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". 

Nowhere are the consequences of Beijing’s unrelenting focus on realizing its “core” political-territorial claims by wielding military might more apparent than in the report’s ample coverage of Taiwan Strait force (im)balances and scenarios. Taiwan’s old military advantages are gone or fast eroding, its defense budget is 1/15 of China’s official expenditures, and its transition to an all-volunteer military remains an expensive struggle. Taiwan’s saving grace is that its wonderfully humane and dynamic capitalist democracy makes its own special contributions to the world and is well worth defending. It is finally pursuing more logically-asymmetric approaches to its own defense, which are indispensable and facilitate further worthwhile cooperation with the United States.

In this, as in other key areas, Sbragia’s Pentagon colleagues have their work cut out for them. They will need the full support of Congress, the Executive Branch, the American public, and international partners. By raising awareness of the states, this report has provided a signal service while there is still time to act. But there is no time to waste—none at all!

Next year’s report, which Sbragia’s team and contributors across the U.S. defense intelligence community will begin developing shortly, will record a whole new chapter in PRC military progress. Its contents will include significant developments that have already happened as of today--but, since they occurred after the end of 2019, proved too recent to curate and incorporate in the round just completed and released.

In conclusion, there is no better summary of the challenge before us than this excerpt from Xi’s speech at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on 18 October 2017: “The wheels of history roll on; the tides of the times are vast and mighty. History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with plenty of guts; it won’t wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those shy of a challenge.”

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He runs the research website

Image: Military vehicles carrying DF-21D ballistic missiles roll to Tiananmen Square during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated since publication.