On November 3rd the United States Department of Defence (DoD) released an annual report assessing the strength and expansion of China’s military from the previous year. Among rising tensions in the Pacific with threats over Taiwan and the ongoing trade war, the information in this annual report is somewhat condemning of US global supremacy.
There are a few key points that need to be highlighted. The most important is the size of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The PLAN, numerically, has “the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of approximately 355 ships”.1 There are numerous ways to determine who owns the largest navy in the world and it needs to be noted that this paper has chosen to determine the largest navy as number of vessels under command. The other ways to ascertain the largest navies in the world are counting the number of active aircraft carriers as they are so key to modern warfare, or the overall displacement of the naval forces in question. The DoD has deliberately chosen to use the number of vessels as the way of calculating the largest navy. If the DoD had chosen to use the number of aircraft carriers or total displacement, then the US Navy would remain as the globe’s largest navy.
The paper consistently refers to the strength of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in comparison to regional players such as Taiwan or Japan. As regional tensions are continuing to rise, and President Biden has formally announced that America will defend Taiwan against Chinese invasion, it is no surprise that China’s military strength is constantly being compared to the US’s regional allies. The strength of the PLA’s aviation wing will surely be causing some worry in the Pentagon and US naval circles who have sworn by the strength of aircraft carriers as the dominant military asset in a modern, hybrid war. The DoD believe China is fielding some 1,800 fighter jets which could be used to dominate the sea lanes around the Chinese coast and Taiwan. Even with all twelve of the USN aircraft carriers and other allied naval forces there would still be a disproportionate number of aircraft commanded by the Chinese in the region.
After the decline of the Soviet Union in 1991 the threat of nuclear war has significantly declined with the US dominating the nuclear arms race and Russia shifting its focus from international power to regional power. However, this recent report highlights the rising capability of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. The PLA has amassed an arsenal of over 200 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that could strike the US mainland and a hundred more short range classes.
China’s nuclear arsenal is also set to grow. Currently sitting at around 200 it is estimated that by 2030 China may hold up to 1000 nuclear capable weapons. This marks the first time in three decades that the two international superpowers have been increasing their nuclear arsenals whilst also implying they are preparing for war with each other. An extremely disturbing development regardless of ideology.
US General Mark Milley has said “we’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power” highlighting the fear among top military and political leaders in the US that China is attempting to surpass the US as the global superpower. China is already expanding its global footprint. With military bases in Djibouti and Myanmar, China has begun expanding its influence into the bordering nation of Tajikistan to protect against terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Agreements with Afghanistan may also see the Chinese military presence in the country replaces the outgoing US military following their full withdrawal in September.
As fears of Chinese expansionism, both in Asia and internationally, continue to grow, US soft and hard power will move to check its growth. As the US did against the USSR during the Cold War, they are likely to support anti-Chinese states in Asia and globally. The report shows how powerful the Chinese military has grown to in recent years. China not only stands as one of the strongest economies in the world but also one of the most militaristic ones as well.