Breaking Down the Pentagon's 2020 China Military Power Report: A Quest for PLA Parity?

Breaking Down the Pentagon's 2020 China Military Power Report: A Quest for PLA Parity?

The report puts key concerns front and center: arguably, China's meteoric military progress in recent years has not simply narrowed the gap in limited niches, but has in fact pursued parity and even selective superiority to the degree that, broadly interpreted, "China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas". 

China boasts considerable shipbuilding capacity. It engages in such pragmatic, responsive practices as spiral development. For example, the Luyang I (Type 052B) destroyer was built in China of Russian descent (combat and weapons systems), then integrated with China’s own weapons systems. Successive iterations reached success in the Renhai CG, whereupon China started building significant numbers.

China has a unified effort, not a collection of programs competing against themselves. While the U.S. has downsized shipbuilding capacity in recent years, resulting in increasing bottlenecks, China has been greatly expanding its shipbuilding capacity, and it has thus far found an effective way to fund this buildup. While the relevant U.S. shipyards are military-only, virtually every Chinese shipyard is an integrated civil-military production facility. This provides valuable funding potential and flexibility. Basic infrastructure costs are spread out. For example, the development of the 300-ton graving docks at Bohai Shipyard in Huludao was not driven by navy requirements, yet the PLAN will benefit from them.

China’s rapid progress in naval shipbuilding and fleet expansion raises at least two vital questions:

- What is the U.S. Navy’s strategy?

- What ships are needed to fulfill that strategy?

Growing Overseas Presence and Power Projection

Returning to the text of the report itself, the Pentagon rightly emphasizes the Party’s continued focus on maintaining domestic security and advancing unresolved territorial claims along China’s periphery, particularly in the East and South China Seas. Beyond this core focus, however, Beijing is clearly adding an emerging layer of emphasis: increasingly employing the PLA as an indispensable tool to secure growing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PRC State interests around the world, in part by playing a greater role in supporting PRC foreign policy. Providing security for Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative since 2013, here termed “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), is a vast area of PLA responsibility and new emerging missions.

The report addresses the prospects for expanding PLA access and basing with notable specificity: “The PRC has likely considered Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan as locations for PLA military logistics facilities. The PRC has probably already made overtures to Namibia, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. Known focus areas of PLA planning are along the SLOCs from China to the Strait of Hormuz, Africa, and the Pacific Islands.” Perhaps most tantalizing: “Cambodia declined a U.S. offer to pay to renovate a U.S.-donated building on Ream Naval Base in Cambodia. Cambodia may have instead accepted assistance from China or another country to develop Ream Naval Base. If China is able to leverage such assistance into a presence at Ream Naval Base, it suggests that China’s overseas basing strategy has diversified to include military capacity-building efforts. Both the PRC and Cambodia have publicly denied having signed an agreement to provide the PLAN access to Ream Naval Base.”

Despite the extensive PLA involvement in bilateral and multilateral exercises, and contributions to UN operations as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief around the world, China’s growing overseas military presence is already a source of tensions. At China’s first overseas facility in Djibouti, for example, “PLA personnel at the facility have interfered with U.S. flights by lasing pilots and flying drones, and the PRC has sought to restrict Djiboutian sovereign airspace over the base.”

Befitting an extension of PRC security interests across all regions and domains, a dedicated section on “China and the Arctic” outlines China’s efforts there as a self-described “near-Arctic State.” While China appears far from deploying a nuclear-powered icebreaker, it is interesting to note that its second icebreaking research vessel, Xue Long 2, “is the first polar research vessel that can break ice while moving forwards or backwards,” up to a thickness of 1.5 meters. As ice is broken, or gradually melts, along the “Polar Silk Road,” a more complicated obstacle may be Russia’s desire to impose restrictive policies along the Northern Sea Route. No stranger to such challenges, deep-pocketed China is investing in cooperation, having jointly established the Sino-Russian Arctic Research center in 2019 and footing 75% of the costs for a joint expedition that the institution is sponsoring this year.

PLA-Paramilitary-Militia Interoperability:  

The report devotes an important, sophisticated section explaining how all three of China’s armed forces work together with increasing frequency and effectiveness. The People’s Armed Police (PAP)’s recently expanded responsibilities include commanding China’s Coast Guard; and even, apparently, “since at least 2016” using Tajikistan-based PAP counterterrorism forces from Xinjiang to monitor and patrol the tri-border area among Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China. Based in Xinjiang itself, the PAP’s Mountain Eagle Commando Unit apparently trains to operate in austere high-altitude terrain within the decidedly non-autonomous “Autonomous Region.”

