China’s military power remains limited and its leaders want no war with the United States, but its desire for regional hegemony, global reach, and advanced technology means the U.S. military has much more to watch out for in the years ahead, according to a new unclassified assessment by the Pentagon’s intelligence agency.
This is the Defense Intelligence Agency’s first public and unclassified report on the People’s Liberation Army’s arsenal and intentions; the agency released a similar report on Russia’s military last year. It arrives five months after the Pentagon’s own annual report on Chinese military power — and two weeks after Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan reportedly instructed senior leaders to remain focused on one thing: “China, China, China.”
DIA’s findings and conclusions will be unsurprising to China watchers, but the assessment also publicly reveals the agency’s top concerns about Beijing’s military plans, leaders, and weapons — a list of concerns intended to guide the Trump administration and military leaders.
“In the coming years, the PLA is likely to grow even more technologically advanced and proficient with equipment comparable to that of other modern militaries,” said Dan Taylor, senior defense intelligence analyst at DIA, who read a statement to reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday. “The PLA will require advanced fighter aircraft, modern naval vessels, missile systems, and space and cyberspace assets as it reorganizes and trains to address 21st-century threats farther from China’s shores.”
But Taylor and the DIA seem more focused on how the PLA is helping Beijing attain its grand strategy goals. The Communist Party’s long-stated plan is to seize what they see as a moment of strategic opportunity to help achieve “great power status” that is “designed to enable China to impose its will in the region and beyond,” he said.
DIA leaders do not believe that China is there yet. But President Xi Jinping has ordered the PLA to get better at using its rapidly modernizing arsenal, and a senior defense intelligence official who briefed reporters Tuesday said that the Pentagon is closely watching as Chinese leaders extend and gain confidence in their abilities — for example, to strike Taiwan or beyond.
“[Xi] thinks there are elements within the PLA that are still not focused on taking full advantage of all this modern equipment we've been talking about here and building their professional capabilities,” said the official. “We have to remember that the PLA two decades ago was still running hotels and businesses and not focused as much on capabilities and development, and he is very focused on that.”
DIA believes that China will look to expand from its new South China Sea islands and its new base in Djibouti.
“We now have to be able to look for a Chinese military that is active everywhere,” said the official. “We will have to interact with them, engage with them, deal with them, monitor them broadly more than we ever had to before, when they were very regionally focused near their own shores.”
China’s most likely conflict may still be with Taiwan, but DIA feels any such fight remains far off. The PLA continues to add missiles that can hit the breakaway island — and U.S. military assets on Guam — but DIA does not believe China’s leaders feel they have the other resources — helicopters, ground forces, etc. — that could win and hold the territory. But DIA worries those leaders may soon grow bolder.
“They are getting to a point where the PLA leadership may actually tell Xi Jinping that they are confident in their capabilities,” said the official. “The biggest concern is that as a lot of these technologies mature, as their reorganization of their military comes into effect, as they become more proficient with these capabilities, our concern is we'll reach a point where internally, within their decision-making, they will decide that using military force for a regional conflict is something that is more eminent.”
Yet one factor will continue to rein in Beijing’s ambitions: experience. China has not fought a war in four decades; moreover, there is a generational gap between newer Chinese military officers, who are being trained for joint warfare across military service branches, and older officers whose have limited experience extends only to their own service branches and regional assignments inside China.
“I think the greatest vulnerability right now [is]... that this is a military that hasn't fought a war in 40 years," said the senior defense intelligence official. “This is a military that is very new at some of these concepts. They've been talking about joint operations for a long time, but some of is it just now sort of being implemented. And it will take a while for them to be able to work these services together, to be able to work these joint theaters and to be able to deal with a large, complex operation. When they've done things militarily at all, like counter-piracy, it's been a few things tightly controlled. A few ships tightly controlled from the very top. Being able to manage a very large conflict, I think will be very challenging for them,”
Moreover, DIA believes that China’s leaders see their top threats as coming from internal challenges to the party rule, not outside conflict. “Beijing’s primary threat perceptions include sovereignty and domestic security issues that it believes could undermine the overriding strategic objective to perpetuate communist rule,” the official said.
To put a finer point on it, minority groups and terrorism are not uppermost on the mind of Xi’s government, despite the headlines about the oppressed Muslim population of Uighurs. Rather, they worry about the overall economy of the billion-plus people they rule.
“The real biggest threat that worries the Chinese leadership is instability among the majority Han population, because that will become the threat potentially to a regime's instability,” the official said.
But if suppressing dissent is the top priority of China’s leaders, it is not the only one.
“We have to remember that the Chinese leadership is very focused on domestic stability concerns, but also that we are seeing a developing and a modernizing military that is able to do things much further from internal security that they had focused on in the past,” the official said.