TIPP: Pentagon’s views on the Chinese military’s rise and aspirations

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A recently released Pentagon report titled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2022 reads, “In 2021, the PLARF launched approximately 135 ballistic missiles for testing and training. This was more than the rest of the world combined, excluding ballistic missile employment in conflict zones.”

While the world has been paying close attention to North Korea’s missile tests, China’s ballistic missile program has largely stayed out of the world headlines.

It is not missile capabilities alone that Beijing is developing. In two years, between 2020 and 2022, China doubled its nuclear arsenal. That feat was expected to take a decade to accomplish. The Defense Report states, “The PLA plans to “basically complete modernization” of its national defense and armed forces by 2035. If China continues the pace of its nuclear expansion, it will likely field a stockpile of about 1500 warheads by its 2035 timeline.”

China already has the military might to reckon with. The People’s Liberation Army is estimated to have around 1 million soldiers. By the number of ships, Beijing has the largest navy in the world. The nation’s air force ranks third in the world.

It is not just the size that is impressive. China has been updating and upgrading its forces on a war footing. The report mentions that the country “conducted the first fractional orbital launch of an ICBM with a hypersonic glide vehicle from China on July 27th, 2021. This demonstrated the greatest distance flown (~25,000 miles) and longest flight time (~100+ minutes) of any PRC land attack weapons system to date.” In simpler terms, China’s hypersonic missile flew 25,000 miles around the world before successfully hitting its intended target. The weapon allows Beijing to hit virtually any part or country on earth.

But, China’s ambitions are not earthbound. Space being the next frontier, Beijing is getting in on the pursuit of its dominance from the get-go. The latest report reads, “The PLA continues to acquire and develop a range of counterspace capabilities and related technologies, including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots, as well as expanding space surveillance capabilities, which can monitor objects in space within their field of view and enable counterspace actions.”

Just as initially, the Chinese nuclear program was meant to be a “lean and efficient” deterrent, for now, Beijing’s military think tank “views space operations as a means to deter and counter third-party intervention during a regional military conflict.” Besides, “reconnaissance, communication, navigation, and early warning satellites could be among the target of attacks designed to “blind and deafen the enemy,” according to PRC defense academics.

Though Beijing’s burgeoning military prowess challenges America’s position and dominance, the threat is more implied than direct. But, there’s a tiny nation in the direct line of fire – Taiwan.

Threat To Taiwan

The annual defense report to Congress does not mention a timeline on when or if Beijing will use military force to “unify” Taiwan with China. But, it does note that diplomatic, economic, political, and military pressure has intensified. Beijing is doing its utmost to keep the independence and pro-democracy sentiment from taking further root on the island. Efforts are also on to isolate Taipei from international diplomatic circles.

The Chinese leadership has not ruled out the use of force in the case of Taiwan. Increasingly the People’s Liberation Army is being used to further Beijing’s political agenda. In 2021, Chinese forces conducted 20 naval exercises simulating the island’s capture. Last year, Beijing’s air force frequently crossed into the island’s air space.

Four Possibilities

The defense report presents four possible scenarios of attack. A full-scale military invasion is likely to be the last resort on the part of Beijing. The complexity of a large-scale amphibious invasion is seen as the biggest deterrent to such a mission. Plus, the political cost and international response may steer Beijing away from such a plan of action, at least for the time being.

Besides a beach landing offensive, Beijing could execute a strategic blockade of air and maritime services cutting the island off from the rest of the world. Electronic warfare, network attacks, and capture of the outlying islands would add pressure on Taipei.

Tactical attacks on critical political, military, or economic infrastructure in which special operations forces of the Chinese military “infiltrate Taiwan and conduct attacks against infrastructure or leadership targets” is a second possibility.

In another setting, precision strikes could be carried out by the Chinese air force taking out key government and military targets, thereby neutralizing the island’s defense capabilities.

Though Beijing has not officially set a date for Taiwan’s reunification, it remains President Xi Jinping’s primary goal. Jin Canrong, an influential Chinese academic who advises Beijing on foreign policy, has gone on record saying that the deed will be done in 2027, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the People’s Liberation Army.

How better to celebrate the PLA’s centenary than with the reunification of the “break-away province?” It fits with Xi Jinping’s fondness for his professed “Chinese Dream.”



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