China’s rapidly modernizing military is quickly closing the gap with the U.S. and its allies and may soon be tempted to test the status quo with Taiwan, a stark report from the Defense Department’s intelligence directorate concluded.
The 50-page report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, released Tuesday, contends that with its advances in military capabilities and an increasingly internationally focused defense strategy, China is rapidly entering “a period of strategic opportunity … [toward] building comprehensive national power,” said senior DIA intelligence analyst Dan Taylor.
The goal of China’s relentless military buildup is to “impose its will in the region and beyond,” Mr. Taylor told reporters at the Pentagon. Beijing “has demonstrated a willingness to use the [military] as an instrument of national power in the execution of … their historic mission in the new century.”
While Chinese advances in hypersonic weaponry, cyberwarfare and sea power are increasingly challenging longtime U.S. military supremacy, U.S. analysts say, China’s chief security priority may be much closer to home: reclaiming control of Taiwan, which Beijing has long considered a breakaway territory. The U.S. security umbrella has long restrained the mainland in its pressure campaign against Taipei.
“Our concern is we’ll reach a point where internally, within [China’s] decision-making, they will decide that using military force for a regional conflict is something that is more imminent,” a senior U.S. defense intelligence official said.
Asked whether a military offensive to reclaim Taiwan into the Chinese mainland could be in the offing, the official replied, “Specifically, that would be the most concerning to me.”
The report was made public while Adm. John Richardson, U.S. chief of naval operations, was in Beijing with his Chinese counterparts in talks about American warship passages through the Taiwan Strait. In China’s official account of the talks, Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng, chief of China’s Central Military Commission Joint Staff Department, reportedly told Adm. Richardson that China would allow “no external interference.”
“If someone tries to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will do whatever it takes to safeguard national reunification, national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Gen. Li said, according to the Chinese English-language transcript, the Reuters news agency reported.
More generally, the People’s Liberation Army is proving an increasingly formidable adversary for the U.S. and its allies, with a technological, manpower and economic base to fund further advances.
China possesses medium- and intermediate-range missile technology that has achieved near parity with American-made systems. It would be those types of missiles that would likely be the first salvo in any Chinese effort to retake Taiwan, the intelligence official said.
“If they wanted to fire missiles at Taiwan, they could do it right now,” the official said, noting that “there’s been no indication they’re planning to do that, but there’s very little warning that could be provided for that kind of thing.”
For now, however, after that initial missile strike, it is highly unlikely that Chinese forces could mount the necessary ground invasion to overtake the island, the U.S. official said.
“There’s a lot of work that I think that they’re still doing to try to work on those [invasion] capabilities, and we don’t have a real strong grasp on when they will think that they are confident in that capability,” the official said.
“In the coming years, [China] is likely to grow even more technologically advanced and proficient with equipment comparable to that of other modern militaries,” Mr. Taylor said. Leveraging “advanced fighter aircraft, modern naval vessels, missile systems, and space and cyberspace assets,” Beijing will continue to press its interests in the Pacific and beyond.
While Chinese advances in areas such as space, cyberwarfare and next-generation aircraft have been well-documented over the years, it is Beijing’s rapid progress “across all different domains, simultaneously” that has raised alarm bells across the Pentagon.
Last year, Beijing announced its latest intermediate-range missile in the Chinese arsenal, the Dong Feng-26, now had a nuclear capability. Once fully operational, the DF-26 “would give China its first nuclear precision-strike capability” against targets in the Asia-Pacific region, the DIA report states.
In the field of hypersonics, Beijing is “on the leading edge of technology” nearly surpassing the Pentagon’s latest efforts, with China on the cusp of fielding a non-nuclear weapon capable of hitting any target around the world in an hour.
“From the Chinese perspective, they would hope that it would cause a great threat to U.S. warships,” in the Pacific and elsewhere, the intelligence official said regarding China’s advances in missile and hypersonics technologies. “It’s very concerning to see all the different areas they’re making progress.”
Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations, declined to comment specifically on the DIA report’s findings, but the four-star admiral did note that Beijing’s burgeoning arsenal would force Navy leaders to adjust their overarching strategy in the Pacific.
“It changes some of the calculus in how you employ the force,” Adm. Moran told reporters after a speech at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference in Arlington, Virginia.
China’s growing military prowess is part of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” being pursued by Beijing, the DIA’s Mr. Taylor said Tuesday.
“This ambition permeates China national security strategy and guides the development of the People’s Liberation Army, the PLA,” he said, calling the PLA “the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan made clear shortly after succeeding James Mattis at the beginning of the month that the Pentagon’s focus would be squarely on China under his watch.
“While we’re focused on ongoing operations, acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to remember China, China, China,” a Defense Department official told reporters ahead of Mr. Shanahan’s first official appearance at the White House Cabinet meeting.
Despite China’s growing military prowess, Beijing has a long way to go before it can be considered a head-to-head threat to the U.S., the intelligence official said.
“This is a military that has not fought a war in 40 years,” the official said. “When you talk parity, there is more than just technology involved.”