12 November 2021

How Powerful Is China’s Military? The Pentagon’s New China Report Offers Answers

Andrew S. Erickson, interviewed by Harry J. Kazianis, “How Powerful Is China’s Military? The Pentagon’s New China Report Offers Answers,” 19FortyFive, 12 November 2021.

Editor’s Note: Having distilled the 2021 China Military Power Report (CMPR)’s key findings into a six-page summary last week, Dr. Andrews Erickson now offers his big-picture conclusions and recommendations.

Q: What’s the biggest revelation from this year’s CMPR?

A: New projections concerning PRC nuclear weapons buildup are clearly the biggest, most important point. And what a difference a year makes! The 2020 CMPR projected roughly a doubling of PRC nuclear warheads by 2030, but now the 2021 edition projects China close to quadrupling its current inventory within that timeframe. Specifically, the Department of Defense (DoD) anticipates that China may have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027, of which roughly 200 warheads will be on land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States; and at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.

The new report also assesses related developments of concern: China’s shift to a nuclear triad with a launch-on-warning posture; as well as the pursuit of hypersonic delivery systems, and also apparently of low-yield nuclear weapons. At a time when Beijing increasingly threatens Taipei and Washington and its nuclear-armed allies are not growing their nuclear arsenals or enhancing their nuclear postures significantly, this sticks out alarmingly. And that is even amid, by China, what is arguably the most massive arms buildup in the post-Cold War world over the last thirty years.

Someone far more knowledgeable and experienced in this area than I said something to me that I find persuasive and thought-provoking. He recalled that the previous PRC nuclear weapons policy has been the exclusive preserve of China’s top leaders. He suggested that just as Mao and Deng chose a relatively restrained nuclear posture for China, we are now seeing a more assertive nuclear posture emerging under Xi. Cogent and concerning!

On that note, Taylor Fravel’s landmark book on China’s military strategy confirms that nuclear weapons policy is firewalled off from the vast majority of PRC decision-makers. He devotes a separate chapter to China’s nuclear strategy, in part because from the outset “Nuclear strategy was deemed a matter of national policy to be determined by party leadership… Because nuclear strategy was never delegated to the PLA, the views about nuclear weapons held by China’s top party leaders, especially Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, have had an especially powerful effect, even today.” Pending availability of relevant sources—likely a long-term challenge in this area, it is to be hoped that a future edition of Fravel’s magnum opus might someday address Xi’s views concerning nuclear weapons.

Q: PLA capabilities have evolved dramatically since the first CMPR was issued in 2000, and the report has evolved accordingly. Stepping back from this year’s breaking news and concerns, what’s one of the 2021 report’s findings that would have seemed most unlikely two decades ago?

A: The 2021 CMPR, like its immediate predecessor, suggests that the PRC now seeks to equal or exceed American power and influence by mid-century. The report states bluntly: “The PRC’s strategy aims to achieve ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ by 2049 to match or surpass U.S. global influence and power, displace U.S. alliances and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, and revise the international order to be more advantageous to Beijing’s authoritarian system and national interests. This strategy can be characterized as a determined pursuit of far-ranging efforts to expand the PRC’s national power.”

The CMPR summarizes Beijing’s goals of preeminence, to be achieved fully between 2035 and 2049, as follows: “complet[ing] its development and attain[ing] national rejuvenation, realizing an international status that Xi describes as a ‘global leader in terms of comprehensive national strength and international influence.’ A renewed PRC will have attained—among the Party’s many goals—its objectives to field a ‘world-class’ military and assume a leading position within an international order revised in line with Beijing’s overall foreign policy goal to establish what it refers to as a ‘community of common destiny (人类命运共同体)’….”

In so arguing, the 2021 CMPR moves well beyond earlier editions, which typically suggested that Beijing aimed for regional preponderance at most. Indeed, such has previously been the conventional wisdom among many scholars and analysts. It is even quite possible that many PRC officials in power two decades ago did not regard future global preponderance as either realistic or worth taking risks to pursue. Nevertheless, under Xi today, the PRC is far more powerful and pushy than many ever anticipated. It now has additional ambitious goals for the next three decades—the grandest and most strategic guiding policies of any great power today. … … …