Inside the Pentagon Report: China’s Strategic Military Expansion

China is constructing an increasingly effective military to challenge the international rules-based order, according to a senior defense official. The 2023 China Military Power Report, delivered to Congress by the Department of Defense, highlights China as the only competitor with the intent, will, and capability to reshape the international order.

The report charts the current course of the PRC’s national economic and military strategies, offering insight into the Chinese military’s strategy, capabilities, operational activities, and future modernization goals. Communist leaders aim for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover of the world’s largest country.

China is increasing military coercion, with an increase in unsafe intercepts of U.S., allied, and partner vessels and aircraft operating in international air and seaways of the Indo-Pacific region. Between 2021 and 2023, the United States documented over 180 instances of Coercive and Risky Air Intercepts against U.S. aircraft in the region.

The report highlights China’s intensifying pressure campaign against Taiwan, including Chinese ballistic missile overflights, increased flights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, and large-scale simulated joint blockade and firepower strike operations. It also covers China’s deepening security ties with Russia, with President Xi Jinping meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The report also examines the continued development of the Chinese military’s nuclear, space, and cyberspace capabilities. The report estimates that China has more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023, exceeding some of previous predictions.

China is also developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles, potentially conventionally-armed missiles, which could threaten conventional strikes against targets in the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska. Chinese leaders are actively working to enhance the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities across all areas of warfare.

The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) is modernizing its equipment and focusing on combined arms and joint training. Despite being a conscript force, the military is working to incorporate long-range fires into their doctrine. China has the world’s largest navy with over 370 ships and submarines, and has launched its third aircraft carrier and commissioned its third amphibious assault ship.

The PLA Air Force is rapidly catching up to Western air forces, building up manned and unmanned aircraft and launching its first nuclear-capable, air-to-air refuelled bomber, the H-6N. The Chinese military has not been involved in a shooting war since 1979, which is a weakness highlighted by the PRC. To address this, the military has tried to make training and exercises more realistic and learn from other countries’ military conflicts.

Chinese military leaders are studying military conflicts with the US and Russia to prepare for future combat operations. They are closely monitoring Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and are looking for overseas bases and resources to be a globally relevant force. They have established an overall logistics command and are working with the Belt and Road Initiative to gain access.

However, there is a lack of contact between the US and Chinese defense officials, raising the risk of operational incidents or miscalculations spiralling into crisis or conflict. The PLA’s refusal to engage in military-to-military communications raises the risk of such incidents.

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