China is making steady and ominous gains in the quality of its military forces and its ability to project power—while making more open challenges to the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific and worldwide, according to the Pentagon’s 173-page China Military Power Report released in late August.
China has surpassed the U.S. in the size of its naval force, its missiles, and air defenses, and is rapidly narrowing the gap in other areas of military competition, the report says. At the same time, China continues to pursue asymmetric means for neutralizing U.S. military strengths. The imbalance of power across the Taiwan Strait also continues to grow in China’s favor.
As if to confirm those conclusions, China conducted large-scale military exercises near Taiwan and fired ballistic missiles into the South China Sea in September. It also released a propaganda video showing animated Chinese bombers attacking and destroying U.S. military facilities in Guam, promising in the video to hold any “aggressors” at bay.
Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, told reporters on Aug. 31 that China sees the current world order as “antithetical to their socialist system and an intolerable constraint on their strategic ends.” It views U.S. world alliances as “destabilizing and irreconcilable” with China’s rise as a world military power and seeks “reform of the global governance system” in its favor. Toward that end, it’s applying “all-of-government” means—economic, military, messaging, and diplomatic—to undermine the U.S. and become a “world-class military” by 2050.
While China has not defined exactly what that means, Sbragia said the Pentagon consensus is that “it is likely China will aim to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to, and in many cases superior to, the United States’ military or that of any other great power that the Chinese view as a threat.”
China’s defense budget is now reported to be about $200 billion a year, up 6.1 percent since 2019. While China’s economy is growing more slowly than 10 years ago, its defense spending has doubled. However, comparisons with the U.S. military budget are difficult, since China pays less for personnel costs and goods and services than the U.S., and continues to acquire advanced military technology through illicit means overseas, the Pentagon said.
The last defense white paper published by China noted the need to coordinate technology development between the military and commercial industrial base, and China is moving to accelerate improvements in joint warfare among its military branches, the Pentagon report stated.
As China looks outward, it is also pursuing new overseas bases, seeking basing rights in “Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.” China already has an established base in Djibouti, not far from the U.S. facility there.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now “the largest …in the world,” according to the Pentagon, which tallies it as having 350 ships, including 130 major surface combatants, versus the U.S. Navy, which deploys 293 ships. China’s land-based ballistic and ground-launched cruise missile inventory, with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km, totals 1,250. The U.S. has just one ground-launched ballistic missile type, with a range under 300 km, and has no ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs), although the U.S. is considering mounting Navy Tomahawk GLCMs on trucks now that the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia is dead.
The number of China’s air-launched cruise missiles, as mounted on the H-6 bomber, are increasing, and a growing number of bombers are fitted for aerial refueling, extending their range. The new H-6N bomber, with nuclear cruise missile capability, gives China a “true” nuclear triad.
Equipped with Russian-designed S-300s and S-400s, as well as a Chinese copy, the HQ-9, China’s air defense system is “robust and redundant” and one of the best in the world, the Pentagon said. These systems will soon be able to intercept ballistic missiles as well as aircraft, and can also launch ballistic missiles themselves.
China already had the world’s largest standing army, coast guard, and “maritime militia.”
The report for the first time enumerates how many operational nuclear warheads China may have: Pentagon analysts estimate the number “in the low 200s,” Sbragia said. They also project that the figure will double within the decade to more than 400—even without producing more fissile material. The U.S., meanwhile, has 3,800 warheads, plus thousands more that are retired and waiting to be dismantled.
Despite the lopsided U.S. advantage, however, Sbragia said the U.S. is concerned about China’s trajectory, which he called “the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal” in its history. This signals a move “away from their historical minimum deterrence posture,” Sbragia asserted, and, by growing China’s nuclear infrastructure, allows it to “grow their force beyond this number, which is part of the point.” The lack of transparency about what China’s nuclear program poses is worrying and “why we certainly included that in this year’s report.”
