about 320.
Lee Cheng-hsiu said given that China has a no-first-strike nuclear weapons policy, any future conflict with the U.S. will likely be limited to conventional warfare.
"If a war breaks out in East Asia, the most important thing will still be comparative conventional capabilities," Lee said. "That's why the U.S. [report] made a point of mentioning China's more than 1,000 conventional ballistic missiles, because they are capable of hitting Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea."
"Japan and South Korea are in a military alliance with the U.S., while the U.S. military also regards Taiwan as being of great strategic importance."
The U.S. report said the PLA, which already has a major military base in Djibouti, is likely planning to expand its overseas network of bases and logistics facilities.
Future locations could include Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan, it said.
“A global PLA military logistics network could interfere with U.S. military operations and provide flexibility to support offensive operations against the United States,” the report said.
Meanwhile, at home, the ruling Chinese Communist Party is pursuing increased militarization of the whole of Chinese society, and of the economy, under its “civilian-military fusion” policy that has previously been deployed in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where more than one million ethnic minority Muslims have been incarcerated in prisons and “re-education” camps, the report found.
The policy includes mixed military and civilian manufacturing facilities, technology resources and know-how, as well as building military requirements into civilian infrastructure and using it for military as well as civilian purposes.
“[This] means there is not a clear line between [China’s] civilian and military economies, raising due diligence costs for U.S. and global entities that do not desire to contribute to the PRC’s military modernization,” the report said.
China's defense ministry hit out at the report on Wednesday, calling it "utterly wrong" and a misinterpretation of Beijing's policy and military strategy.
The report "defamed China's military modernization, defense expenditure, nuclear policy and other issues", the ministry said in a statement.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.