A new Pentagon assessment of Chinese military power states it has outstripped the US in numbers of warships, land-based missiles and air defence systems.
The news comes as a blow to US national pride.
“Frankly, America slept while China grew,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday.
The annual Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) report concedes the Pentagon was wrong when, 20 years ago, it dismissed the potential threat posed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Instead, the reports state, it is now well and truly on track to become what Chairman Xi Jinping demands to be “a world-class military”.
“(Beijing) has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernise the PLA in nearly every respect,” the report finds, adding that “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas”.
This includes its ship building economy, as well as the number of ballistic, cruise and anti-aircraft missile systems.
In particular, the 173-page report notes the Chinese navy is now the largest in the world with a total of 350 vessels. The US navy reports 293 vessels in active service.
Pompeo says China remains outmatched by the combined strength of the West and its allies.
“It’s central that we have friends and allies in this battle,” he told Fox News.
“We’ve worked for two years now to build that out. We’ve made real progress. You’ve seen them acknowledge the threat. They slept on this threat the same way America did for two decades.”
The Pentagon believes China is on course to expand its fleet to 360 vessels by the end of 2020 – most of them being “modern multi-role platforms” with high-end capabilities.
While launching more destroyers and frigates each year than the rest of the world combined, it still lags behind in the key areas of submarines and aircraft carriers.
Beijing currently has two mid-sized aircraft carriers in operation. Another two are believed to be under construction.
The United States fields a fleet of 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers of much greater size and capability than the present Chinese force. But the ships Beijing has under construction are believed to be bigger, able to sustain operations for longer and use catapults to launch heavier aircraft.
The report notes that this will allow Beijing to project a powerful strike force far beyond Chinese home waters and the “first island chain” (Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia).
Its military will be able to project power over what Beijing calls its “second island chain” of influence – from Japan in the north, past the US Pacific island of Guam, through the Marianas Islands down to Papua New Guinea.
“The PLAN’s ability to perform missions beyond the First Island Chain is modest but growing as it gains more experience operating in distant waters and acquires larger and more advanced platforms,” the report reads. “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” and for “expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint.”
The Pentagon assessment says China has more than 1250 ground-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with ranges between 500km and 5500km. The US had until recently been restrained from producing similar weapons under the terms of its 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.
President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the agreement last year. It has since tested one ballistic and one cruise missile that falls within this category.
Such missiles – which can carry either nuclear or conventional warheads – are central to Chinese and Russian tactics of area denial. This involves stacking a location – such as Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast or one of Beijing’s artificial island fortresses in the South China sea – with dozens of launchers.
Such a concentration of firepower makes it extremely difficult for naval forces to approach without risking severe losses.
Beijing and Moscow have a similar approach to air defence, which the Pentagon report calls “one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems”.
The Russian-built S-400 is a long-range, high speed weapon is touted as being ‘state of the art’ and capable of striking US stealth aircraft.
But the report warns China will soon be able to venture beyond these defensive bubbles.
“In the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s global power projection capabilities.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel