The US has warned that China’s rapid modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army might heighten the military’s confidence in its own capabilities and eventually make the Chinese leadership more willing to risk a regional war, particularly over Taiwan.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency’s 140-page report on Tuesday concluded that two decades of growing defence budgets, a keen focus on non-traditional warfare such as information operations, and reforms of its command and control structures were helping the PLA advance speedily.
A US defence official told Washington-based media that this progress fuelled concerns that Beijing would ultimately cast aside its traditionally cautious approach over potential open armed conflict.
“The biggest concern is that . . . they are getting to a point where the PLA leadership may actually tell [Chinese president] Xi Jinping that they are confident in their capabilities,” Reuters cited the official as saying.
The Pentagon publishes a detailed report to Congress on China’s military power once a year and has been tracking the growing capabilities of the PLA in the naval, air, missile and cyber domains for some time.
The latest report comes two weeks after Mr Xi rattled policymakers in Taipei and Washington by reiterating that Beijing would not give up the threat of using military force against Taiwan.
Taiwan has been functioning as an independent country since it was released from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 and the Kuomintang, upon losing the Chinese civil war, fled to the island in 1949. But the People’s Republic of China has been claiming Taiwan as its territory ever since and threatens to invade the island if it refuses to be unified indefinitely.
In the course of the past 20 years, the military balance across the Taiwan Strait has increasingly tilted towards China. But while Beijing’s missile, electronic warfare and air power give it increasing options for crippling Taiwan, PLA analysts have long retained the view that it would be extremely hard if not impossible to make an amphibious landing on Taiwan, complete an invasion and successfully keep the country of 23m occupied.
“That recognition remains valid. They know that they remain far from being capable of taking and keeping Taiwan,” said a Taiwanese former senior military official.
But US military experts worry that the PLA’s more modern equipment and training routines are eroding Beijing’s traditional determination to keep any regional friction below the threshold of war.
The DIA report also dissects changes Beijing has made to the PLA’s command and control structures over the past three years in the biggest military reform in three decades.
“As a lot of these technologies mature, as their reorganisation of their military comes into effect, as they become more proficient with these capabilities, the concern is we’ll reach a point where internally in their decision-making they will decide that using military force for regional conflict is something that is more imminent,” the US defence official said, according to Defense News.
Get alerts on Chinese military when a new story is published