A pithy section on China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) states with U.S. Defense Department authority findings long-documented by CMSI. PAFMM forces play “a major role in coercive activities” and have “played significant roles in a number of military campaigns and coercive incidents over the years” The report details how “by the end of 2016,” Hainan’s Sansha City Maritime Militia received “84 large militia fishing vessels with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage.” The “most professional” PAFMM unit, “Its forces are paid salaries independent of any clear commercial fishing responsibilities and recruited from recently separated veterans.”

Cyber, Space, and the Strategic Support Force:

Presumably, for reasons of classification, this year’s Pentagon report does not offer new details regarding China’s space and cyber systems in similar abundance to its offerings regarding their naval, air, and missile counterparts. After all, even the most secretive of PLAN wharves tend to be within the sight of populated areas and people with digital cameras more powerful than the devices Cold War spies wielded. Many airbases, or at least the aircraft flying from them, are similarly vulnerable to scrutiny. Networks of enthusiasts compare notes via the Internet. Major missiles are relatively few in type and of great strategic importance; Pentagon reports have tended to cover deployed systems systematically. But beyond publicly cataloged and generally-predictable Newtonian orbits, truly definitive descriptions of space and cyber assets tend to remain the province of the most capable governments and their relevant agencies. The complex nature of some space operations, and the challenge in attributing cyber activities definitely, accentuates this partial monopoly and raises the risk of revealing sources, methods, and operational planning assumptions by disclosing details. At least, that is this author’s conjecture…

This year’s Pentagon report certainly offers some concrete information on Beijing’s prodigious space activity: “In 2019, China launched 34 SLVs (of which 32 were successful) that placed more than 70 spacecraft into orbit including navigation, ISR, and test/engineering satellites, as well as satellites for foreign customers.” In these and related efforts, various state-owned and “private” enterprises debuted and tested a wide range of launchers. Of unclear civilian application but of obvious relevance to rapid replenishing of space assets to meet military needs, “state-owned commercial company Expace conducted two orbital missions using Kuaizhou-1A light-lift vehicles from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center within six hours of one another.”

As for orbital assets, the PLA “owns and operates approximately half of” China’s more than 120 reconnaissance and remote sensing satellites, “most of which could support situational awareness of regional rivals and potential flashpoints, while monitoring, tracking, and targeting an adversary’s forces.” With the 55th and final Beidou satellite launched successfully on 23 June 2020, the global coverage completion of China’s Beidou-3 positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) system on schedule is widely-reported news. This milestone nevertheless merits emphasis here because it offers the PLA “additional command and control.” Finally, as Pentagon reports have explained for years, Beijing continues to pursue a wide range of counter-space capabilities to disable or destroy others’ on-orbit systems, including kinetic anti-satellite weapons, electronic warfare capabilities, and directed-energy weapons.

Perhaps the report’s greatest contribution in the space and cyber domains is an organizational analysis that is broadly useful, and telling in some details. A major section on the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) rightly describes it as “a theater command-level organization established to centralize the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.” An important entity to understand, indeed!

The SSF’s organizational nuances are admittedly difficult to distill, and the section bears careful reading. Interesting nuggets include the following: “The Space System Department operates at least eight bases, including those whose core missions are the launch, tracking R&D [research and development], and operation of the satellites vital to China’s overhead C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] architecture. The SSF runs tracking, telemetry, and command stations in Namibia, Pakistan, and Argentina.” While close Sino-Pakistan military cooperation is proudly proclaimed to all who will listen, it may be news to at least some Argentine citizens that the Patagonian deep space station near Las Lajas in the Andes foothills of Neuquén province is managed by China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, indisputably under SSF control.

The section immediately afterward provides a similar overview of the likewise-insufficiently-understood PLA Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF). Its mission is less glamorous than that of the SSF, but this role is no less important: establishing and maintaining relationships among the many entities that ensure the flow and function of PLA goods and services. There is a vital civilian component to this, particularly as PLA efforts expand overseas on extended supply lines, sometimes discreetly, including through the use of foreign ports and other facilities.