Written by Bert Chapman.
The 2000 National Defense Authorization Act saw Congress direct the Pentagon to prepare an annual report on Chinese military power in classified and unclassified versions. A 2010 amendment to this legislation directed this report to cover emerging Chinese military-technological developments and forecast future trends and developments in Beijing’s military strategies and Sino-U.S. engagement and cooperation on security matters.
The 2017 edition of this report was recently released and provides detailed coverage of these matters. Specific subjects addressed include 2016 Chinese military power developments, understanding Chinese strategy, force modernization trends and goals, military spending trends, Beijing’s military force modernization for a Taiwan contingency, U.S-China military-to-military contacts and exchanges, and Chinese and Taiwanese forces data.
Notable 2016 Chinese military developments include reforms intended to enhance the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ability to conduct joint operations; improve its ability to fight short duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater geographic distances from the Chinese mainland; and strengthen the Communist Party’s control over the military. These changes include establishing new command elements and units including the Joint Staff Department, Joint Operations Command Center, Overseas Operations Office, Joint Logistics Support Force, and reorganising the Central Military Commission into 15 functional departments, offices, and commissions. The PLA has also established five regionally based joint theaters: Northern, Central, Western, Southern, and Eastern, and using its increasing power to assert sovereignty claims over East and South China Seas features including photographically documented construction at military outposts in the Spratly Islands such as Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs featuring runways at least 8,800 feet long, large port facilities, and water and fuel storage.
This report also notes Beijing’s annual military spending increased an average of 8.5% annually in inflation-adjusted terms between 2007-2016 and that Chinese leaders appear committed to maintaining increased defence spending with slowing national economic growth. Such spending reached $144.3 billion per year in 2016, although the Department of Defense (DOD) maintains this actual annual spending exceeds $180 billion but that poor accounting transparency makes calculating these military expenditures difficult, that Beijing’s published military budget excludes research and development and foreign weapons purchases, and that noted defense analysis firm Jane’s 360 expects China’s defense spending to increase annually by 7% reaching $260 billion by 2020.
This military modernization targets capabilities with the potential to weaken critical U.S. military-technological advantages. China seeks to enhance its modernization by acquiring foreign military and dual-use technologies through cyber espionage, foreign direct investment, and exploiting Chinese nationals having access to these technologies. 2016 saw China use its intelligence services and other illegal approaches to violate U.S. laws and export controls to obtain national security and export-restricted technologies, controlled equipment, and other materials. This was demonstrated in August 2016 by the U.S. sentencing a naturalized citizen to 50 months imprisonment for conspiring with a Chinese national to violate the Arms Export Control Act by attempting to illegally buy and export jet engines used in F-16, F-22, and F-35 fighter aircraft, the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle, and related technical data.
The growing use of the Chinese Coast Guard and China Maritime Militia to advance Beijing’s maritime claims is noted. Additional noteworthy developments chronicled here include Army modernization emphasising across theatre mobility exercises, combat brigade mechanisation, creating high mobility infantry and combined arms battalions, and delivering advanced command, control, communication, computers, and intelligence (C4I) equipment providing real-time data-sharing at division and brigade level. China’s Navy is retiring legacy combatants and replacing them with larger multi-mission ships featuring advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors. This modernization facilitates a naval transition from “near sea” defence to a mixture of “near sea” and “far seas” protection.
The Air Force now includes 2,700 aircraft (not including UAV’s) and is modernising rapidly closing the gap with Western forces in a broad range of capabilities while also possessing of the world’s largest forces of advanced surface-to-air missiles. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is responsible for China’s land-based conventional and nuclear missiles and is enhancing modernization of its arsenal including deploying the DF-26 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile capable of conducting conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets and conventional strikes against western Pacific Ocean naval targets. The Strategic Support Force (SSF) established in late 2015 is believed to guide the PLA’s cyber, electronic warfare, and space missions. The PLA appears to see space as a “commanding height” and continues striving to develop Beijing’s space and counter-space capabilities by enhancing its space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, satellite communication, and navigation, meteorology, human spaceflight, and robotic space exploration capabilities.
Chinese strategic objectives include perpetuating Communist Party rule, maintaining domestic stability, sustaining economic growth and development, defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity, securing great power status by acquiring regional preeminence; and safeguarding overseas interests. China maintains an active defense strategy stressing operational proactivity, using coercive tactics short of armed conflict with the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies to advance its interest, beginning construction of an overseas military base in Djibouti in February 2016, and increasing its Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities against adversary forces that might deploy or operate in the Western Pacific’s air, electromagnetic, information, maritime, and space domains in the event of a contingency operation directed against Taiwan. Additional Beijing strategic objectives include a nuclear weapons policy emphasising maintain a nuclear force capable of surviving a first strike and responding with enough strength to inflict unacceptable damage on an enemy and increasing support for the spectrum of its defence industry in missile, space, aviation, naval, and shipbuilding sectors.
For nearly two decades, the unclassified version of this report has become essential reading for those interested in Chinese military, security, and strategic developments. Its contents feature relevant insights on how the U.S. and allied countries may need to respond to China’s growing military power and capabilities along with its increasing geopolitical assertiveness. This analysis is augmented with helpful maps, charts, photographs, and statistics to enhance visual understanding and comprehension of Chinese military capabilities and strategies.
Concern over the strength and readiness of the U.S. military in relationship to China and other strategic threats has become more apparent in U.S. strategic analysis. The Trump Administration’s recently proposed 2018 defense spending budget request proposes increasing the Pentagon’s discretionary budget by $52 billion to $639 billion and includes military modernization funding by increasing the number of Navy ships, expanding Air Force tactical fleet readiness including increasing the number of F-35 fighters, reversing Army troop reductions, strengthening the Marine Corps, and creating a larger, more capable, and lethal military force aspiring to maintain U.S. superiority on air, cyberspace, land, sea, and space with countering Chinese assertiveness being a key factor prompting this increased military spending. The congressional budget process in coming months will see how much of this proposed increase the Pentagon receives and how much of it will be implemented to counter China in subsequent years.