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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

2021 China Military Power Report: Everything You Need To Know

2021 China Military Power Report
Image: Chinese Internet.

So the Pentagon released its latest report on Chinese military power this week, under the splashy title Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. As usual, the report is interesting and, on the whole, authoritative. Four comments:

First, the document’s framers give scant treatment to China’s maritime territorial claims, devoting under two pages in a 192-page report. (They do consider the plight of Taiwan separately and at greater length.) Territory, however, lies at the heart of China’s “dream” of national rejuvenation, and seems to merit more extensive coverage.

For example, the report seems to say that Beijing’s “nine-dashed line” claims in the South China Sea are entirely about the islands located within the nine-dashed line, chiefly the Spratlys and Paracels. But China’s 2009 letter to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf—to which the nine-dashed-line map was attached—proclaims that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.”

China’s claim to indisputable sovereignty, then, is not merely about a handful of islands, atolls, and reefs. It’s about whether a coastal state can own the sea. The law of the sea says No, China says Yes. If Beijing gets its way, it will in effect abolish the law of the sea in a major waterway and subvert the international order in similar waters. Freedom of the sea constitutes the crux of the South China Sea disputes—and that’s worth always bearing in mind. Why the Pentagon chose to soft-pedal the saltwater dimension mystifies.

Second, the report correctly notes that “active defense” as pioneered by Mao Zedong and the Red Army nearly a century ago remains the core—or as the ruling State Council puts it, the “essence”—of Chinese military strategy. But the report doesn’t fully capture the concept of active defense.

Yes, active defenders deploy offensive tactics and operations at the service of strategically defensive ends, as the Pentagon notes. But active defense is a strategy of the weak. Mao counseled Red Army commanders to stage a strategic retreat during the opening phases of war, letting overconfident foes waste their energy and weary themselves. Meanwhile, Chinese forces should mount offensive tactical engagements on “exterior lines” against isolated enemy units, surrounding and annihilating them one by one until the Red Army emerged the stronger combatant. So even though China was on “interior lines” strategically, its army could outmuscle enemy forces locally—then flip the script, go on the counteroffensive, and win. The Pentagon report doesn’t fully convey the concept’s richness.

It’s also worth pointing out that no one should take at face value China’s protests that it merely seeks defensive aims in Asia. Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping has vowed, time and again, to wrest back every inch of territory supposedly ruled by imperial China before the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. That includes Taiwan, the Senkaku archipelago, and the South China Sea. Taiwan and the Senkakus have belonged to Japan since the 1890s, while in 2016 an international tribunal struck down China’s claims in the South China Sea. Seizing something is an offensive goal by definition. Strategic defense can look mighty offensive when you’re trying to turn back the clock or rewrite international law.

Third, commentators have made much of the amplitude and velocity of China’s military buildup. And rightly so. The report documents it. For example, China has radically accelerated its acquisitions of nuclear weapons. Just last year the Pentagon forecast that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would construct an arsenal of around 400 doomsday weapons; this year’s report more than doubles that figure, projecting a force of 1,000 nukes by 2030. A similar pattern holds for the development and procurement of warships, combat aircraft, and on and on.

But it hasn’t been that long since China-watchers on campuses and in think tanks disparaged the PLA’s capacity to accomplish what it has accomplished. Many pooh-pooh’ed the prospect of an oceangoing PLA Navy, prophesying confidently that China couldn’t construct a hard-hitting fleet for decades—if at all. China has confounded such predictions. The Pentagon report doesn’t draw the comparison to rising powers of the past—that’s not its purpose—but surveying history suggests that a determined challenger with ample resources can put to sea a regional navy of serious heft within about fifteen years of resolving to do so. Another fifteen years or so after that, it can field a bluewater navy capable of vying with the oceangoing hegemon of the day. The United States, imperial Germany, imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union more or less conformed to the fifteen- and thirty-year rules. What China has done is impressive; it’s far from unprecedented.

And fourth, the report observes that the human factor may plague the PLA. It draws attention to what Chinese military commentators call “five incapables.” Some commanders, they contend, have trouble judging situations, comprehending their superiors’ intentions, making operational decisions, deploying forces, and coping with the unexpected. The finest piece of kit is no better than its user. If indeed PLA sailors, soldiers, and airmen are less than competent, China’s armed forces will disappoint. They will fail to extract full design performance from impressive armaments. Gauging the state of PLA competence and élan is a matter of considerable consequence for the U.S. military and its allies.

