Photo by Lisa Ferdinando for DoD

DOD Warns of Threat From China’s Military Growth and Nuclear Intentions

The Department of Defense (DoD) has released its twentieth annual report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”. The congressionally mandated report serves as an authoritative assessment on military and security developments involving the PRC. 

This year’s report highlights the links between China’s national strategy and developments within China’s armed forces. DoD’s first annual report to Congress in 2000 assessed the PRC’s armed forces at that time to be “a sizable but mostly archaic military that was poorly suited to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) long-term ambitions”. Fast forward twenty years and the world is witnessing the aggressive assertion of China’s national strategy in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, where China continues to undermine the international rules-based order.

China’s military modernization

Under the leadership of the CCP, China’s national strategy now calls for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, including the transformation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world-class” military. Indeed, in 2019, the PRC recognized that its armed forces should take a more active role in advancing its foreign policy, highlighting the increasingly global character that Beijing ascribes to its military power. In addition, the CCP has tasked the PLA to develop the capability to project power outside China’s borders and immediate periphery to secure the PRC’s growing overseas interests and advance its foreign policy goals. According to the report, CCP is “very likely already considering and planning for” the establishment of military logistics facilities outside China that can support naval, air and ground forces.

China aims for complete military modernization by 2035 and DoD reports that the PRC has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect. Indeed, as the 2020 report shows, China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas including shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems.

The report notes that “more striking than the PLA’s staggering amounts of new military hardware are the recent sweeping efforts taken by CCP leaders that include completely restructuring the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint.”

In recent years, CCP leaders have directed the PLA to improve its combat readiness and DoD says this is increasingly evident in the intensity of the PLA’s training and the complexity and scale of its exercises.

Power projection

DoD’s report identifies several capabilities for counter intervention and power projection. It states that the PLA is developing capabilities to provide options for the PRC to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale, theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency. The report adds that the PLA’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are currently the most robust within the First Island Chain, although the PRC aims to strengthen its capabilities to reach farther into the Pacific Ocean. 

DoD says the PRC also continues to increase its military capabilities to achieve regional and global security objectives beyond a Taiwan contingency, and that the PLA is developing the capabilities and operational concepts to conduct offensive operations within the Second Island Chain, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in some cases, globally. In addition to strike, air and missile defense, anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities improvements, China is focusing on information, cyber, and space and counterspace operations.

New era warfare

On China’s cyber capabilities, the report notes, “Chinese cyber attack operations aim to target critical military and civilian nodes to deter or disrupt adversary intervention, and to retain the option to scale these attacks to achieve desired conditions with minimal strategic cost. China believes its cyber capabilities and cyber personnel lag behind the United States, and it is working to improve training and bolster domestic innovation to overcome these perceived deficiencies and advance cyberspace operations.”

China continues to strive for leadership in key technologies with military potential, such as AI, autonomous systems, advanced computing, quantum information sciences, biotechnology, and advanced materials and manufacturing. DoD says China has invested significant resources to fund research and subsidize companies involved in strategic S&T fields while pressing private firms, universities, and provincial governments to cooperate with the military in developing advanced technologies. “China continues to undermine the integrity of the U.S. science and technology research enterprise through a variety of actions such as hidden diversions of research, resources, and intellectual property,” the report notes. Meanwhile, the country pursues many vectors to acquire foreign technologies, including both licit and illicit means.

“The PRC’s efforts include a range of practices and methods to acquire sensitive and dualuse technologies and military-grade equipment to advance its military modernization goals,” states DoD. “The PRC leverages foreign investments, commercial joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, and state-sponsored industrial and technical espionage, and the manipulation of export controls for the illicit diversion of dual-use technologies to increase the level of technologies and expertise available to support military research, development, and acquisition.” The report lists PRC’s efforts to acquire dynamic random access memory, aviation, and anti-submarine warfare technologies as examples.

Nuclear triad

DoD also warns of significant changes to the size, capabilities, and readiness of China’s nuclear forces. “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. Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile—currently estimated to be in the low200s—is projected to at least double in size as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces. China is pursuing a “nuclear triad” with the development of a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile and improving its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities. New developments in 2019 further suggest that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning posture with an expanded silobased force.” Further, the report notes China’s near-complete lack of transparency over its nuclear forces raised legitimate questions over its intent as it fields larger and more capable nuclear forces.

Military-Civil Fusion

In 2019, the PRC announced its annual military budget would increase by 6.2 percent, continuing more than 20 years of annual defense spending increases and sustaining its position as the second largest military spender in the world. DoD’s report notes that PRC’s published military budget omits several major categories of expenditures and its actual military-related spending is higher than what it states in its official budget. China’s economic development supports its military modernization not only by providing the means for larger defense budgets, but through deliberate Party-led initiatives, as well as the systemic benefits of China’s growing national industrial and technological base.

The PRC pursues a Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) Development Strategy which fuses its economic and social development strategies with its security strategies to build an integrated national strategic system and capabilities in support of China’s national rejuvenation goals. MCF encompasses six interrelated efforts: 

  • fusing the China’s defense industrial base and its civilian technology and industrial base;
  • integrating and leveraging science and technology innovations across military and civilian sectors; 
  • cultivating talent and blending military and civilian expertise and knowledge; 
  • building military requirements into civilian infrastructure and leveraging civilian construction for military purposes; 
  • leveraging civilian service and logistics capabilities for military purposes; and, 
  • expanding and deepening China’s national defense mobilization system to include all relevant aspects of its society and economy for use in competition and war. 

While MCF has broader purposes than acquiring foreign technology, in practice, MCF means there is 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.

A committed response

DoD asserts that the CCP’s leadership has long viewed China as embroiled in a major international strategic competition with other states, including, and in particular, the United States. The same may be said of the United States in terms of its relationship with China, as is evident by these annual assessments, although the U.S. has largely adopted a reactive stance, responding to CCP policy, strategy and actions in order to protect allies as well as U.S. interests.

Last September, then undersecretary of defense for policy, John C Rood said it was not an exaggeration to say China is the greatest long-term threat to the U.S. way of life, adding that China also poses the greatest challenge to the Defense Department.

The United States doesn’t seek a confrontational approach, nor is it destined to be adversaries with China, Rood noted. “We want to trade. We want to have interactions. But on the other hand, we want to protect our intellectual property,” he said. “We want to protect the rules-based international order that we’ve both worked so hard to create since World War II. And we want respect for the sovereignty of others. We want respect for the role of individual in society.”

Speaking at this week’s American Enterprise Institute forum, Chad Sbragia, current deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, said the U.S. has increased its military actions in response to recent Chinese activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

“When we say we’re committed; we’re committed. We’re all in.”

Read the full report at the Department of Defense

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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