Defending Forward to Confront China’s Military Aims
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The passage of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) marked the moment the budget finally caught up to a grim geostrategic reality: The capabilities gap between the U.S. and Chinese militaries is shrinking, and fast. The NDAA also rightly acknowledged the linkage between China’s military pursuits and its deft ability to operate in the gray zone between traditional war and peace. Nowhere is this trend clearer than in the Indo-Pacific, where China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is fortifying its fixed military positions in the South China Sea while simultaneously investing in advanced next-generation technologies with over-the-horizon applications.

The seeds of China’s massive, ongoing military modernization were, of course, planted decades ago, although they have taken on new dimensions in recent years under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership. In pursuing Xi’s principal goals of attaining great-power status and securing China’s place within the international hierarchy, Beijing has prioritized efforts to transform the PLA into a capable and agile expeditionary fighting force.

These aims include conducting joint operations on a modern battlefield, emphasizing expanding naval operations far beyond China’s immediate vicinity, all the while employing integrated, real-time command and control networks to ensure rapid decision-making and information sharing. China also remains keen to significantly enhance its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities while laying the technical groundwork needed to win “informatized” (cyber) wars.

China’s defense budget, an estimated $261 billion dollars, has ballooned to support these and other strategic objectives, marked by an 85 percent increase in spending as a share of China’s GDP between 2010-2019. Of course, such figures do not account for other non-defense-related programming that nevertheless amplifies the PLA’s global reach, including its lucrative, bidirectional relationships with Chinese state-owned enterprises supporting Beijing’s civil-military fusion. 

China has hardly been shy about its defense procurement, recently allocating billions of dollars for cutting-edge command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, with even more spent revolutionizing its navy, already the world’s largest. While the U.S. Navy and Air Force struggle to maintain costly legacy platforms, China is investing in a diversified fleet of advanced submarines, destroyers, amphibious ships, patrol craft, aircraft carriers, and unmanned underwater vehicles.

China also continues to make major strides in deploying technologically sophisticated aircraft, including fourth and fifth-generation fighter jets, along with long-range bombers. In the coming years, these new naval and air deployments will be supported by a vastly streamlined logistical and defense industrial base, with accompanying upgrades in the PLA’s nuclear weapons and anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities.

Through its actions and words, China has advanced near-term geostrategic goals that appear much broader than merely securing a reduction in U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific. They also include diplomatic and economic outcomes designed to limit, and in some cases eliminate, U.S. influence over other countries in the region. Despite its procurement of advanced military hardware, the PLA’s posture hinges on its ability not to defeat the U.S. military outright but rather to make intervention too costly for the United States to consider.

Nevertheless, China is not yet 10 feet tall, and the United States military continues to maintain both a quantitative and qualitative edge over its less experienced Chinese competitor. What’s more, the PLA’s ascendance in the Indo-Pacific and other parts of the world is far from certain. Paradoxically, Beijing’s aggressive attempts to constrain Washington and coerce its neighbors have galvanized an increasingly robust response from the United States, its regional partners, and a surprising number of European powers, many of which have grown alarmed by China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its aggressive Taiwanese posturing.

If smartly executed, the NDAA and its programmatic centerpiece, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), have the potential to flip the gray zone script on China. At its core, the PDI’s $2.2 billion down payment opens the door to strengthening deterrence initiatives involving China and bolstering regional confidence among like-minded partners in the Pacific. It also addresses the transnational threat posed by China’s complex web of malign influence and political interference operations, many of which are designed to improve the PLA’s standing.

And the best part is that the NDAA’s nuanced language allows the Department of Defense and other U.S. government planners to embrace an innovation mindset, one grounded in the likelihood of decreasing defense budgets in the coming years.

To be successful, Washington must stress-test its defense partnerships, forming new alliances when needed and potentially jettisoning those which are outdated. The Department of Defense’s internal machinery will also require modernization to account for a China challenge that extends far beyond the Taiwan Strait. This modernization should include establishing a new deputy assistant secretary of defense position focused exclusively on challenging China’s military aims beyond the Indo-Pacific.

Lastly, Washington will need to base mission prioritization and planning on increased intelligence collection on China’s plans and intentions and regional host country receptivity to Beijing’s overtures, the soft underbelly of China’s entire grand strategy.

In passing the NDAA, Congress has done its part to ensure that the next administration is set up for success. How the Department of Defense executes, this budget will make the difference between falling behind or defending forward.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and China Program. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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