New Pentagon China Report Highlights the Rise of Beijing's Maritime Militia

Flypast of the Chengdu J-20 during the opening of Airshow China in Zhuhai in November 2016. Wikimedia Commons / Alert5

Pentagon experts have finally keyed in on one of the most important aspects of China's strategy to dominate the waterways of the Asia-Pacific.

Beyond its maritime-militia coverage, the report offers a treasure trove of other insights. Some areas, particularly broader strategic points and basic force-structure elements, are well known to PLA analysts outside the U.S. government but are conveniently compiled in a go-to source for many in Washington not normally focused on the subject. A number of specific points, however, are difficult—if not impossible—to corroborate or even learn through open sources. The report contains too many insights to enumerate them all here, and is best read in full—or at least skimmed directly. The following surveys some of the most important and interesting highlights from both categories.

Chinese military doctrine is increasing emphasis on preparing for a full range of potential contingencies, involving “maritime military struggle” and “winning informatized local wars” along China’s southeastern periphery—with Taiwan and scenarios related to the East China Sea and South China Sea foremost among them. Beijing, the report judges, “expects significant elements of a modern conflict to occur at sea.” At a lower level of intensity, Beijing seeks to strengthen its ability to safeguard its burgeoning overseas interests. To support such efforts, long-distance mobility operations, offensive sea-and-air operations, and a full spectrum of space-and-cyber operations are all accorded heightened emphasis.

To meet this and related goals, China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping has ordered sweeping reorganization and reform of China’s armed forces that dwarfs even America’s previous Goldwater-Nichols transformation. Major organizational developments include reorganizing the Central Military Commission, establishing a Joint Operations Command Center, five theater commands—each oriented “toward a specific set of contingencies,” an Overseas Operations Office, a Joint Logistics Support Force, and unifying space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities under a Strategic Support Force. Demobilizing personnel—primarily from the world’s largest standing ground force and from noncombat positions across the PLA—is strengthening the PLA’s tooth-to-tail ratio and elevating the status of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF). Noncommissioned officers and civilians are replacing officers in some positions. PLA exercises are growing in scope, complexity and realism. In 2016, seventeen exercises were conducted with foreign partners.

To supply its forces, China has developed one of the world’s largest and most capable defense industries. It is producing numerous platforms and weapons systems while also researching a wide array of frontier technologies. In August 2016, for instance, China launched the world’s first experimental quantum communications satellite, which offers significant potential for cryptography and secure communications. It also continues to prioritize efforts in such pioneering fields as hypersonics and nanotechnology.

A secondary defense industrial benefit, arms exports, has lagged its domestic outfitting, but has considerable room for growth. About $20 billion in sales from 2011–15 made it the world’s fourth-largest arms supplier (albeit with $9 billion to regional countries, primarily Pakistan). Growing demand for armed unmanned aerial vehicles from China amid restrictions from other suppliers will likely pull the Middle East and North Africa ahead of sub-Saharan Africa as China’s second-largest arms-export market. Already, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have made purchases.

The largest navy in Asia (and—by ship numbers—in the world), the PLAN is rapidly refining and better equipping its forces. It continues to prioritize submarines and is outfitting many with YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and their variants. By the early 2020s, the Pentagon forecasts, China will begin building a next-generation Type 096 SSBN. Over the next decade, China will likely build a new Type 093B guided-missile nuclear-attack submarine, outfitted with land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). China is also strengthening its surface fleet significantly, drawing on a robust shipbuilding industry to series-produce three classes of warships simultaneously and placing particular emphasis on multiple missions and air defenses. Its Type 054D destroyer “has a multipurpose vertical launch system capable of launching ASCMs, SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], and anti-submarine missiles.” By 2020 a second aircraft carrier will likely join Liaoning, which itself will likely focus on training and fleet air defense missions. These two carriers, and others that join them in the future, will be escorted by the ten thousand ton Type 055 cruisers currently under construction.