The Pentagon has published its annual review concerning military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This is an annual assessment, legally required by the Congress. The latest report published on 4 September 2020 concluded: “China has already achieved parity with – or even exceeded – the United States in several military modernisation areas, including shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles and integrated air defence systems.” But despite such grandiose conclusions, on closer examination, although China has made significant developments in the last two decades in the production and development of military equipment, it remains far behind US military capabilities.
China’s Navy received the most attention in the Pentagon’s review. “The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines, including over 130 major surface combatants,” the report outlined. This is compared to the US Navy’s current battle force of 295 ships. China’s Navy has attracted a lot of media attention as it has been actively enforcing China’s sovereignty over the many disputed Arcopeligoes and islands in the South China Sea. Numerous works have been completed on the US vs China issue, even before the Pentagon review, but much of the research has used a bean counting exercise, comparing the number of ships or aircraft of both countries, which is of very limited use. When evaluating the effectiveness of any force, you have to consider its capabilities in the light of the mission it is trying to accomplish and the adversaries that it may face and how it plans to resource and coordinate all its assets. China’s military doctrine is based on a regional view, not a global vision, as this is where it expects threats to emerge.
China has increased the number of modern destroyers, frigates, corvettes and diesel-electric submarines. It has launched its 20th type 052D which is equivalent to the US Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. China is also building its third aircraft carrier in the 60,000 ton range and investing heavily in the much more capable type 055 destroyer. The Chinese navy has ambitious plans to develop new capabilities and is well on the way to doing so. But despite its many advancements the Chinese navy is still not considered a blue water navy. A blue water navy is one which can operate globally, in deep waters over open oceans. China, currently does not possess a navy that can be at sea for long periods, far from its coast, conduct operations and achieve maintenance and all the complex logistics that comes with it. This is because China’s navy still consists largely of smaller ships with low tonnage. Although it has many of these, even more than the US, the US on the other hand has larger vessels which give it more firepower and offensive capabilities. China has plans to build and field larger vessels and it has made significant progress in the last two decades in moving in this direction. But China is nowhere close to US Naval capabilities and remains a regional force, despite some operations further from home.
China, currently does not possess a navy that can be at sea for long periods, far from its coast, conduct operations and achieve maintenance and all the complex logistics that comes with it
Trailing in the Air
The Pentagon found that China has one of the largest and robust integrated air defence systems in the world. Its most advanced systems consist of Russian made S-300 and S-400 systems along with domestically produced platforms. Though, air defences have never been as omnipresent as they are today, they are in the end defensive platforms. China’s robust integrated air defence system is only relevant in defending itself but not as a power projection tool.
The most certain way to protect a nation from enemy air attack is to destroy or suppress the enemies air force. In other words, the best air defence is air superiority. Air warfare is high-tech, very expensive, requires extensive logistics and is arguably very destructive. China has been attempting to catch up with Western capabilities for several decades and in some very significant fields it has achieved parity, such as its development programs for 5th generation aircraft.
China has an air force of over 1,500 fixed wing aircraft, but it maintains only a partial fleet of around a dozen H-6U and IL-78 tankers for aerial refuelling capacity; this is not even close to service for an air force the size of China’s. In a conflict close to the Chinese mainland, China’s military would enjoy geographic and positional advantages, while the US would be required to successfully deploy its forces into the region. The geography of conflict is critical, and even short distances, have a major impact on relative capabilities. Chinese power projection capabilities are improving, but the PLA’s ability to control military events diminishes rapidly beyond the unrefueled range of jet fighters.
The Taiwan Factor
According to the Pentagon report China has kept the option of invading Taiwan on the table. The development and deployment of the DF-21 anti ship guided ballistic missile system means the PRC has the capability to keep any US carrier group wishing to intervene, at arm’s length. The military imbalance between China and Taiwan has definitely grown rapidly in Beijing’s favor, but despite constant media attention about China being able to launch an invasion of Taiwan, invading and occupying Taiwan will remain extraordinarily difficult for decades to come. Although China has one of the largest armies in the world and can amass them on its shores across the Taiwan Strait, to invade Taiwan, China would need the bulk of its forces to get into boats and make the eight-hour voyage into the teeth of Taiwanese firepower coming from well-entrenched, well-supplied onshore positions. Taiwan has about 130,000 well-armed troops (plus 1.5 million in reserve) and thousands of armored fighting vehicles and camouflaged, self-propelled artillery pieces. Only about 10% of Taiwan’s coastline is suitable for an amphibious landing, and even taken by surprise, Taiwan could amass its forces at the landing zones, even under a missile barrage from China and exact high rates of attrition on the Chinese. Amphibious war requires extraordinarily complex coordination between air, land and sea forces. An enormous number of things would have to go right for China to succeed, and the political risks of failure would be sky-high. That’s to say nothing of the headaches involved in occupying the island itself.
The military imbalance between China and Taiwan has definitely grown rapidly in Beijing’s favor
China still has a long way to go to be able to invade and occupy Taiwan, at least not without incurring costs it could not stomach. It will remain an extraordinarily difficult job – even if the US remains on the sidelines and what does not help China is the fact that it has zero experience in complex amphibious warfare.
Over the last two decades, China has modernized its military and moved away from a large ground force and worked on building up its navy and airforce: two branches that saw little development during the Mao era. It reduced the number of armed forces personnel to divert its resources to weapon system developments. China’s Navy has received significant attention due to China’s need to secure its sea lanes but its maritime capability cannot travel far from its shores as they are small, despite being large in quantity. Although China’s military has rapidly developed its capabilities and in some areas closed the gap with the US, China has not caught up to the US military in terms of aggregate capabilities—and is not close to doing so for some time. It could be argued it does not need to catch up to the US to dominate its immediate periphery. The advantages conferred by proximity severely complicate US military tasks. Fundamentally China is increasingly capable of challenging the ability of US forces to accomplish mission-critical tasks in scenarios close to the Chinese mainland. Beyond its mainland, China’s capabilities are not just extremely limited, but virtually non-existent. Despite some of the alarmist conclusions from the Pentagon report China’s military development does need to be kept in perspective.