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China's Military Has Global Ambitions
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China’s Military Has Global Ambitions

A new DoD report to Congress shows how the CCP sees the U.S. as its primary foe. Plus, why we should be concerned about China and Russia working together.

For the past 20 years, the Department of Defense has produced a report for Congress on the military power of the People’s Republic of China. Much has changed during that time. China’s military capabilities didn’t come close to matching its ambitions two decades ago. Today, the Chinese Communist Party is so confident enough in its gains that Xi Jinping has already announced the beginning of a “New Era” in global affairs. In some areas, the Chinese military has even already surpassed America’s armed forces. That is according to the latest edition of the DoD’s report, which was released this week. 

The U.S. military assesses that China is ahead with respect to shipbuilding, in the production of “land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles,” and with respect to integrated air defense systems. The PRC now has the “largest navy in the world,” the “largest standing ground force in the world,” and the “third largest” military aviation forces. 

In short, the days of unquestionable American military supremacy are over. That’s not to say the Chinese are set to dominate the U.S. The CCP faces many challenges ahead, and America still has the lead in some key technologies. But the rise of China’s People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force clearly spooks the U.S. military—and for good reasons. Below are three significant observations drawn from the DoD’s report.

The CCP sees America as its central enemy. 

This is probably obvious to most readers, but it is still worth repeating: Xi’s regime sees America as its central foe. The DoD repeatedly cites a 2019 defense white paper authored by the Chinese. That treatise explains how the CCP sees the world. Unsurprisingly, the authors of the paper described the U.S. as the “principal instigator” of disorder around the globe and as the main cause of “international strategic competition.” 

In the past, the Pentagon explains, the Chinese have been more reserved. In a 2015 white paper, for instance, they only “vaguely” referred to the threat of “hegemonism”—a veiled reference to America. By 2019, that had changed—with the U.S. explicitly named as Beijing’s chief nemesis. 

The CCP has been nursing historical grievances against the U.S. that are often ahistorical—downplaying or outright ignoring, for example, the two sides’ cooperation during World War II and decades of blind assistance America offered after President Nixon’s so-called great opening. Today, as the DoD report makes clear, the CCP seeks to undermine American authority and power where it can. 

In bland language, the U.S. military warns: “What is certain is that the CCP has a strategic end state that it is working towards, which if achieved and its accompanying military modernization left unaddressed, will have serious implications for U.S. national interests and the security of the international rules-based order.”

The CCP has global ambitions for the Chinese military.

I’ve heard some American analysts argue that the CCP basically just wants to dominate its neighborhood. They point out the Chinese military doesn’t engage in large-scale conflicts overseas, and it’s a safe bet that Beijing wants to avoid costly, ill-defined conflicts. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean the CCP wants its military to stay local. Quite the opposite. The new DoD report highlights ways in which China is evolving into a global military power.  

Throughout 2019, the report reads, the CCP “recognized that its armed forces should take a more active role in advancing its foreign policy, highlighting the increasingly global character that Beijing ascribes to its military power.” This reflects the integration of China’s military power with the CCP’s economic and diplomatic goals. 

The “One Belt, One Road” project, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative, is a case in point. OBOR is Beijing’s program for sponsoring infrastructure projects across dozens of countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. China’s assistance often comes with a catch, including high levels of debt that make partner countries more dependent upon Beijing. The CCP also knows that the OBOR initiative incurs significant security risks, but the party is prepared to protect its investments with military force. The DOD writes that the CCP has “signaled” that OBOR “will drive China towards expanding its overseas military footprint to protect those interests, which the CCP recognizes may provoke pushback from other states.” 

China’s “first overseas military base” in Djibouti is an example of how this works. Djibouti is located in the Horn of Africa, at the juncture of the Red Sea and the Gulf Aden. These are key waterways for global trade, including for Chinese businesses, and Beijing wants OBOR projects to guarantee its economic interests in the region. In 2017, the CCP established the naval base in Djibouti to protect Chinese citizens in Africa and the Middle East, as well as to fight piracy. Those are defensive aims, but that’s not all there is to the story. The DOD suspects that the CCP views the base in Djibouti as a success to be replicated elsewhere, as the Chinese government “is very likely already considering and planning for additional military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces projection.”

If the Chinese military does copy the Djibouti model, it is likely that American interests will be increasingly harassed. That’s what has happened in the Horn of Africa, where “[People’s Liberation Army] personnel at the facility [in Djibouti] have interfered with U.S. flights by lasing pilots and flying drones,” while the “PRC has sought to restrict Djiboutian sovereign airspace over the base.”

The Chinese military’s global expansion also serves the CCP’s diplomatic aims. The party is working to strengthen its hand in what it calls “Major Power Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era.” The “New Era” is one in which Western democracies are no longer dominant and liberal principles are supplanted by China’s supposedly enlightened ways. The CCP uses a benign-sounding phrase—“a shared future for mankind”—to describe this new international order, but it is really intended to protect Beijing’s autocracy. And the Chinese military is prepared to buttress Xi’s diplomacy. 

The authors of the aforementioned 2019 defense white paper explained that the Chinese armed forces will respond “faithfully to the call for a community with a shared future for mankind” and work “in the service” of the CCP’s foreign policy agenda. This may not seem like a big deal, but the Pentagon helpfully explains that this explicit alignment of China’s military and foreign policy agendas “marks an important distinction that China has typically avoided in the past outside of the context of Taiwan.” 

In other words, Beijing has never been so transparent when it comes to its coupling of military and diplomatic power on the global stage. The 2019 defense white paper even called on the Chinese military to “actively participate in the reform of global security governance system.” That is, the Chinese armed forces will help to further undermine the Western-led international system, such as it is. 

To date, much of the Chinese military’s focus has been devoted to its neighbors. The DOD’s new report highlights these threats. The CCP regularly asserts claims against rival Pacific nations both on land and at sea. The party also desires a “full reunification” by 2049, meaning that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau must all be brought under Beijing’s thumb by then. The CCP sees this as necessary for its “national rejuvenation”—a key long-term goal. The Chinese military is preparing to play a large role in this reunification effort, especially with respect to Taiwan.

Just how active the Chinese military becomes on the international stage remains to be seen, but the important point is this: The CCP doesn’t envision its military as a purely regional force.

China’s alliance with Russia is strategic.

As readers of Vital Interests know, I think China’s close relationship with Russia is the most dangerous alliance in the world today. The two countries deny they have forged any sort of “military alliance,” but their denial is just empty rhetoric. In 2019, the two countries described their relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination,” a phrase that is cited in the DoD’s report. 

The Pentagon writes that the Sino-Russian partnership “entails a relatively high degree of military cooperation,” which “occurs in practical forms through exchanges of training, equipment, technology, high-level visits, and other coordination mechanisms.” The two countries have engaged in a number of joint exercises, with Russia supplying China various forms of weaponry and aircraft. Late last year, the Kremlin pledged “to assist China in developing their missile-attack early warning network,” while the two sides cooperate as far afield as the Arctic, with a joint expedition planned for the near future. 

Like the CCP, Putin’s regime sees America as its principal foe. And whether Xi and Putin describe their partnership as an “alliance” or not, the U.S. needs to be clear-eyed when it comes to their combined strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, the CCP is much stronger today than it was 20 years ago—when the DoD first began submitting its annual report on China’s military power to Congress.

Photograph by Pang Xinglei/Xinhua/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.