Interpreting the US’s China Military Power Report 2020
Since 2000, the United States (US) Department of Defense (DoD) has published ‘Annual Reports on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China’ (hereinafter called the Report). The 2020 Report builds on reports of the past two decades and provides an overview of the future. It covers various aspects such as national strategy, force modernisation, resources and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s growing global presence. While the Report provides the most authoritative inputs on the China’s military and security developments, few caveats are in order. One, the US aims to maintain military superiority over other countries. Two, the report is intended to facilitate informed decision-making by the US policymakers by providing them with relevant information on China and hence provides a US perspective of China’s modernisation. Three, being an unclassified Report, “the numbers ascribed by the United States to China are … an estimate that we (the US) would be comfortable releasing publicly” (Billingslea 2020). Hence, the Report needs to be corroborated with inputs from other sources and analysed.
One such area is description of the PLA in superlatives – largest standing ground forces in the world, largest navy in the world, second largest military spender in the world and so on. It identifies areas – shipbuilding, land-based missiles and integrated air defence system - where China is likely to have achieved parity with or superiority over the United States and suggests that by mid-21st century, PLA is likely to be at par with or in certain areas, superior to US military. Terming the PLA as the ‘world’s largest standing ground force’ with 915,000 active-duty personnel in combat units may be incorrect as the strength of the Indian Army is higher. The variation could possibly be due to assessment of strength in combat units of both armies. Similarly, while the PLA Navy is larger in number of ships, the US Navy is much larger in terms of tonnage and capability.
This paper seeks to highlight the salient aspects of the DoD Report and analyse the same. Certain critical aspects such as force modernisation, strategy and doctrine and nuclear weapons given in the succeeding paragraphs.
As can be discerned from the annual reports of the past two decades, China’s ambitious goals, long-term vision and planning and a continuous endeavour to achieve these goals by every means possible, has narrowed the gap between the US and China, with resultant security implications for rest of the world. Apart from force modernisation, China has undertaken comprehensive revision of its national strategy, Higher defence organisations and doctrine to achieve synergy between various agencies during peace and provide timely response during crisis.
China’s national strategy is aimed at achieving ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’ by becoming a global leader in innovation by 2035 and attaining ‘global power’ status by 2049. Commensurate with the national strategy, the PLA seeks to complete military modernisation by 2035 and transform into a ‘world class military’ by 2049. This synchronisation of national and military goals ensures that the armed forces are allotted necessary resources to build capabilities, essential to support national goals.
Changes in national security outline are likely to have been followed up with strategy guidelines to adapt to strategic competition, technological developments and national goals. Strategic guidelines (zhanlue fangzhen 战略方针 ) provide authoritative guidance for the operational doctrine, training and force structure of the PLA. They provide direction for future reforms and have been amended nine times, since the establishment of PRC. While specifics of the revised guideline are not known, the 2019 White Paper suggests that the PLA will be tasked to contribute towards and secure China’s global interests and to prepare to fight across various domains including outer space. It is also likely to take into account emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), which some PLA academics believe to be the future of warfare.
(The study has been authored by KK Venkatraman is research fellow, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies and research scholar, Punjabi University.)