The Pentagon recently published its annual report concerning China’s military, a 212 pages long report, covering a broad range of issues related to significant developments in China’s national security from the past year. Here are some key highlights:
UNDERSTANDING CHINA’S STRATEGY
CHINA’S NATIONAL STRATEGY
- The PRC’s national strategy is to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049. The strategy is a determined pursuit of political, social, and military modernity to expand the PRC’s national power, perfect its governance, and revise the international order in support of the PRC’s system of governance and national interests. The PRC views the United States as deploying a whole-of-government effort meant to contain the PRC’s rise, which presents obstacles to its national strategy.
- The PRC characterizes its view of strategic competition in terms of a rivalry among powerful nation states, as well as a clash of opposing ideological systems. PRC leaders believe that structural changes in the international system and a confrontational United States are the root causes of intensifying strategic competition between the PRC and the United States.
- In March 2023, Xi Jinping told delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that “Western countries led by the United States have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement, and suppression against us, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”
- The PRC’s strategy entails deliberate and determined efforts to amass, improve, and harness the internal and external elements of national power that will place the PRC in a “leading position” in an enduring competition between systems.
- In the 20th Party Congress Political Work Report, the CCP expanded on its calls to prepare for an increasingly turbulent international climate, while reporting it had “enhanced” the PRC’s security on all fronts and “withstood political, economic, ideological, and natural risks, challenges, and trials.
- The PRC’s foreign policy seeks to build a “community of common destiny” that supports its strategy to realize “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The PRC’s ambition to reshape the international order derives from the objectives of its national strategy and the Party’s political and governing systems.
- Beginning late 2022 Beijing launched a diplomatic ‘charm offensive’ targeting European countries in an apparent effort to improve perceptions of Beijing following years of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and COVID isolation.
- In April 2022, Xi Jinping announced the Global Security Initiative (GSI). Echoing the previous year’s rollout of the Global Development Initiative (GDI), Beijing has promoted GSI extensively and attempted to insert GSI language into multilateral forums and documents.
- Russia’s war on Ukraine in February 2022 represented a major, unexpected challenge for the PRC as it sought to react to the largest military conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. As Beijing deliberates the scale and scope of materiel commitments to Russia’s war on Ukraine, it probably will seek to balance its strategic partnership with Russia while avoiding reputational or economic costs that could result from its assistance.
- At the end of 2022, China abruptly reversed its zero-COVID policy. The decision to implement China’s reopening took most by surprise and was probably triggered by country-wide protests against the PRC’s zero-COVID policies, economic pressures, and fiscal difficulties for local governments.
- The 20th Party Congress emphasized the importance of quality growth rather than the speed of growth. General Secretary Xi also highlighted “common prosperity,” more equitable access to basic public services, a better multi-tiered social security system, and cultural and green developments as a few of the PRC’s economic initiatives.
- The PRC’s ongoing military modernization objectives are commensurate with and part of China’s broader national development aspirations.
CHINA’S BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE (BRI)
- The PRC uses BRI to support its strategy of national rejuvenation by seeking to expand global transportation and trade linkages to support its development and deepen its economic integration with nations along its periphery and beyond.
- In 2022, BRI projects saw mixed economic outcomes, experiencing both growth and decline. However, overall spending on BRI projects remained consistent with the previous year and Beijing continued to prioritize public health, digital infrastructure, and green energy opportunities.
- Overseas development and security interests under BRI will drive the PRC towards expanding its overseas security relationships and presence to protect those interests.
MILITARY-CIVIL FUSION (MCF) DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY
- The PRC pursues its Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) (军民融合) Development Strategy to “fuse” its security and development strategies into its Integrated National Strategic System and Capabilities in support of China’s national rejuvenation goals.
- The PRC’s MCF strategy includes objectives to develop and acquire advanced dual-use technology for military purposes and deepen reform of the national defense science and technology industries and serves a broader purpose to strengthen all of the PRC’s instruments of national power.
- Since early 2022, the CCP appears to have been deemphasizing the term “Military Civil Fusion” in public, in favor of “integrated national strategic systems and capabilities.”
DEFENSE POLICY AND MILITARY STRATEGY
- In 2022, the PRC’s stated defense policy remained oriented toward safeguarding its sovereignty, security, and development interests, while emphasizing a greater global role for itself. The PRC’s military strategy remains based on the concept of “active defense” (积极防御).