Much of China’s rocket force could carry conventional or nuclear warheads and is becoming more precise as China increases its capabilities in space. A new intercontinental ballistic missile now in development could carry multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles, and China’s nuclear posture is becoming more aggressive, shifting to “launch on warning.” Sbragia said that does not mean China is giving up its “no-first-use” nuclear policy, but he sees “some ambiguity” in its approach.
The U.S. wants China to be part of future discussions about strategic arms limits in part to increase transparency. The U.S. has told Russia it will not extend the New START Treaty unless it includes China. Russia, for its part, says it cannot compel China to participate, and China has said it’s not interested. Sbragia said the U.S. is “willing to make progress with Russia while waiting on China.”
Following U.S. lead, China is developing a civilian space launch industry modeled on U.S. firms such as SpaceX to build a competitive launch-for-hire enterprise. One of China’s new space launch startups is even called “ExPace.” China is also diversifying its range of launch vehicles and increasing its lofting capability, while also expanding its military and commercial satellites to “scientific endeavors and space exploration.”
The Taiwan Imbalance
The implications for Taiwan are significant. China is developing both advanced capabilities and concepts and expanding its sheer quantity advantage, Sbragia said.
With more than 1,500 fighters, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) will soon become “a majority 4th-generation force,” the report said. The combined PLAAF and PLAN field the third-largest air force in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to upgrading its H-6 bomber fleet—based on the old Soviet-era “Badger” types—Beijing is converting some into tankers and developing a stealth bomber believed to be called the H-20. The Pentagon report quoted unnamed “commentators” as saying that plane could take “more than a decade” to enter service.
China’s J-20 indigenous stealth attack plane—with features clearly derived from the U.S. F-22 and F-35—is now in production, and the first squadron is operational at a base in China’s interior. The FC-31/J-31, looking much like the U.S. F-35, is in developmental testing and expected to equip Chinese aircraft carriers and compete with the F-35 in the export market. China’s J-10, analogous to the U.S. F-16, continues to get upgrades including new weapons, a new air inlet, new radar and other sensors, and thrust-vectoring.
To refuel its growing air fleet, China has Soviet-designed Il-78 Midas tankers purchased from Ukraine, and a tanker variant of its Y-20 cargo plane—an American C-17 lookalike—is in development. The PLAAF is also stepping up production of the KJ-500 airborne warning and control (AEWC) aircraft, an analogy to the U.S. E-3 AWACS. Without revealing details, the Pentagon said these and other AEWC aircraft are able to detect more aircraft “and at greater distances” than versions of a few years ago.
The report also noted that China is paralleling the U.S. in its organization of information warfare, consolidating psychological operations, cyber operations, and some cyber espionage into unified commands. Besides foreign militaries and defense companies, China is “targeting” media organizations, academic institutions, and think-tanks to shape its messaging. The Pentagon noted that China’s most recent white paper called democracies such as the U.S. “more susceptible to influence operations” than other nations.
China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea continues, as once sand-and-concrete spits have bloomed into full-blown air and sea bases with aircraft and vessels deployed there full time. China continues to claim waters well beyond the 12-mile limit as its sovereign “internal” seaways.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who recently commanded Pacific Air Forces, said in a Sept. 22 interview with Defense One that China moves gradually and with subtlety. Its island-building campaign “happened so slowly and methodically,” he said, “it doesn’t really get your attention until it’s already happened.”
In hindsight, he said, the U.S. “could have been a little more vocal” in discouraging China’s sea-grab, and said the U.S. will continue to conduct “freedom of navigation” flights through the area “despite the claims of the PRC (People’s Republic of China).”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told The Washington Times in a September interview that the U.S. for decades permitted China to “engage in threatening or disruptive behavior…[and] expand their capacity and their footprint.” China once promised not to militarize the South China Sea, he said, and has reneged on promises to allow Hong Kong home rule.
Pompeo said the U.S. will push back against Chinese expansion. For example, the U.S. recently approved a long-deferred, $8 billion sale to Taiwan of 66 new F-16s, upgrades for older ones, and standoff missiles. The new aircraft will be delivered through 2026. The U.S. does not want war with China, Pompeo said, blaming China for increased tensions. China, he said, must “reduce what they’re doing.”