WASHINGTON: The Chinese military has already pushed ahead of the US in areas like shipbuilding, missile defense, ballistic and cruise missile construction, the Pentagon warned today in a blunt new assessment.
One of the consistent themes of the annual China Military Power report is that much of the Chinese modernization effort remains a work in progress. The People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, is an “increasingly modern and flexible force” that relies on China’s civilian industrial might and its robust tech sector to drive improvements to build a force aimed at rivaling the US military by mid-century.
As part of that push, the PLA is moving forward on its own nuclear triad, recently revealing the new H-6N as its first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuelable bomber, giving Beijing land, sea and air-deliverable nuclear weapons for the first time.
China is expected to double the number of its nuclear warheads over the next decade to around 400, the Pentagon analysis says, a key reason the Trump administration has been so eager to include — albeit unsuccessfully — China in arms control talks along with Russia.
While China has so far refused to discuss the issue, the American estimate of 200-odd nuclear warheads currently in the Chinese stockpile marks the first time the US has publicly estimated the number of Chinese nuclear capabilities, a signal of Washington’s growing unease. Even with that expected growth, of course, China’s nuclear force would still be dwarfed by the estimated 3,800 US warheads in active and reserve status.
The nuclear modernization is just part of a larger effort, however.
Underpinning the entire military buildup is the blending of the Chinese civilian and military industrial bases and tech innovation sector — driven by its Military-Civil Fusion Development Strategy — which allows the military to pick the best and most fully developed technologies for its own use.
There’s “not a clear line between the PRC’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 states.
The Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for China, Chad Sbragia, said at an American Enterprise Institute event today that the Chinese military is “not intended to be merely a showpiece of Chinese modernity” but is a tool for the government to press its advantage diplomatically around the globe.
“The Communist Party has spent the last several years completely tearing out and rewiring the PLA organizationally with the goal of transforming into a joint force that is more combat ready, innovative and global,” Sbragia said.
Critical to this is the Military-Civil Fusion Development Strategy, which the Pentagon tellingly spends some time detailing in today’s report.
It is meant to link “China’s defense industrial base and its civilian technology and industrial base,” the report states, while “integrating and leveraging science and technology innovations across military and civilian sectors.” By blending military and civilian expertise and knowledge, the PLA has built a system which inserts military requirements into civilian infrastructure, and includes “all relevant aspects of its society and economy for use in competition and war.”
Those structural advantages have led the Pentagon to conclude that China has already achieved parity with—or even exceeded—the United States in several areas, including shipbuilding. The Chinese navy is already the largest in the world, with about 350 ships and submarines. While it has never been tested in combat and cannot claim to be a blue water navy yet since it has rarely strayed too far from its home ports.
The Pentagon is also concerned about China’ 1,250 ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The US currently fields a single type of conventional ground-based ballistic missile with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no ground launched cruise missiles. The PLA also “has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems,” the report notes, including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems.
Given the alarming assessment, Sbragia cautioned today that “the report does not claim that China’s military is currently 10 feet tall, nor, I think, certainly does China either. It clearly faces a number of challenges, and Beijing is working to overcome those, which is really an important point.”