- PRC leaders stress the imperative of strengthening the PLA into a “world-class” military by the end of 2049 as an essential element of its strategy to rejuvenate the PRC into a “great modern socialist country.”
- In October 2022, Xi secured his third term as the general secretary of CCP at the Party Congress, and his appointment of loyalists to top positions in the CMC probably will enable Xi to expand upon military modernization and operational goals during his next 5-year term.
- During his October 2022 speech at the opening ceremony of the 20th Party Congress, Xi reaffirmed his commitment to the PLA’s 2027 milestone for modernization to accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization of the PRC’s armed forces. If realized, this capability milestone could give the PLA the capacity to be a more credible military tool for the CCP’s Taiwan unification efforts.
- In 2022, the PLA continued discussing a new “core operational concept,” called “Multi-Domain Precision Warfare (多域精确战)” (MDPW). MDPW is intended to leverage a C4ISR network that incorporates advances in big data and artificial intelligence to rapidly identify key vulnerabilities in the U.S. operational system and then combine joint forces across domains to launch precision strikes against those vulnerabilities.
- COVID-19 mitigation measures and multiple outbreaks throughout 2022 probably did not significantly impact PLA combat readiness.
FORCES, CAPABILITIES, AND POWER PROJECTION
- The PLA has sought to modernize its capabilities and improve its proficiencies across all warfare domains so that, as a joint force, it can conduct the full range of land, air, and maritime, as well as nuclear, space, counterspace, electronic warfare (EW), and cyberspace operations.
- The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen the PRC’s ability to “fight and win wars” against a “strong enemy (强敌)” (a likely euphemism for the United States), counter an intervention by a third party in a conflict along the PRC’s periphery, and project power globally.
- People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA). The PLAA continues to modernize equipment and focus on combined arms and joint training in an effort to meet the goal of becoming a world-class military. The PLAA demonstrated a new long-range fire capability in the PLA military response to the August 2022 U.S. Congressional Delegation (CODEL) visit to Taiwan. The PLAA continues to incorporate a twice-a-year conscript intake. The long-term effects of the policy are not clear.
- People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The PRC has numerically the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of over 370 ships and submarines, including more than 140 major surface combatants. The PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-mission ships and submarines. In 2022, the PLAN launched its third aircraft carrier, CV-18 Fujian.
- It also commissioned its third YUSHEN class Amphibious Assault Ships (LHA) and has likely begun construction on a fourth as of early 2023. In the near-term, the PLAN will have the ability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s power projection capability.
- The PRC continues to challenge foreign military activities in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in a manner that is inconsistent with the rules of customary international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. At the same time, the PLAN conducts activities in the EEZs of other countries, including the United States, Australia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
- People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLAN Aviation. The PLAAF and PLAN aviation together constitute the largest aviation force in the Indo-Pacific region. The PLAAF is rapidly catching up to western air forces. The PLAAF continues to modernize with the delivery of domestically built aircraft and a wide range of UASs. In October 2019, the PLAAF signaled the return of the airborne leg of its nuclear triad after the PLAAF publicly revealed the H-6N as its first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuelable bomber.
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- People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF). The PLARF is advancing its long-term modernization plans to enhance its “strategic deterrence” capabilities. The PRC is developing new ICBMs that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear warhead production, partially due to the introduction of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities.
- The PRC may be exploring development of conventionally-armed intercontinental range missile systems. If developed and fielded, such capabilities would allow the PRC to threaten conventional strikes against targets in the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska.
- Strategic Support Force (SSF). The SSF is a theater command-level organization established to centralize the PLA’s strategic space, cyberspace, electronic, information, communications, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities. The SSF’s Network Systems Department (NSD), sometimes referred to as the Cyberspace Force (CSF; 网络空间部队), is responsible for information warfare with an integrated mission set that includes cyberspace warfare, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare. The PLA SSF’s Space Systems Department (SSD), sometimes referred to as the Aerospace Force (ASF; 航天部队), is responsible for military space operations. The PRC continues to develop counterspace capabilities—including direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital satellites, electronic warfare, and directed-energy systems—that can contest or deny an adversary’s access to and operations in the space domain.
- Joint Logistic Support Force. The JLSF is concentrating its efforts on improving joint strategic and campaign-level logistic efficiencies through training and integrating civilian products and services. The JLSF supports multimodal transportation methods to facilitate the movement of PLA forces and equipment for training.
