China’s People’s Liberation Army has undergone a broad restructuring and modernization effort for years now, and according to a new report released by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the nation’s military is finally approaching a level of capability that could enable it to dominate the hotly contested South China Sea.
Although China’s military development has not yet reached a level that would permit sufficient force projection to legitimately threaten the United States with a conventional war, China has rapidly become a dominant Pacific power. Its “green water” Navy may not be able to traverse the globe like America’s does, but it will soon have enough firepower to dominate much of the Pacific.
One particular waterway, the South China Sea, is the site of numerous overlapping claims of sovereignty, but none more aggressive or with less merit than China’s “historical” claim to the entire body of water, stretching thousands of miles from Chinese shores. This issue has been a focal point for the U.S. Defense Department for years, who regularly sail Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPS, through China’s claimed waters, which most in the international community still deem to be “international.”
“China is rapidly building a robust, lethal force, with capabilities spanning ground, air, maritime, space and information domains, designed to enable China to impose its will in the region, and beyond,” explained Dan Taylor, a senior defense intelligence analyst with the DIA.
According to the DIA’s analysis, some of China’s success in restructuring its military has actually come as a result of careful observation of the U.S. military throughout decades of combat operations in the Middle East. The U.S. success in the Gulf War served as the initial catalyst that prompted China to begin pursuing “information-enabled” weapons platforms, such as America’s satellite-guided munitions. Although much of China’s military remains extremely outdated when compared to America’s, China has devoted considerable resources to closing the capability gap in this arena.
China’s development of a long-range, nuclear-capable bomber believed to have stealth capabilities comparable to that of America’s B-2 Spirit also represents a notable development for the Chinese military. This is significant not solely because of the force-projection capability offered by a deep-penetration nuclear bomber, but also because it gives the nation a viable nuclear triad, not unlike that employed by the United States to keep nuclear foes at bay. With the H-20 bomber, along with China’s forthcoming Jin-class nuclear submarines—which will be armed with JL-2 nuclear ICBMs—and the land-based DF-41 ICBM that first entered service in 2017, China will soon possess all the components necessary to ensure their threat of nuclear retribution is sufficient to deter most nuclear attacks, and in turn, nuke-based diplomatic posturing.
The People’s Liberation Army has also placed significant emphasis on new recruiting and training initiatives that aim to staff the force with more competent soldiers. This ties directly to Xi-led initiatives to purge the military of corrupt officials that had largely found their way into leadership roles through lineage, rather than competency.
“The PLA developed a noncommissioned officer corps and began programs to recruit more technically competent university graduates to operate its modern weapons,” the report says. “PLA political officers assigned to all levels of the military acquired broader personnel management responsibilities in addition to their focus on keeping the PLA ideologically pure and loyal to the CCP.”
China’s growing military capabilities, it’s important to note, aren’t simply a security concern. As China’s military prowess continues to grow, so too will its perceived power, and in turn, its influence on global issues. This actually represents a more pressing and direct threat to American interests, as China’s military lacks any substantial operational experience or the capacity to move their massive Army anywhere beyond their own borders with any real efficiency. In effect, China’s perceived strength will bolster the nation’s global positioning long before its literal strength poses a threat outside of the region.
“As China continues to grow in strength and confidence, our nation’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,” explains Lt. Gen. Ashley, director of the DIA. “With a deeper understanding of the military might behind China’s economic and diplomatic efforts, we can provide our own national political, economic, and military leaders the widest range of options for choosing when to counter, when to encourage, and when to join with China in actions around the world.”