For the past 20 years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has released an annual report to Congress on military and security developments in the People’s Republic of China. By assessing the PRC’s national strategy and growth, the DoD aims to provide a framework by which lawmakers can steer foreign policy. 2020 has been far from an ordinary year for the two countries, as is highlighted in the 2020 report’s critical insights on developments in military, strategy, and economy.
Militarily, China has progressed leaps and bounds since the DoD’s initial report in 2000. The nation saw its military grow from what was described as “archaic” and “poorly suited to achieve the CCP’s long-term ambitions,” to a force that has surpassed the US on several military frontiers including shipbuilding, land-based conventional cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems. At this pace, China is anticipated to achieve its ambitions of becoming a world-class military power by 2049.
This strikingly fast military modernization has been accompanied by a complete restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army to better accomplish joint operations, combat readiness, and regional expansion. These evolving capabilities imply an intent to increase China’s power projection in the Indo-Pacific region. In order to glean the full picture driving the military’s rapid modernization, it is critical to understand the driving forces behind China’s holistic national strategy.
Strategy of rejuvenation
Many of China’s current strategic ambitions come from the desire to rectify historic failures such as the “Century of Humiliation.” This period from 1839-1949 was characterized by countless acts of exploitation, embarrassment, and unequal treaties by foreign nations towards China following losses at war. China was caught in the hands of Western powers countless times, and far-from-forgotten memories of “humiliation” continue to drive decisions in Chinese politics today.
As it relates to strategic rejuvenation, China hopes that the backbone of its economic engine – its manufacturing abilities and cutting-edge technologies – will bolster its national prosperity. Striving to be a world power is also touched on in the DoD’s 2020 report, which mentions that China’s nationalist aspirations are to “return” the country to a position of global strength and prosperity. In other words, China’s past dictates where it sees itself in the future, and this has translated into economic and military ambitions.
China’s military aspirations go hand in hand with its broader goals of economic development. Since 2000, the Chinese economy has seen both GDP per capita and gross GDP increase by twelvefold, rising from US$1.21 trillion at the turn of the century to US$13.61 trillion in 2018. In turn, China’s meteoric economic rise has translated to a ballooning defense budget, which is now the second largest in the world. In 2019, the PLA’s budget increased by 6.2%, continuing the 20 year tradition of annual budget increases.
Beyond the defense budget, China projects its military presence outward alongside Party-led economic initiatives like “One Belt, One Road”, which in hand is reliant on China’s promise to deliver financial aid. Through OBOR, China is able to align countries’ interest with China’s own, gain access to strategic infrastructure like ports, and even launch overseas PLA bases, such as the PLA’s support base in Djibouti.
Lastly, China’s military seeks to take a leap forward through the development of key technologies, such as AI, autonomous systems, quantum computing, and more. China has invested vast amounts of resources into research within these fields, and businesses and academic institutions cooperate with the military to develop these technologies. Guiding growth in this field, China’s Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) plan promotes the integration of the military with industry, private technologies, and academic research. Under this umbrella, China’s 2016 Cybersecurity Law and 2017 National Security Law require that individuals and private organizations assist with national security when called upon and keep all collaboration confidential.
It is clear that China has made great strides in military modernization and economic development, informed by a national strategy of rejuvenation. Though both Presidential candidates stand on opposite sides of the aisle, they have both discussed hardlines for dealing with China’s power projection. With ambitious plans in both fields, it is safe to say that the DoD will need to keep its eye on China as the nation continues to rapidly develop its militaristic capabilities on the global stage.