- Special Operations Forces (SOF). Despite unilateral and multilateral training, all of China’s SOF units lack real-world combat experience. China’s SOF does not have a national-level special operations command to oversee all of China’s SOF activities. Despite an emphasis on conducting joint training, theater commanders have no authority over PAP units, making it difficult to incorporate PAP SOF into PLA training exercises.
JOINT CAPABILITIES IN DEVELOPMENT
- The PLA is aggressively developing capabilities to provide options for the PRC to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention in the Indo-Pacific region, and to conduct military operations deeper into the Indo-Pacific region and globally.
- The PLA has undertaken important structural reforms and introduced new military doctrine to strengthen joint operations and is testing joint capabilities in and beyond the First Island Chain (FIC).
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JOINT CAPABILITIES FOR COUNTERINTERVENTION
- The PRC’s counter-intervention strategy aims to restrict the United States from having a presence in the East and South China Sea regions—within the FIC—and increasingly to hold at risk U.S. access in the broader Indo-Pacific region.
- Long-Range Precision Strike and Supporting ISR. PLA texts state that precision attack in all warfare domains is critical in modern war. PLA writings state that precision weapons are not only force multipliers but also a means of “war control” to prevent escalation.
- Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). The PRC has a robust and redundant IADS architecture over land areas and within 300 nm (556 km) of its coast that relies on an extensive early warning radar network, fighter aircraft, and a variety of SAM systems. The PRC has also placed radars and air defense weapons on outposts in the SCS, further extending the range of its IADS.
- Hypersonic Weapons. The PRC’s deployment of the DF-17 HGV-armed MRBM will continue to transform the PLA’s missile force. The system is possibly intended to replace some older SRBM units and is intended to strike foreign military bases and fleets in the Western Pacific, according to a PRC-based military expert.
ADVANCING TOWARDS AN INFORMATIZED MILITARY
- The PLA considers information operations (IO) as a means of achieving information dominance early in a conflict and continues to expand the scope and frequency of IO in military exercises.
- The PLA is pursuing next-generation combat capabilities based on its vision of future conflict, which it calls “intelligentized warfare,” defined by the expanded use of AI and other advanced technologies at every level of warfare.
- The PRC is advancing its cyberspace attack capabilities and has the ability to launch cyberspace attacks—such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks—in the United States.
SPACE AND COUNTERSPACE CAPABILITIES
- The PLA views space superiority, the ability to control the space-enabled information sphere and to deny adversaries their space-based information gathering and communication capabilities, as critical components to conduct modern “informatized warfare.”
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- Over the next decade, the PRC will continue to rapidly modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces. Compared to the PLA’s nuclear modernization efforts a decade ago, current efforts dwarf previous attempts in both scale and complexity.
- The PRC is expanding the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms while investing in and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support further expansion of its nuclear forces.
- In 2022, Beijing continued its rapid nuclear expansion, and DoD estimates that the PRC possessed more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023—on track to exceed previous projections.
- DoD estimates that the PRC will probably have over 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030, much of which will be deployed at higher readiness levels and will continue growing its force to 2035 in line with its goal of ensuring PLA modernization is “basically complete” that year, which serves as an important milestone on the road to Xi’s goal of a “world-class” military by 2049.
- The PRC probably will use its new fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons program, despite publicly maintaining these technologies are intended for peaceful purposes.
- The PRC probably completed the construction of its three new solid-propellant silo fields in 2022, which consist of at least 300 new ICBM silos, and has loaded at least some ICBMs into these silos. This project and the expansion of China’s liquid-propellant silo force are meant to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear force by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture.
- The PRC is fielding the DF-5C, a silo-based liquid-fueled ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead with a multi-megaton yield. The PRC is fielding the longer-range JL-3 SLBMs on its current JIN class SSBN, rendering them capable of ranging the continental United States from PRC littoral waters.
CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL RESEARCH
- The PRC continues to engage in biological activities with dual-use applications, which raise concerns regarding its compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). This includes studies at PRC military medical institutions on potent toxins with dual-use applications.
- The PRC likely possesses capabilities relevant to chemical and biological warfare that pose a threat to U.S., Allied, and partner forces, military operations, and civilian populations.
- The United States cannot certify that the PRC has met its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) due to concerns regarding the PRC’s research on pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs) and toxins with potential dual-use applications.
