A Department of Defense (DOD) report assessing China’s military and non-military expansion worldwide examines the potential implications for the United States.
The report describes China’s expansion by a range of means, including military access and engagement; the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and Digital Silk Road initiatives; technology acquisition; and a growing economic footprint; with a focus on areas of military expertise.
The U.S. National Security Strategy states that China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor as the preeminent power.
China’s non-military plans for expansion
In non-military expansion efforts, President Xi has promoted the Digital Silk Road alongside OBOR. Although China’s government has revealed few details, President Xi has stated the initiative should involve cooperation and development in “frontier areas” including digital economy, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and quantum computing, as well as areas such as big data, cloud computing, and “smart cities.” President Xi has also linked the initiative to building information and communications technology infrastructure, particularly in developing countries, and to promoting cybersecurity and global internet governance reform
Chinese stateowned or state-affiliated enterprises, including China Telecom, China Unicom, China Mobile, Huawei, and ZTE, have invested or submitted bids globally in areas such as 5G mobile technology, fiber optic links, undersea cables, remote sensing infrastructure connected to China’s Beidou satellite navigation system, and other information and communications technology infrastructure.
In July 2018, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission denied a license application by China Mobile to operate in the United States, based on an executive branch recommendation which noted “concerns about increased risk to U.S. law enforcement and national security interests were unable to be resolved.” In August 2018, the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 prohibited U.S. federal government procurement of Huawei or ZTE telecommunications equipment, as well as telecommunications and video surveillance equipment from certain Chinese companies, among other provisions.
The DOD report says that while providing benefits to host countries, projects will also facilitate China’s efforts to expand science and technology cooperation, promote its unique national technical standards, further its objectives for technology transfer, and potentially enable politically-motivated censorship. Data legally acquired via some of these projects may also contribute to China’s own technological development in areas such as artificial intelligence – a field it seeks to lead the world in by 2030.
Implications for the US and its allies
DOD does not view all of China’s activities as problematic, and U.S. policy supports principles under which countries determine their own economic interests and needs. However, the DOD is concerned by actions China’s government has taken that are out of step with international norms, diminish countries’ sovereignty, or undermine the security of the United States, its allies, or its partners.
DOD believes that China’s expanding global activities in some areas present military force posture, access, training, and logistics implications for the United States and China. For example, the Chinese armed forces’ (People’s Liberation Army or PLA) first overseas military base in Djibouti and probable follow-on bases could conceivably increase China’s ability to deter use of conventional military force, sustain operations abroad, and hold strategic economic corridors at risk.
Some OBOR investments could also create potential military advantages for China, should it require access to selected foreign ports to pre-position the necessary logistics support to sustain naval deployments to protect its growing interests in waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean.
China’s wider global activities could also be leveraged to exert political influence. While many of China’s generous investment financing offers benefit their host nations, they often come with strings attached. The report provides 17 examples of cases in which Chinese investment and project financing that bypasses regular market mechanisms has resulted in negative economic effects for the host country; in which economic deals have carried costs to host country sovereignty; or in which China has employed economic incentives or economic coercion to achieve specific political objectives. The DOD report warns that China’s attempts to gain veto authority over other countries’ decisions, and its coercion directed at U.S. allies and partners in particular, will likely threaten U.S. posture and access if not addressed.
The report says China is also actively pursuing an intensive campaign to obtain critical, dual-use technologies through imports, foreign direct investment, industrial and cyberespionage, and establishment of foreign research and development centers.
DOD strategies respond to China’s globalization efforts
DOD has responded to these implications in line with the NDS, which identifies long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia as the principal priorities for the Department. DOD is implementing four strategies: building a more lethal force to gain military advantage, strengthening allies and partners to generate robust networks that can advance shared interests, reforming the Department to realize greater performance and affordability, and expanding the competitive space to create U.S. advantages and impose dilemmas on competitors. The report states that “competition does not mean conflict is inevitable, or preclude cooperation with China on areas of mutual interest”. The NDS aims to set the U.S. military relationship with China on a path of transparency and non-aggression.
DoD also supports a whole-of-government response as China’s expanding global activities are not primarily or exclusively a military issue. The report lists several select interagency initiatives DoD has supported including:
- Aligning the NDS with the U.S. National Security Strategy, which identifies growing competition with China as a long-term challenge and prompts a whole-of-government focus.
- The U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, which emphasizes a vision for a “free and open IndoPacific” that provides security, stability, and prosperity for all.
- Continuing to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.
- Confronting China over its market-distorting policies and practices, forced technology transfers, failure to respect intellectual property, and cyber intrusions into U.S. commercial networks.
- Working with the executive branch and Congress to maintain U.S. competitiveness and protect the U.S. national security innovation base.