A specialist commission has warned Congress that China’s military is rapidly expanding its capabilities and could be ready to fight extended foreign wars within the next 15 years.
The United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission sent its latest annual report to Congress this week, after a year of deteriorating American-Chinese relations amid the coronavirus pandemic, human rights disputes, trade conflict and a vicious presidential campaign that framed the Chinese Communist Party as a major threat to national security.
The commission said China “is engaged in a global competition for power and influence with the United States, adding that the CCP “regards the liberal democratic values championed by the United States as a fundamental impediment to its external ambitions and an existential threat to its domestic rule.”
A key element of Chinese power projection is its People’s Liberation Army, which thanks to enormous investment in recent decades is transitioning from a huge but unsophisticated, land-focused Cold War force to a more advanced, more targeted military capable of naval and aerial force projection and overseas operations.
China now has the second official largest military budget in the world, at $178 billion. This is still dwarfed by America’s of around $721 .5 billion; larger than the next 10 nations combined. Still, Chinese spending has American officials and analysts fretting, fearing that Beijing will soon be able to challenge American military hegemony in Asia and elsewhere.
“Recent advances in equipment, organization, and logistics have significantly improved the PLA’s ability to project power and deploy expeditionary forces far from China’s shores,” the commission’s report read.
“A concurrent evolution in military strategy requires the force to become capable of operating anywhere around the globe and of contesting the U.S. military if called upon to do so. Chinese leaders have vigorously pushed the PLA to develop power projection and expeditionary capabilities over the last 20 years.”
“China’s power projection capabilities are developing at a brisk and consistent pace, reflecting the civilian leadership’s determination to transform the PLA into a global expeditionary force in a matter of decades,” the report added.
“In the short term (next five years), the PLA will focus on consolidating the capabilities that would enable it to conduct large-scale military operations around its maritime periphery. In the medium term (next 10–15 years), the PLA aims to be capable of fighting a limited war overseas to protect its interests in countries participating in the [Belt and Road Initiative]. By mid-century, the PLA aims to be capable of rapidly deploying forces anywhere in the world.”
There is now bipartisan recognition in Washington, D.C. that the China question needs to be addressed. In the recent presidential election, President Donald Trump and victor Joe Biden both vowed to be tougher on Beijing.
Past decades of laissez-faire capitalism has failed, critics say, failing to encourage a more liberal Chinese state that is a responsible stakeholder in the U.S.-dominated international order. Western nations were happy to reap the economic benefits of increased ties with China, but failed—or chose not—to consider that Beijing could use its influence and riches to entrench and export its authoritarianism.
Biden will take office next month, inheriting the worst American-Chinese relationship in decades. The president-elect has said that Democrats do not see the China challenge as “primarily a military one,” though that the party “will deter and respond to aggression.” This includes in the contested South China Sea and around Taiwan, two key flashpoints where American and Chinese militaries regularly cross paths.
The China challenge will loom over Bidens’s foreign policy, and will most likely be the number one strategic challenge facing successive presidents for decades. The commission’s annual report said: “Chinese leaders’ assessment of the United States as a dangerous and firmly committed opponent has informed nearly every facet of China’s diplomatic strategy, economic policy, and military planning in the post-Cold War era.”
This has intensified since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the commission said. Xi has centralized power and abolished term limits, effectively becoming president for life and the most powerful leader since CCP cofounder Mao Zedong.
“Continued success by the Chinese government in achieving its economic, diplomatic, and military goals could set back U.S. economic and technological progress for decades at the cost of good jobs and shared prosperity, embolden autocrats and dictators around the world, and obstruct U.S. military support to U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific in the event of a future conflict,” the report warned.
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