WASHINGTON — In recent years, top defense officials and internal Pentagon reports alike have cautioned about the rise of China as a military power, in large part due to its investments in high-end technologies like hypersonics and its development of indigenous capabilities like stealth fighters and aircraft carriers.
But it’s not a piece of hardware that’s most worrisome for American interests, according to a new assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Instead, it’s the worry that the Chinese service members behind each system have reached a critical point of confidence where they now feel that in combat, the People’s Liberation Army can match competitors.
In the long term, that could be bad news for America — and especially for Taiwan.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday ahead of the new DIA 2019 “China Military Power” report, a senior defense intelligence official called the idea that Beijing might soon trust its military capabilities well enough to invade Taiwan “the most concerning” conclusion from the report.
“The biggest concern is that they are getting to a point where the PLA leadership may actually tell [President Xi Jinping] they are confident in their capabilities. We know in the past they have considered themselves a developing, weaker power,” the official said.
“As a lot of these technologies mature, as their reorganization of their military comes into effect, as they become more proficient with these capabilities, the concern is we’ll reach a point where internally in their decision-making they will decide that using military force for regional conflict is something that is more imminent,” the official added.
The report is the first public analysis of Chinese military power released by the DIA, and the official said there is no classified version of this production. The Pentagon annually issues a report to Congress on the issue through a different, publicly released document.
It is being released just days after Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, used his first staff meeting to emphasize the Pentagon’s prime focus must remain on “China, China, China.”
Based on its assessment of Chinese official papers and statements, the DIA concluded that Chinese military modernization was not undertaken with a major global war in mind, but rather in preparation for further challenges to its regional efforts, potentially leading to a local war.
“Within the context of Beijing’s ‘period of strategic opportunity,’ as [China] continues to grow in strength and confidence, [U.S.] leaders will face a China insistent on having a greater voice in global interactions, which at times may be antithetical to U.S. interests,” the agency reported.
The reclamation of Taiwan is a long-standing goal for Chinese leadership, and Xi has made no secret of that desire. The DIA notes that much of China’s military modernization has been focused on Taiwan, including the emphasis on short-range missile technology that would largely be useless in any other theater of combat.
Keeping Taiwan safe at the moment is a belief inside the PLA that the armed service doesn’t have the training, doctrine and readiness levels needed for a full-scale invasion of the island. But should that change, the military has the technology and numbers at hand to make such a move possible.
“We don’t have a real strong grasp on when they will think that they are confident in that capability,” the official said. “They could order them to go today, but I don’t think they are particularly confident in that capability.”
Taiwan is not the only potential flashpoint identified by the DIA. While China is unlikely to seek out an active conflict near its territory, the official said, China’s construction of man-made, militarized islands in the South China Sea as well as its assertion of rights to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea could become points of tension.
But so, too, could China’s expanded interests around the world, the official warned, citing the PLA’s permanent base in Djibouti and willingness to sail ships farther abroad.
“We now have to be able to look for a Chinese military that is active everywhere,” the official said. “I’m not saying they are a threat or about to take military action everywhere, but they are present in a lot of places, and we will have to interact with them, engage with them, deal with them, monitor them more broadly than we had to before when they were very regionally focused near their own shores.”
While doctrine may lag behind, China’s investments in new technologies are starting to bear fruit.
In the more than 100-page assessment on China, the agency noted China’s continued modernization efforts of almost every aspect of its ground, sea, air and space forces.
The vast modernization effort — which includes the launch of its first independently developed aircraft carrier in 2019, the continued development of the Hong-20 nuclear-capable bomber and the emphasis it has placed in recent years on professionalizing its ground forces — has produced “a robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning the air, maritime, space and information domains which will enable China to impose its will in the region,” the DIA found.
Getting near par to American capabilities is one thing, but there are some areas where China threatens to surpass America — and may have already done so.
The first is with hypersonic weaponry — delivery vehicles capable of going Mach 5 or faster. In the last two years, the Pentagon has been increasingly vocal about the need to invest more in its hypersonic capabilities, both offensive and defensive, largely because of how much China has put toward the new weaponry.
“They are on the leading edge of technology in that area [and are] getting to the point where they are going to field this system,” the official said about hypersonic weapons, singling out hypersonic glide vehicles for ballistic missiles as the area in which Beijing has heavily invested.
More broadly, China remains a leader in precision-strike capabilities, especially with medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles — something the official partly blamed on the fact the U.S. and Russia were barred from developing such systems under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
China is also excelling at developing anti-satellite capabilities.
“In addition to the research and possible development of satellite jammers and directed-energy weapons, China has probably made progress on kinetic energy weapons, including the anti-satellite missile system tested in July 2014,” the report reads. “China is employing more sophisticated satellite operations and probably is testing on-orbit dual-use technologies that could be applied to counterspace missions.”
Said the official: “They’ve clearly been pushing forward on trying to build this comprehensive capability that can threaten U.S. and other satellites in all orbits, to build capability to threaten all these systems. ... They think it’s a potential vulnerability for us and allied forces, although they themselves are becoming more reliant on space-based capabilities.”
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.