OPERATIONAL STRUCTURE AND ACTIVITIES ON CHINA’S PERIPHERY
- The PRC continues to refine military reforms associated with the establishment of the Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern, and Central Theater Commands, which are organized based on the PRC’s perception of peripheral threats.
- Under the direction of the CMC, each Theater Command has operational authority over the PLA conventional forces within the theater.
- In August 2022, the PLA carried out large-scale joint military exercises aimed at pressuring Taiwan. The exercises included firing ballistic missiles over Taiwan’s main island, over a dozen naval patrols, and hundreds of flights into Taiwan’s claimed ADIZ.
DEVELOPMENTS IN THE SECURITY SITUATION IN THE SCS
- The PRC states that international military presence within the SCS is a challenge to its sovereignty.
- Throughout 2022, the PRC deployed PLAN, CCG, and civilian ships to maintain a presence in disputed areas, such as near Scarborough Reef and Thitu Island, as well as in response to oil and gas exploration operations by rival claimants within the PRC’s claimed “nine-dash line.”
- During 2022, the PRC conducted multiple coercive actions against the Philippines in the SCS, including cutting the tow line of a Philippine Navy vessel, executing dangerous maneuvers in close proximity to Philippine vessels; and reportedly reclaiming several unoccupied land features in the SCS, which the Philippines noted contravenes the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea’s undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award.
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DEVELOPMENTS IN THE SECURITY SITUATION IN THE TAIWAN STRAIT
- In 2022, the PRC amplified diplomatic, political, and military pressure against Taiwan. The PLA’s increased provocative and destabilizing actions in and around the Taiwan Strait included ballistic missile overflights of Taiwan, sharply increased flights into Taiwan’s self-declared ADIZ, and a series of major military exercises near Taiwan.
- At the 20th Party Congress in 2022, Xi Jinping repeated the CCP’s longstanding public position that China seeks peaceful unification with Taiwan but would never renounce the use of force as an option.
- The PLA practiced elements of each of its military courses of action against Taiwan during its August 2022 large-scale military exercise aimed at pressuring Taiwan, and again in April 2023 in response to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s transit of the United States.
PLA COERCIVE AND RISKY OPERATIONAL BEHAVIOR
- Between the fall of 2021 and fall of 2023, the United States has documented over 180 instances of PLA coercive and risky air intercepts against U.S. aircraft in the region – more in the past two years than in the previous decade. Over the same period, the PLA has conducted around 100 instances of coercive and risky operational behavior against U.S. Allies and partners, in an effort to deter both the United States and others from conducting lawful operations in the region.
- Examples of the PRC’s coercive and risky operational behavior against U.S. and Allied aircraft have included lasing; reckless maneuvers; close approaches in the air or at sea; high rates of closure; discharging chaff or flares in front of, or in close proximity to, aircraft; and other actions.
- The PLA’s behavior contravenes flight safety protocols and the international maritime rules of the road, and increases the risk of a major accident, incident, or crisis, including the potential for loss of life.
THE PLA’S GROWING GLOBAL PRESENCE
- CCP leaders view the PLA’s growing global presence as an essential part of the PRC’s international activities to create an international environment conducive to China’s national rejuvenation.
- 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. This has led to the PRC’s greater willingness to use military coercion and inducements to advance its global security and development interests.
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PLA OVERSEAS BASING AND ACCESS
- The PRC is seeking to expand its overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances. If realized, a global PLA military logistics network could disrupt U.S. military operations as the PRC’s global military objectives evolve.
- Beyond the PLA support base in Djibouti, the PRC is very likely already considering and planning for additional military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces projection.
- In June 2022, a PRC official confirmed that the PLA would have access to parts of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. The PRC probably also has considered other countries as locations for PLA military logistics facilities, including Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, Nigeria, Namibia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tajikistan.
- The SSF operates tracking, telemetry, and command stations in Namibia, Pakistan, Argentina, and Kenya. The SSF also has a handful of Yuan-wang space support ships to track satellite and ICBM launches.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM RUSSIA’S WAR ON UKRAINE
- The PRC almost certainly is learning lessons from the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine that are most applicable to the PRC’s goal of strengthening its whole-of-government approach to countering a perceived U.S.-led containment strategy.
- Western sanctions against Russia almost certainly have amplified the PRC’s push for defense and technological self-sufficiency and financial resilience.