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.

The largest air force in Asia and the third largest in the world, China’s PLAAF has more than 2,700 aircraft and a growing variety of unmanned aerial vehicles. While it still relies on imported aeroengines and components, and is not expected to field a new generation long-range bomber until around 2025, the PLAAF has made tremendous progress. It “continues to modernize and is closing the gap rapidly with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities. This development is gradually eroding the significant technical advantage held by the United States.” Meanwhile, its decades-old but substantially redesigned H-6 bombers are equipped with improved turbofans and standoff weapons. The H-6G can carry up to four ASCMs for maritime missions, the H-6K six CJ-20 LACMs—with a combined range capable of reaching Guam. The PLAAF also boasts one of the world’s largest advanced long-range SAM systems. While not as advanced as many of China’s other world-class (ballistic and cruise) missile systems, they and early warning and fighter aircraft are part of an improving inventory that helps populate a strong and growing integrated air defense system that offers “credible” coverage out to just over 500 kilometers from China’s shores. Meanwhile, China is developing multiple layers of ballistic missile defenses, with its HQ-19 interceptor missile possibly slated to “fill the mid-tier.”

At the apex of Chinese aerospace capabilities, the PLA Rocket Force continues to field some of China’s most advanced and potent weapons systems, which are summarized by category in a useful table on page ninety-five. Of particular note, the DF-21D ASBM “gives the PLA the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.” The DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which China began fielding in 2016, “has a maximum range of 4,000 km,” sufficient to conduct a precision strike on Guam.

The South China Sea figures prominently into both Chinese activities and the report’s coverage. Last year, China landed a military transport aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef. It also landed civilian aircraft on its newly constructed airfields at its three largest Spratly Islands outposts—Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs. China is preparing the capacity to host a regiment of twenty-four fighters in reinforced hangars on each of these three augmented features. As has been determined by the Arbitral Tribunal, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, together with Hughes Reef, are below high tide in their natural state and hence “do not generate their own maritime entitlements.” The report contains annotated photos of all China’s seven Spratly outposts, on which it continues to develop a panoply of military-relevant facilities. Other assets particularly relevant to supporting such outposts in the South China Sea, or even seizing new features, are the PLAN Marine Corps, a growing array of amphibious vessels, and the AG600 large amphibious seaplane.

To address burgeoning overseas interests, China is increasing its overseas security capabilities, presence and access. The report underscores Chinese movement toward the Indian Ocean and beyond. It documents that a PLAN nuclear-powered attack submarine called on Karachi, Pakistan, in May 2016. To support such long-distance naval operations, China began construction of a military facility in Djibouti in February 2016 “and probably will complete it within the next year.” Additionally, to bolster supplies and intelligence support, China may pursue “a mixture of military logistics models, including preferred access to overseas commercial ports and a limited number of exclusive PLAN logistic facilities—probably collocated with commercial ports.” China will “most likely” seek “additional hubs,” however termed, “in countries in which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan.”

Despite the aforementioned developments and related concerns, the report documents in detail, Washington continues judicious military contacts and exchanges with Beijing. “Carefully tailored,” they are designed to further mutual interests, “manage and reduce risk,” and encourage transparency. Like its predecessors, the report takes pains to note positive Chinese security contributions, including eight years of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, the largest number of personnel contributed by any permanent member of the UN Security Council, and the second greatest funding of UN peacekeeping operations over the past twelve months.

An Imperfect but Invaluable Contribution

Expecting perfection from a public government report of this nature is typically an exercise in frustration. Of greatest substantive significance, this year’s Pentagon report lacks many of the fascinating specifics on China’s space and counter-space activities found in the May 23, 2017, testimony of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats before the Senate Armed Services Committee. To address this disparity, the author obtained permission from noted space capabilities and law expert Michael J. Listner to share his observations on the subject: