Imagining China’s Military in 2020

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Imagining China’s Military in 2020

Recent testimony forecasts what the People’s Liberation Army could look like in 2020.

For anyone who cares to delve into the deep body of literature on China’s budding military modernization program, one thing becomes clear very quickly — it is heavy on opinion and short on facts. In many respects this is to be expected. For those who are old enough to recall debates regarding the Soviet Union’s military prowess throughout the Cold War, obviously viewpoints varied dramatically. Yet, there were always a few voices that should have been listened to then and the same is true of today’s debates concerning the rise of the PLA.

Case in point. One scholar who certainly does not get enough credit but deserves your attention is Atlantic Council non-resident Senior Fellow Roger Cliff. He may not have his own blog or you might not see his writings all over the China defense blogosphere (oops), but when he writes you need to listen. Cliff, along with a whole host of scholars at the Rand Corporation, authored the first comprehensive study of China’s A2/AD strategy and, in this author’s view, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for bringing this important issue to the public’s attention. While overtaken by current events to a large extent, Entering the Dragon’s Lair is always a work I turn back to again and again when I consider China’s A2/AD strategy, even seven years after it was published. Flashpoints readers: if you don’t own it, you should.

So when Cliff testified in front of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission recently, it was certainly on my radar. Having interviewed Cliff when I was an Assistant Editor here at The Diplomat, I knew quality analysis would be forthcoming.  While much of his prepared testimony focused on how China’s growing military capabilities might be employed against U.S. forces during a clash over Taiwan (something that does not get enough attention), there were three other juicy tidbits worth extra attention.

First, Cliff explains correctly that a great deal of attention has been paid to Beijing’s ASBM efforts, yet, China has a whole host of options to harass American carriers in the Asia-Pacific. Even if such efforts do not deliver a mission kill against a carrier, they could “be so consumed with defending themselves that they would not be able to use significant numbers of their aircraft for defending Taiwan.” He notes that “carriers operating within about a thousand miles of China’s coast, for example, would also be subject to attack by land-based Chinese Su-30 and J-11B fighters, JH-7 supersonic fighter bombers, and H-6 bombers, all of which can be armed with anti-ship cruise missiles.” It seems that while American carriers are certainly prepared to defend themselves, the sheer amount of challenges they would face could prove fatal. Like I have said before, math might just be missile defense’s worst enemy.

Second, Cliff makes some interesting predictions when it comes to China’s armed forces in the years to come. He explains that “by my estimates, in 2020 the weaponry of China’s military forces will be roughly comparable to that of the U.S. military in 2000.” Clearly, experts could interpret this many different ways. “One way to look at that is to say that even in 2020 China’s military will still be 20 years behind the U.S. military. Another way to look at it, however, is to ask how much more advanced the U.S. military will be in 2020 as compared to 2000,” Cliff notes in his testimony.

Finally, Cliff comments that China’s training should be a concern for U.S. military planners trying to make predictions and comparisons about Beijing’s ability to wage combat operations with a true level of sophistication. Let’s face it: you can have all the high-tech weapons in the world but if you have no clue how to use them — well, you get the idea.  Many defense experts I have spoken with over the years have wildly different opinions when it comes to China’s military training proficiencies. Still, one thing is clear — they are getting gaining proficiency quickly. As Cliff notes, “by 2020 the average Chinese soldier will be better educated than his or her American counterpart.”

So what to make of all this? First off, read the whole testimony. Second, over the last few weeks China defense watchers have been treated to a whole host of news stories that point to a clear trend: an evolving and ever-capable Chinese military. From stories of new Chinese carriers, to hypersonic weapons tests, to deployments farther and farther away from the coast, to better training, it is clear China’s military is becoming much more capable. When combined with tensions in the East and South China Sea, declarations of an ADIZ, and a whole host of controversial statements coming from Beijing on a constant basis, a patterns seems to be emerging — one in which China’s power is growing and could slowly but surely seek to unwind the status quo. Some would argue it already is.

Although my thoughts on what Washington should do about this will have to wait for a future post, one thing is clear — the U.S. must keep a close eye on the rise of China’s military in the years to come.