We Should Not Underestimate China’s Military Ambitions
Suggestions that the People’s Republic is a ‘paper dragon’ are ill-informed and misleading.
Americans, according to recent polls and surveys, increasingly view China as a leading threat to the United States. This hardening of American public opinion regarding China has been matched by a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that Beijing represents our most formidable international security challenge.
Waking up to the threat from China is a good thing. But Americans may still not fully appreciate how Beijing has used its growing economy to undertake the largest military modernization effort in the history of the People’s Republic of China. And as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has become more capable, Beijing has acted more aggressively against the United States and its allies and partners. This belligerent behavior has been manifest in the South China Sea, on the border with India, and in the seas and skies surrounding Taiwan and Japan’s Senkaku Islands.
But not so fast, say some American commentators. They argue such assessments regarding Chinese power are exaggerated, and instead assert that Beijing is actually a “paper dragon”—a threat hardly worth worrying about.
Some readers might view these debates as merely theoretical or academic. That would be a mistake. After all, accurately assessing China’s strength and disposition toward the United States is an essential step in developing, resourcing, and implementing an effective grand strategy that can protect core American interests and deter aggression from Beijing.
That is why Americans should neither overstate nor downplay the threat from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Instead, we should strive to see the evolving threat from Beijing clearly. Pretending Beijing is more hostile or capable than facts warrant could create unnecessary conflict and elicit unforced American errors. Yet deluding ourselves into believing a threatening wolf is a harmless sheep—perhaps out of a desire to feel safe or justify a smaller defense budget—would risk leaving Americans and our interests dangerously unprotected.
So, what is the truth?
David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, attempted to offer an answer in his column last week in The Atlantic. Utilizing a raft of quotes from a 2018 book by Tufts University Professor Michael Beckley, Frum warned of “overwrought fears of China” and suggests that assessments of Beijing’s strength are “hugely exaggerated.”
At least in the military domain, such assertions are ill-informed and dangerously misleading.
To be a true threat to the United States, China must combine a desire to harm the United States or its interests with the ability to do so. Unfortunately, Beijing increasingly has demonstrated both.
In this year’s Annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, the U.S. intelligence community is explicit on this point, calling China increasingly a “near-peer competitor” that has “demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies.”
To be sure, the American military remains the most formidable military force in the world, but American military superiority compared to China has been eroding—and fast.
The bipartisan, congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission assessed in its 2018 report that “America’s military superiority—the hard-power backbone of its global influence and national security—has eroded to a dangerous degree.” The commissioners noted that “peace and deterrence” in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere “have long rested on the perception that the United States can decisively defeat military challenges.” When that perception fades, the commissioners warn “deterrence weakens and war becomes more likely.”
That is exactly what we are seeing.
In its last two reports to Congress, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has assessed that the regional balance of power continues to become “more unfavorable.” In March, Adm. Phil Davidson, then the top U.S. commander in the region, even warned that Beijing could attempt to attack Taiwan “in the next six years.” Such an assertion would not have been taken seriously in most defense circles two decades ago. That is not the case today.
Those suggesting warnings such as Davidson’s are overblown point to a variety of arguments. In his piece, Frum cites American advantages in combat experience and training. While those advantages are real, closer scrutiny reveals a more nuanced picture.
American service members certainly have more combat experience than their Chinese counterparts. But any advantages associated with that experience diminish with time, especially as new recruits join the force and older members leave the military. Even if such advantages did not deteriorate with time, a high-intensity conflict in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea would look very different than what American service members experienced in Afghanistan or Iraq.
It is also generally true that U.S. military training is still among the best in the world, and that the PLA has experienced some challenges related to training. But Americans would be unwise to take too much comfort in that fact. The Department of Defense notes that the PLA has been conducting “increasingly realistic combat training,” seeking methodically to expand its intensity, complexity, and scale. The PLA has unsurprisingly emulated American military training best practices and conducted national-level military exercises with Russia. Americans should not expect any advantages over the PLA in training to last indefinitely.
Americans also need to be careful to measure the right things when comparing the two militaries.
Beckley notes that Chinese pilots fly fewer hours than their American counterparts and “only began training on aircraft carriers in 2012.” To be sure, no nation in the world even comes close to the U.S. Navy when it comes to aircraft carrier operations.
But in a conflict with China, that may not matter. In a shooting war with China, in addition to other measures, “US aircraft carriers in the region would immediately turn east and sail away from China,” argues Christian Brose, the former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director for Sen. John McCain. In Brose’s 2020 book, titled The Kill Chain, he predicts that American aircraft carriers would be “intent on getting more than a thousand miles away from the opponent’s long-range anti-ship missiles.” If Chinese missiles push U.S. carriers that far back, the limited range of U.S. fighters and limited air refueling capacity might make any American advantages in pilot training or flight hours less consequential.
And to be clear, the PLA does not need effective carrier operations to accomplish its objectives against Taiwan, for example. As the balance of military power continues to erode in the Taiwan Strait, PLA cruise and ballistic missiles, aircraft, and amphibious vessels launched from the mainland and supported by ships, submarines, cyberattacks, and information operations could be more than sufficient to defeat Taiwan. Those same Chinese capabilities could be used to delay American forces attempting to come to the aid of Taipei.
