National Security & Defense

Getting Ready for China

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning takes part in drills in the western Pacific, April 2018. (Stringer/Reuters)
The Chinese armed forces will surpass ours unless we allocate more funds for modernization.

Robert Hood, the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, recently stated that the DOD does not expect, and evidently will not request, another significant budget increase in financial year 2020. Given what is happening in East Asia, that is inexplicable to me.

Four years ago, I wrote two columns in these pages detailing the ongoing buildup of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the reasons for it. The buildup has continued apace since then. Here is a graphic that I first posted a year ago showing how the balance of power in East Asia has shifted:

The implications of this graphic are exactly what they appear to be: Chinese arms now dominate, albeit imperfectly, the East Asian strategic environment. It’s become their sphere of influence. The peace of the region, and the ability of other nations to trade and travel through it on equal terms, now hang on the margin of China’s fear that a major confrontation would trigger escalating armed conflict with American and allied forces before they are ready for it.

As Admiral Philip Davidson, the new INDO-PACOM commander, told Congress early this year, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

That is bad enough, but since the accession of Xi Jinping to leadership in Beijing five years ago, China has stepped up its drive to expand the reach of its armed forces and leap ahead of the United States in technologies crucial to 21st-century warfare. The purpose of the effort is to lock down control in the Western Pacific while developing the ability to project power throughout the entire Indo-Pacific region.

Since the accession of Xi Jinping to leadership in Beijing five years ago, China has stepped up its drive to expand the reach of its armed forces and leap ahead of the United States in technologies crucial to 21st-century warfare.

The PLA Navy is commissioning two new ships each month and developing nuclear ballistic-missile and attack submarines as well as fifth-generation fighters (basically, this means they are extremely advanced technologically) for the aircraft carriers it is building. The PLA Air Force is buying large numbers of fourth-generation-plus fighters and is scheduled to deploy fifth-generation fighters and long-range strategic bombers in the next few years. The PLA Army is shifting rapidly from a force designed to prevent domestic insurrection and win localized border skirmishes to one capable of winning larger and more geographically dispersed battles.

All of these forces are constantly conducting large joint training exercises and, at the specific direction of their political masters, simulating real combat as closely as possible.

The Chinese are also engaged in a national effort to develop advanced weapons, which would be game changers in any armed conflict. The PLA is improving its already potent ability to attack American space assets, testing hypersonic-missile technology at a high rate, and developing sophisticated maneuverable reentry vehicles. It has exercised mass formations of unmanned aerial vehicles and has plans to build the world’s largest facility for unmanned-ship research.

While growing stronger itself, China has systematically used cyberespionage to steal America’s defense secrets from U.S. allies and defense contractors. That means that in any conflict the PLA will begin with a high level of situational awareness of American capabilities and how to defeat them.

China is also acquiring key maritime nodes around the world. Chinese companies own or are highly invested in 70 percent of the world’s ports, while the PLA has militarized its new artificial and illegal islands in the South China Sea and opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti.

Fortunately, the PLA is well behind the United States in the operational effectiveness of its forces. But that, too, is being addressed. Last year China began an ambitious restructuring of the PLA, similar to the American defense reforms in the late 1940s and in the 1980s. The PLA has reorganized its theater commands, elevated the status of its maritime, air, and missile forces, created a separate logistics department to support sustained conflict and overseas power projection, and created a new Strategic Support Service in charge of its space and cyber operations (akin to the Space Force President Trump has called for).

It is too soon to know how quickly this reorganization will be completed and how effective it will be. The Chinese may well be underestimating the difficulty of what they are attempting. But the fact that they are attempting it shows that they understand their deficiencies, are determined to eliminate them, and intend to create a force that is expeditionary with global reach.

To its credit, the Trump administration has been more robust than its predecessors in responding to China. The administration’s National Security Strategy recognized great-power competition as the primary challenge facing the United States and specifically named China and Russia as our chief adversaries. The president’s trade agenda means that, for the first time, the United States is vigorously combating the illicit practices by which China acquires much of its national wealth and coerces or steals the sophisticated technology on which its armed forces depend.

Most important, the administration was able to negotiate a budget deal earlier this year that finally broke the defense sequester that, as Secretary Mattis said at the time, has “done more to harm the readiness of our armed forces” than any enemy in the field.

But the funding provided by the budget deal will not be enough. China is the most serious threat against which the Department of Defense must plan. Reducing that threat to an acceptable level will require quickly replacing the Department’s aging inventory, increasing the size of the services, modernizing the strategic nuclear forces, hardening or replacing the space architecture, and beating the Chinese to the punch in developing advanced weaponry. That cannot possibly be accomplished at current budget levels – not after the devastation caused by the sequester and two decades of underfunding before that.

That’s what makes this latest position of the DOD so difficult to understand. To be sure, Congress may not be willing to provide the department what it needs to deter the Chinese, and if it doesn’t, the DOD will have to do the best it can with what it is given. But Secretary Mattis has to ask for what he really needs; he has to place the facts, without any whitewash on them, before the highest-level political authorities and the American people.

China’s leaders make no secret of the purpose of their military buildup: It is to prepare for war in all directions and all domains, in order to advance their hegemonic interests in Asia at the expense of the United States and the rest of the world.

They also have a public timetable. Xi Jinping recently announced that the PLA would become a “modern military” by 2035. But long before that, the Chinese will be more than strong enough to make a decisive move, and that is what they will do, unless in the meantime the United States uses its reservoirs of strength to increase its deterrent power.

Xi Jinping is 65 years old. He may not be a man in a hurry, but he’s not going to wait until 2035, even if he lives and stays in power that long, to achieve what he calls “the China Dream.” He knows China cannot achieve that dream, as the Chinese Communist Party defines it, without overtly confronting, and if necessary defeating, the armed forces of the United States.

We need to get ready. We’re running out of time.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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Colin Powell, R.I.P.

We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.