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". 

Organization and Operations: Lingering Weaknesses, Determined Reforms.  

This naturally raises a critical related issue: how well can China command and control these and other forces in practice? Many previous studies have suggested that while PRC military hardware has advanced rapidly since the late 1990s, the “software” of personnel and organization to operate under complex, high-intensity conditions has lagged considerably, with some particularly glaring weaknesses persisting. Given the complicated, constantly evolving nature of the gargantuan multivariate equation that represents Chinese military capabilities, even a report of this authority and extent cannot provide a conclusive answer.

On the one hand, the report acknowledges that China retains a range of military limitations, even as it is striving to address them: “major gaps and shortcomings remain.” China’s aviation industry remains “unable to produce reliable high-performance aircraft engines and relies on Western and Russian engines.” Other ongoing weaknesses include the fact that while “China is installing undersea monitoring systems,” it “continues to lack a robust deep-water anti-submarine warfare capability.” Overall PRC capabilities continue to diminish dramatically with distance and complexity of coordination: “Whether the PLA can collect accurate targeting information and pass it to launch platforms in time for successful strikes in sea areas beyond the first island chain is unclear.” On a related note: “The PLAN recognizes that long-range ASCMs require a robust, over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability to realize their full potential. To fill this capability gap, China is investing in reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to provide high-fidelity targeting information to surface and subsurface launch platforms.”

On the other hand, PLA “software” reforms are impressive not only in their ambition but also in their execution to date: “More striking than the PLA’s staggering amounts of new military hardware are the recent sweeping efforts taken by CCP leaders that include completely restructuring the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint.”

Perhaps nowhere is this transformation more clearly manifested than in the PLA’s transformation of its organizing principle from seven army-based Military Regions to five joint Theater Commands. This is necessarily a work in progress, but the report enumerates significant effort and achievements. Additionally, some of the most effective advances may have come in the form of low-intensity gray zone operations that in no way represent apex military capabilities yet relentlessly yield incremental progress. “The Eastern Theater Command,” it states, “likely commands all China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia ships while conducting Senkakus-related operations.” The PLA’s Hong Kong and Macau garrisons are the responsibility of the Southern Theater Command. Under the Southern Theater Command’s direction, in August 2019, “PLA and probable …PAP… forces deployed into Hong Kong by land, air, and sea from Shenzhen at night...” as part of a one-way rotation to bolster the presence of China’s armed forces in the Special Administrative Region.

Conclusion: Prospects for Parity? 

This year’s Pentagon report to Congress makes an exceptional contribution to public knowledge of the capabilities and trajectory of China’s armed forces. Considered in conjunction with its post-2000 predecessors, it documents devastatingly just how much progress Beijing has made in two decades. Already a force to be reckoned with, the PLA and its allied services are poised to advance dramatically in the coming years. This latest assessment is so information-rich that the author simply cannot distill all the interesting data points here--ideally, you should read it in full yourself. 

Two decades ago, many would have dismissed the notion that China’s armed forces could achieve parity with, let alone exceed, the American gold standard in any form save sheer numbers of personnel. Any potential threat to Taiwan was dismissed as a “million-man swim.” Today, the report makes clear, such discounting is entirely unwarranted. The report highlights three areas of PRC preponderance up front: shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air-defense systems. To be sure, even here China is not uniformly superior. The more likely military scenarios--“home games” for Beijing--naturally place far greater stress on Chinese IADS than their American counterparts. Land-based conventional missiles have long been regarded as far less scenario-relevant to the United States, which is one reason that Washington shackled itself nearly unilaterally to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty from 1987-2019, even as the one other signatory (Russia) cheated and China would not join. Washington should have unstrapped that costly straitjacket even earlier, in this author’s view. But naval shipbuilding is bound by no arms control regime akin to the 1930 London Naval Treaty, and could hardly be more relevant or useful to America’s global posture in defending a free and open system. The Pentagon’s underscoring of China’s relative progress in this critical area alone should be a profound wake-up call for U.S. policy-makers and all who support and wish them well in their efforts to preserve a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Moreover, China may well be adding more areas of advantage atop these three. While the report does not offer many details concerning PRC unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), its reference to their sheer scope and diversity as displayed in unprecedented abundance at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow suggests impressive dynamism in that field. In the report’s review of China’s defense industrial base, major technological sectors, and global efforts to augment them by any means available even as American law enforcement and other guardians of foreign intellectual property strengthen defenses, it becomes clear just how hard China is working to dominate fields that are not yet firmly established today. In addition to its earlier mention of PRC efforts regarding hypersonics, the Pentagon emphasizes China’s systematic planning and prioritization of such areas as artificial intelligence, facial recognition, supercomputing, and human-machine teaming technologies. In light of the aforementioned post-2016 PAP presence in Tajikistan, the following merits attention: “PRC technology companies may also be collecting facial recognition data on Tajikistanis with the citywide facial recognition supplied since at least 2013, similar to the surveillance equipment installed in Xinjiang.” Additionally, in the field of quantum computing alone, “China conducted the first quantum-secured intercontinental videoconference in September 2017 and plans to have a satellite-enabled, global, quantum-encrypted communications capability operational by 2030. China is also reportedly building the world’s largest quantum research facility slated to open in the city of Hefei in 2020. China already has a 2,000 km secure quantum communication ground line between Beijing and Shanghai and plans to expand the line across China.”  

One cannot predict with certainty how these technologies will develop, or how China’s efforts to harness them will play out, but if Beijing can already achieve superlative positions in such long-established areas as shipbuilding, missiles, and air defense systems, it should have even greater prospects of doing so regarding at least some technologies of tomorrow. There, by definition, no nation yet has an established position--and China itself may be the one to gain a valuable head start.

As DASD Sbragia emphasized commendably in his AEI presentation, this year’s Defense Department China report takes particular pains to review and explain China’s national and military strategy on its own terms. Distilling Beijing’s vision and policy framework reveals that it is important to distinguish between two distinct concepts: parity and parallelism. Under the CCP, China clearly aims for increasing parity with the United States, as measured in overall military capabilities, influence, and recognition. The Pentagon’s report shows what for some will be a shocking rapidity of progress toward parity in key areas, including its actual attainment therein, broadly speaking.

To be sure, China is nowhere close to achieving overall parity of military capabilities with the United States. Beijing faces not only a common uncertainty about the future, but also some clear downside risks moving forward. The report rightly concludes that PRC military-related spending is surely higher than the official figure, could already exceed $200 billion, and could rise to $270 billion by 2003 per current trends. Yet China’s economic growth rate is headed in the other direction, projected to halve “from 6.1 percent in 2019 to 3 percent in 2030, which could slow future defense spending growth.” Provided that Xi or his successor continues to prioritize military spending, however, there appears to be significant room to grow nonetheless.

Prospects for increasing but far from complete parity aside, China’s force posture and composition remains far from being fully parallel to that of the United States in many respects. Because of Washington and Beijing’s very different geography and geopolitical goals, this divergence is likely to hold true overall for years to come.

Unfortunately, what this means in practice is that Beijing is increasingly able to apply growing parity in increasing aspects of overall capabilities to its far more concentrated target set of national security priorities. As the report underscores at the outset, “Party leaders...argue that ‘full reunification’—unification with Taiwan on Beijing’s terms and completing Hong Kong and Macau’s integration by the end of 2049—is a fundamental condition of national rejuvenation.”