China’s decadeslong military buildup now poses a threat to U.S. security not just in Asia but also around the globe, and a confrontation with China could emerge at one of several flashpoints, a senior Pentagon official warned Thursday.
Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant defense secretary for China, told a congressional commission that Beijing’s buildup of missiles, warships, aircraft, space weaponry and cybercapabilities has accelerated under President Xi Jinping. He described it as “one of the most ambitious military modernization efforts in recent history.”
“In most of the potential flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific region — the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands or the Korean Peninsula — the United States may find itself in a military crisis with China,” Mr. Sbragia told a hearing of the congressionally created United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He said the challenge posed by Chinese military and economic expansion requires a Cold War-type response.
While not a replica of the standoff with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the China threat is “equally as consequential and therefore merits the same concentration of effort as put forth in the past,” he said.
China’s military now boasts 2 million personnel in uniform. The Chinese navy, after decades of building large numbers of warships, is now the world’s largest in terms of total assets, he said.
“China’s military is fielding an increasingly formidable array of ballistic and cruise missiles, modern fighter aircraft, autonomous systems, and a suite of cyber and space capabilities, postured to deny the U.S. military access to the Indo-Pacific theater if called upon,” Mr. Sbragia said.
Military power projection efforts are also linked to China’s expanding economic might through such programs as Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative and military-civilian fusion. China’s single overseas military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, is just the beginning of a global basing structure to match the U.S. military’s reach, U.S. officials say.
“In other words, it is not a matter of whether the [People’s Liberation Army] intends to establish another military base overseas, but when and how they plan to do it,” Mr. Sbragia said.
“The implications of China’s military modernization are profound. This is a long-term challenge that will require sustained funding and strategic planning to address …,” Mr. Sbragia said. “There is no zero-cost solution to global competition with China.”
The Capitol Hill hearing also included witnesses who revealed how Chinese military power is expanding globally and could help spread the ruling Communist Party’s authoritarian model. Isaac B. Kardon, a professor at the Naval War College, said the PLA navy could use a network of Chinese commercial ports for logistics in projecting military power. Chinese companies, he noted, own or operate 94 ports around the world, including the ports at either end of the Panama Canal.
“The [Chinese navy] depends on commercial ports to support its growing operations overseas,” he said.
Mr. Kardon cited an unidentified PLA officer who was quoted as saying of the Pakistani port of Gwadar that “the food is already on the plate. We’ll eat it whenever we want to.”
Beijing also has set as a goal the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the rise to power of Mao Zedong’s communists.
By 2035, China plans to deploy a high-technology force with modernized weapons and command and control systems to be able to follow Mr. Xi’s guidance to “fight and win wars.”
Mr. Sbragia said China outlined its goals in a 2019 military white paper that called for the People’s Liberation Army to “safeguard China’s overseas interests” by such means as building “offshore forces” and overseas bases. Chinese military strategists justify the expansion by saying the PLA will be “fulfilling international obligations” to secure the global commons and that Beijing will “never threaten any other country or seek any sphere of influence.”
In the Arctic, China is deploying civilian research organizations that could be used for a military presence.
Taiwan and the South China Sea are prime flashpoints for a direct U.S.-clash, Mr. Sbragia said. He was reiterating U.S. complaints that Beijing has “increasingly employed coercive tactics and measures in the South China Sea to deny claimants the legitimate regulation, exploitation and use of maritime natural resources in their exclusive economic zones.”
The Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy concluded that China is seeking regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific and “displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said repeatedly that a rising China is his department’s top security challenge.
A break with the past
The Pentagon testimony breaks with previous intelligence assessments that China’s military ambitions were limited to retaking Taiwan.
The Pentagon’s 2003 annual report to Congress on the Chinese military concluded that “preparing for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait is the primary driver for China’s military modernization.” Subsequent annual surveys emphasized that the buildup was limited to Taiwan but noted that China’s military was also interested in taking part in international peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
Few of the reports suggested that China had global ambitions to achieve military dominance, as conservative military analysts have argued for years.
Spokesmen for the National Intelligence Council and Defense Intelligence Agency had no immediate comments on the shifting arguments.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said Mr. Sbragia’s testimony was encouraging.
“Even as short as five years ago, the U.S. intelligence community’s conventional wisdom held that the PRC’s leaders were primarily focused on ‘domestic concerns’ of regime survival or enacting military modernization for regional purposes in order to resolve territorial disputes within the ‘first island chain,’” said Capt. Fanell, referring to the island stretching north to south close to China’s east coast.
“Despite this all-to-common failure to recognize the PRC’s strategic intentions, the fact is the PRC has and continues to build a naval force that if left unchallenged will not only be sailing the seven seas, as it is today, but will increasingly be able to achieve sea control in the global maritime commons as early as 2030, and potentially even sea superiority by 2049,” he said.
Capt. Fanell said the institutional bias to underestimate China’s strategic intentions and PLA modernization and global operations should lead to updates of the language of the 2018 national defense statement, deeming China a strategic adversary or enemy rather than a strategic competitor.
Rick Fisher, a China military analyst, said a small community of skeptics and conservatives can claim vindication with Mr. Sbragia’s testimony, which echoes what they have been saying for over two decades: that an unconstrained China will become a global threat to America.
“Conservatives have also long warned that China’s ambitions go well beyond simply taking over Taiwan,” Mr. Fisher said. “What China will try to do to Taiwan is simply the template for how it will eventually threaten every other democracy.”