China in recent years has poured billions of dollars into developing advanced weapons, some of which outclass U.S. weapons, but with an inexperienced military it remains years away from challenging American security interests globally, the Pentagon’s intelligence agency concluded in a report released Tuesday.
China has spent increasingly more money each year for more than a decade – including some $200 billion in 2018 – to modernize its weaponry and professionalize its People’s Liberation Army, which has roughly 2 million troops, Defense Intelligence Agency officials determined in the report, “China Military Power.” U.S. defense officials wrote China is building its force to ensure its regional prowess and work toward its No. 1 goal – the reunification of mainland China and Taiwan. The report is DIA’s first-ever unclassified, comprehensive assessment of the Chinese military.
What alarms DIA officials is the increasing confidence China’s military has displayed in its own abilities in recent years, and whether that could signal the country is inching toward striking or invading Taiwan, a senior defense intelligence official said Tuesday ahead of the report’s release.
“The biggest concern is that they are going to get to a point where the [Chinese military] leadership may actually tell [Chinese President] Xi Jinping that they are confident in their capabilities,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “We know in the past that they have … considered themselves a developing, weaker power. … As these technologies mature, as their reorganization of their military comes into effect, as they become more proficient with these capabilities, our concern is we’ll reach a point where internally, within their decision-making, they will decide that using military force for a regional conflict is something that is more imminent.”
Top American defense officials have long viewed China’s military as a rising power that eventually seeks parity with the U.S. military force, leading the Pentagon to list it – alongside Russia – as the top potential security threat in its latest National Defense Strategy released last year. The growing military might of China is said to be the primary focus for acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who defense officials said has repeatedly raised China as a topic in closed-door meetings in the Pentagon since he took the Defense Department’s reins Jan. 1.
On Tuesday, just as the DIA report was released, a top Chinese military official warned Adm. John Richardson, the U.S. Navy’s top officer, that the United States should not support an independent Taiwan, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper.
“If anyone wants to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will safeguard the national unity at all costs so as to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Gen. Li Zuocheng, the PLA’s chief of the Joint Staff Department, told Richardson during a meeting in Beijing, according to the newspaper.
Though China’s primary focus remains on defending its homeland and increasing its regional power, it has worked to establish military relationships with countries across the world, including building its first base outside of China in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa in 2017. It might seek such relationships elsewhere in the coming years, the DIA report states.
“As it continues to grow in strength and confidence, [U.S.] leaders will face a China insistent on having a greater voice in global interactions, which at times may be antithetical to U.S. interests,” it reads.
While DIA is most concerned about an eventual military action against Taiwan, in the near future its primary concerns rest in the South and East China Seas, where the Chinese military has built up and militarized artificial islands in areas claimed by China and other nations.
American officials have routinely scolded China’s militarization of the Spratly and Parcel islands, which China claims outright, and tensions have grown in recent years as the United States regularly sails warships through the region on freedom of navigation operations.
Those operations are seen as provocative by China. Such interactions carry the potential for miscalculation, the senior defense intelligence official said.
“Now that [China has] built out this infrastructure down there, they’re able to be present in a more persistent manner than they might have been before if they had to come all the way down from the mainland … to get into some conflict with a regional claimant or with the U.S.,” the official said. “And so the danger comes from them being present in more places at more times, and you always have to worry about potential for miscalculation, although I think we’ve seen, over the past several years, there have been close interactions between U.S. naval forces and the Chinese forces.”
On the technology front, DIA is concerned about advances the Chinese have made in modern weaponry including the unmatched anti-satellite capabilities that it has demonstrated recently and the development of directed-energy weapons and hypersonic weapons, which can travel at least five times the speed of sound.
They are “on the leading edge of technology in that area,” the official said.
China has also outpaced competitors in its ballistic missiles systems, creating more precise systems to carry conventional or nuclear weapons than others including the United States and Russia, largely because those nations were bound by treaty obligations that China was not, according to the DIA assessment.
The official called such advancements “concerning,” but concluded the Chinese military as a whole remained “a long way” from being in a position to truly challenge the U.S. military.
“I think in a lot of ways, they have a lot that they need to do,” the official said. “The challenge, of course, is for measuring against a globally active U.S. military that has many different missions and many different tasks, so I think there’s a very long way for the PLA to reach that level.”
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