BEIJING/WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sep 3, 2020 – The Chinese military firmly opposed a report by the US Department of Defense on China’s military, saying it is fraught with a zero-sum game mindset and Cold-war mentality. The statement by the Information Office of China’s Ministry of National Defense came in response to the US report that grossly overhyped the so-called “Chinese military threat”.
The report deliberately misinterpreted China’s national defense policy and military strategies. The office noted that the US report had slandered China’s military modernization, defense expenditure and nuclear policy, aggravated tensions across the Taiwan Strait and instigated cross-strait confrontations.
Earlier this week, on September 1st, the US Department of Defense released its annual “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” report. The 200-page report [pdf], in short, summarizes that China is now, actually, ahead of the US in numbers of ships, missiles and air defense.
In terms of defense policy, China has stated its defense policy aims to safeguard its sovereignty, security, and development interests. China’s military strategy remains based on the concept of active defense. China’s leaders stress the imperative of meeting key military transformation markers set in 2020 and 2035.
These milestones seek to align the People’s Liberation Army’s transformation with China’s overall national modernization so that by the end of 2049, China will be among few nations which field a world-class military, which at this moment only the US and the Russian Federation can claim.
By around 2050 China is likely to develop a military that is equal to or in some cases superior to the United States military, or that of any other great power that the People’s Republic of China views as a threat to its sovereignty, security, and development interests and not just in the Asia-Pacific region, but worldwide.
The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen the PRC’s ability to counter an intervention by an adversary in the Indo-Pacific region and project power globally. The allegedly “worrisome” thing to the US is that Beijing has already “achieved parity”, or even “surpassed” the US in several key areas.
While some parts of the report are factually true, most of it is a carefully constructed set of myths with the aim to show how the US has allegedly “fallen behind”. I will now disprove some of the points made in Pentagon’s report.
The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020. China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes.
The claim that China has the world’s largest navy is a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the PLAN’s capabilities. PLAN’s surface vessels are mostly composed of frigates, corvettes, destroyers and patrol ships, the main purpose of which is to ensure the safety of China’s territorial waters in and around the East and South China Sea. For example, PLAN fields 9 nuclear submarines, while the US Navy has 70.
The US Navy also has 11 nuclear supercarriers, as opposed to China’s 2 medium-size carriers. And while it is true that China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage, this mostly refers to China’s massive merchant navy, which is the third-largest in the world.
In addition, the US Navy, which is also responsible for the United States’ strategic sea-based nuclear arsenal, fields 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines equipped with a total of 336 Trident nuclear missiles, which is more than China’s entire nuclear arsenal of 320 nuclear weapons.
Land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles
The PRC has developed its conventional missile forces unrestrained by any international agreements. The PRC has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The United States currently fields one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs.
Since China was not a signatory to the now-defunct INF Treaty, it wasn’t required to dismantle its land-based medium-range missiles. And while it’s true that the US currently doesn’t operate such missiles, it still boasts an even bigger arsenal of ship-based land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles, most of which can carry nuclear warheads and pose a great danger to China’s massive coastal cities in case of a war.
Integrated air defense systems
The PRC has one of the world’s largest (second only to Russia) forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems, including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defense system (IADS) architecture.
This is factually true. China did acquire the world’s best air defense systems from Russia. However, as the name itself implies, air defense systems are defensive in nature. This fact would indicate a threat to the US Armed Forces only in the case that the US is planning to bomb China.
Further notes in the report
The 20th annual report on China by DoD noted the staggering improvements in China’s ability to build, coordinate and project power since the first report was issued.
“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 CCP’s long-term ambitions,” the report said.
“In 2000, the PLA lacked the capabilities, organization, and readiness for modern warfare,” the report said. “But the CCP”, it added, “recognized the shortcomings and set about with determination to strengthen and transform its armed forces in a manner commensurate with its aspirations to strengthen and transform China.”
“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” and for “expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint.”
In its commentary on the DoD assessment, the American Enterprise Institute noted that the report also stressed:
“The PRC has likely considered locations for PLA military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.”
The report further tries to accuse China of attempting to further its “global interests” through force.
“Of course, the CCP does not intend for the PLA to be merely a showpiece of China’s modernity or to keep it focused solely on regional threats,” the report said.
“As this report shows, the CCP desires the PLA to become a practical instrument of its statecraft with an active role in advancing the PRC’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the PRC’s increasingly global interests and its aims to revise aspects of the international order,” it added.
As I have previously stated, the report deliberately misinterprets China’s national defense policy and its military doctrine, which is primarily defensive in nature. This is especially true for China’s strategy in the South China Sea, which is the lifeline of China’s massive economy, with its exponential growth made possible only by China’s ability to ensure the safety of ships transporting Chinese goods across the world.