Brose and others are right to worry particularly about China’s missile arsenal. The U.S. Intelligence Community confirms that the “PLA Rocket Force’s highly accurate short-, medium-, and intermediate-range conventional systems are capable of holding US and allied bases in the region at risk.” That is the Pentagon’s way of saying American bases in the region would be pummeled with hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles (not to mention drones, cyberattacks, and electronic warfare) in a conflict.
According to a 2020 Department of Defense report, Beijing in 2019 “launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training than the rest of the world combined.” That same report noted that China has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. For comparison’s sake, the United States had only one type of the former and none of the latter. By the way, American missile defenses for its bases in the region are entirely inadequate—particularly when it comes to cruise missiles.
It is worth noting that the PLA Air Force released a remarkable video last year apparently showing a simulated Chinese attack on the U.S. territory of Guam, an island where roughly 170,000 Americans live, and which Indo-Pacific Command calls the U.S. military’s “most important operating location in the Western Pacific.”
Frum argues that “nuclear powers do not fight expeditionary wars on each other’s territory.” But that is not really the point. Few are predicting a Chinese military invasion of San Francisco anytime soon. For now, Beijing is more than satisfied with using cyber warfare and its doctrine of military-civil fusion to steal American technology from Silicon Valley and elsewhere to build weapons Beijing could one day use against Americans and our allies.
But once the balance of power has shifted sufficiently, would America’s nuclear arsenal deter Beijing from launching a military assault against Taiwan? I don’t think so. China is pursuing its own “nuclear triad”, consisting of nuclear weapons that can be launched at the United States from the air, ground, and sea. Beijing, therefore, would likely assess that the United States would not use nuclear weapons and risk nuclear war in response to a conventional military attack on Taiwan. Chinese leaders may even increasingly believe that the United States might not come to Taiwan’s aid at all if Washington deems the costs to be too high.
Perhaps that is why the National Defense Strategy Commission listed an attack by Beijing on Taiwan as its first vignette of concern, envisioning a surprise attack in 2024. In their scenario, titled “Losing Taiwan,” Beijing launches an overwhelming attack on Taiwan, and the Pentagon advises the president that the United States would “lose huge numbers of ships and aircraft, as well as thousands of lives” if it responds. According to the commission, permitting “Taiwan to be absorbed by the mainland” would deliver a “crushing blow to America’s credibility and regional position.”
Others dismiss the Chinese military threat by highlighting the fact that China spends less on defense than the United States. Setting aside any questions related to the unreliability of any budget numbers reported by Beijing, such comparisons are dubious. America rightly spends a large portion of its defense resources providing members of America’s all-volunteer military the salaries, health care, and pensions they have earned.
The United States rightly also uses its defense resources to retain forward-positioned forces in Europe and the Middle East alongside partners and allies to secure vital common interests. Appreciating the importance of pushing forces forward, China is looking to expand its global military footprint. The U.S. intelligence community assesses that the PLA will “continue pursuing overseas military installations and access agreements to enhance its ability to project power.” Beijing appears, for example, to be exploring potential bases on Africa’s Atlantic coast. That could mean Americans may see in the coming years regular deployments of Chinese ships and submarines in the Atlantic Ocean.
But for now, China focuses the overwhelming majority of its military power closer to its borders. This would allow Beijing to enjoy regional numerical superiority in ships, aircraft, and submarines over the United States and its allies in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. In such a conflict, Beijing would also enjoy shorter logistical lines and could send reinforcements more quickly than the United States could.
Some may respond to this analysis by saying China is pursuing a gray-zone strategy that seeks to avoid military conflict with the United States. That has certainly been true in the South China Sea and elsewhere. But Beijing has adopted such a policy primarily because it believed relative American military strength prevented China from achieving its political aims by military force. If Washington permits American military power to erode further, political leaders and military planners in Beijing may be increasingly likely to roll the dice and see if they can use military aggression to achieve long-desired political outcomes.
Some may dismiss such warnings, arguing that serious and systemic domestic political and economic challenges would dissuade the CCP from seeking military conflict with the United States. There are at least two major problems with such reasoning. First, history is riddled with examples in which nations stumble into conflicts they did not want. Second, the very domestic challenges some say reduce the relative power of Beijing and make the CCP less likely to seek military conflict with the United States may actually have the opposite effect. The CCP does not enjoy the credibility that comes from free and fair elections and instead relies significantly on a growing economy to retain the support of the Chinese people. A serious economic downturn in China, for example, might encourage the CCP to manufacture a military conflict with the United States to consolidate domestic power and shift the attention of the Chinese people away from the regime’s failings.
This analysis is not a call for “self-doubt,” and it does not seek to portray the Chinese military as 10 feet tall. Americans, indeed, should be confident in our ability to compete as free people against authoritarian adversaries—if we are willing to be honest about the nature and severity of the threat from China, assemble a bipartisan strategy to respond, and then muster sufficient defense resources.
That mixture of confidence, candor, and urgent action represents the best hope of protecting American interests and avoiding military conflict with China.
Bradley Bowman serves as senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.