The Pentagon released its 2020 report on China’s military power this week. Recent trends in the congressionally mandated reports track the explosive growth of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the past two decades, especially its navy and advanced new long-range missile systems. This year’s report looks at China’s strategy and ambitions, assesses its navy to now be the world’s largest, and summarizes major advances in China’s conventional and nuclear missile arsenal.
In 2017 Chinese President Xi Jinping set out two major goals for the PLA: to complete modernization by 2035 and become a “world class” military by mid-century, presumably prior to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s centennial in 2049. The Pentagon isn’t sure what exactly “world class” means in practice (the PRC may not be either) but it is confident that China isn’t building up its military for show, stating that “the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] desires the PLA to become a practical instrument of its statecraft with an active role in advancing the PRC’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the PRC’s increasingly global interests and its aims to revise aspects of the international order.”
Part of building global influence is being able to support its military forces far from home. China already has an overt military base in Djibouti as well as numerous civilian infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean region that might have dual utility to support a future PLA footprint. The Pentagon assesses that China has likely considered additional military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan. But with growing international concern over China’s intentions and behavior, other experts are skeptical that many of these countries would be willing to host even dual-use facilities, especially neighbors like Singapore, Indonesia, and Myanmar.
But the most visible of the PRC’s efforts to project military influence around East Asia and the globe is its navy, which the report says is now the largest in the world by number of hulls, with about 350 ships and submarines.
Though now outnumbering the United States’ fleet, which currently boasts 293 vessels, the PLA Navy’s modernizing force varies widely in capabilities, size, and mix of its ships. This limits the value of a direct numerical comparison of the two fleets and even some Chinese naval analysts are skeptical that the PLA Navy will ever be able to establish more than temporary, local advantages over the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific.
Still, the PLA Navy now boasts 130 major surface warships. China’s naval growth is supported by the world’s largest shipbuilding capacity and increasingly modern weapons and sensors. China’s second domestically built aircraft carrier is expected to be ready in 2023 and it just launched its first large amphibious assault ship with significant aviation capability. The PLA Navy will likely maintain a fleet of between 65 and 70 submarines, mostly diesel powered, but it is increasingly capable as older hulls are replaced with newer more advanced ones.
Together with an increasing number of modern Renhai cruisers and new variants of Luyang III destroyers, China’s surface and submarine fleets can project an expanding number of long-range missiles for use against land targets and to control maritime airspace. A matchup of the U.S. Navy and China’s surface fleets remains mixed. China is commissioning the Renhai cruisers even as the United States Navy struggles to find a replacement for its aging fleet of Ticonderoga-class cruisers. Its most advanced Luyang destroyers, however, carry only about two thirds of the number of generic missile launch tubes compared to the equivalent U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.
For projecting regional power and deterring intervention by outside powers like the United States, China is expanding its arsenal of ground-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles that can reach targets on its maritime neighbors and as far away as the United States’ Pacific territory of Guam. The report counts more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, the most capable with ranges out to 5,500 kilometers. These include at least 600 short range, 150 medium range, and 200 intermediate range conventional missiles.
Some of China’s intermediate range missiles, like the advanced DF-26, are believed to be capable of switching quickly between conventional and nuclear warheads, a capability that complicates targeting by an adversary who may wish to eliminate the threat of conventional DF-26 strikes but not threaten China’s nuclear deterrent thereby potentially trigger a nuclear exchange.
To compliment its vast array of conventional strike and deterrent capabilities, China is working to modernize and grow its relatively modest nuclear arsenal.
Last spring the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency revealed that the United States assessed China intended to roughly double the number of its nuclear weapons this decade, which he characterized as currently being in the “low couple hundreds” of warheads. This year’s Pentagon China report put a number to that estimate — in the low 200s — substantially less than public open-source estimates of China’s arsenal which put it at around 300 weapons. The report also revealed that China’s nuclear arsenal — while still far smaller than the United States’ stockpile of around 4,000 nuclear weapons — will grow in the next five years to include roughly 200 weapons launched from land-based ICBMs capable of hitting the United States.
China is also making significant progress toward a diversified, triad-structured nuclear deterrent to ensure enough of its arsenal would survive a potential preemptive strike in order to retaliate. The resurrection of bomber-based weapons and the development of nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missiles coincides with significant advances in its ground-launched mobile missile force. China’s sea-based deterrent is also becoming more capable. Its four Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines can threaten the United States only by operating deep in the mid-Pacific near Hawaii, but a new Type 096 class submarine expected to begin construction in the mid-2020s, mated with a new generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, would be capable of targeting the United States from China’s own waters.
The Pentagon report also includes examinations of China’s defense economy, the PLA’s bureaucratic and organizational modernization, and efforts to synchronize its civilian economy to support and supplement its defense requirements which complicates international educational, technological, and economic cooperation.