All in all, then, the China Military Power report is worth your time. Read the whole thing.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Michael Kearins

    November 7, 2021 at 7:18 pm

    Better than some of his articles. I believe war is inevitable. I think it will start in April when the seas calm for an invasion fleet. The Chinese will attack Japan and the USA with missiles and cyber. They know already that the USA will come to the aid of Taiwan so they will attack us also. They will have a advantage with the element of surprise this way instead of the USA preparing a reaction then committing if they were to only attack Taiwan. It is better that this horror starts sooner rather than later when China is unbeatable. I think a war that goes on longer than a year will hurt the Chinese chances to get a ceasefire that benefits them because their best pilots will have been killed and they will not be able to replace the missiles that they have stockpiled. Also their navy will have been sunk and they will at that point be struggling to build new war ships that will be under aerial attack in the ship building docks. All of China will be subject to aerial bombardment and they will struggle to train new pilots where they will have to give them air time at a risk of being shotdown while training. Japan and Taiwan will be huge air bases for fleets of planes. The USA will have to step up production of stealth bombers at a huge scale that will allow their flight range to strike all over China.China will incite riots and finance them in the USA but the military will be used to suppress them. It will not be a land war because that will be a abyss and can not be won. China will hit hard in the first year to force a cease fire on favorable terms but if that does not work they know that the naval blockade will starve them of fuel and there will be food shortages. China knows that after a year they will decrease in air and naval power and untill they begin losing so they have to go all out the first year to force a favorable cease fire with terms that favor them. After a year their trained navy and pilots will be gone and they will struggle to defend their skies. By year three the Chinese will accept a ceasefire but the free world will no longer want to trade with them since they will realize that they financed the monster that wanted to take over the Pacific and maybe the world.

  2. JMIII

    November 8, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    The nightmare scenario is that China launches a strike on Taiwan at the same time Russia decides to recapture Ukraine or worse the Baltic States. North Korea also sends its military to forage for food south of the 38th parallel. And perhaps Iran and Syria team up to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. The US is not well equipped to handle all these threats at once. Our allies have mostly dropped the ball in being able to assist us in this scenario. We could rely upon Japan, ROK and perhaps the UK. But Germany? Poland can’t handle the Russian army alone. Israel might hold its own against Syria and Iran, especially if it can leverage its improved ties with the gulf Arab states. Still, that would be extremely challenging for the US and one we don’t seem to be putting much effort to address.
    Building a military deter this scenario will be frightfully expensive, but either fighting this war or dealing with capitulation will be far more devastating for the free world.

  3. Douglas Proudfoot

    November 8, 2021 at 5:06 pm

    The effect of censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story will loom large even if China doesn’t attack Taiwan this spring. It’s clear that Joe Biden isn’t interested in a capable military, only a politically correct one. The US will not be doing much to build up our forces to meet the Chinese buildup. The Democrats want to spend a nonexistent “peace dividend,” and Hunter Biden’s “investments,” Eric Swallwell’s mistress and Dianne Feinstein’s chauffeur have all provided enough compromat to make sure we won’t be building up any serious capabilities.

    With Gen. Milley still able to talk to his buddies in the Chinese military command structure, nobody will take our threats to come to Taiwan’s aid all that seriously anyway.

    The next Republican president needs to court marshal Milley for insubordination and treason, investigate the Biden family’s corruption, Swallwell’s mistress and Feinstein’s chauffeur.

  4. Michael Kearins

    November 8, 2021 at 6:56 pm

    I do not think Russia has the power to take the Baltic states and Ukraine at the same time. They are not the Soviet Union anymore with multiple allies. Or even make it to Poland to threaten them. You can not really blame Russia all the way for how there acting. Yes they did take the border areas of Ukraine and Crimea but this is something that has to be dealt with. What is not right on the USA side is to not allow Ukraine to join NATO. Russia will never allow Ukraine to be part of NATO because they do not want USA troops on their border threatening their national security. You can not blame Russia for that fear after what NAZI Germany did to them. We should just arm Ukraine and not let them join NATO. We do not need to provoke Russia into being our enemy. We need to negotiate with them. Settle the issues because we do not want Russia joining China in a world war. Also we must realize that there are other interests starting issues with Ukraine. Such as George Soros trying to manipulate politics in Ukraine. This is a man that many nations have banned his organizations from being in because he uses his money to pull political strings. He is a dangerous man in the world. To me Ukraine is not worth going to war with Russia over. Arm them and let them fight for their freedom. I am not willing to risk nuclear annihilation over Ukraine.

  5. Pat Payne

    November 8, 2021 at 7:34 pm

    You statement “Taiwan and the Senkakus have belonged to Japan since the 1890s” is wrong. China lost Taiwan to Japan after the Qing dynasty losing a war to Japan in the 19th century. After Japan ruled Taiwan for 50 years, the Republic of China got it back from Japan after it won the second world war against Japan with the help of United States. Taiwan is a province of the Republic of China right now. The People’s republic of China considered it to be a renegade province from its civil war with Republic of China. Senkakus was under US administration and US granted the administration responsibilities to Japan. The sovereignty of Senkakus is undetermined under the US’s ” ambiguity” strategy.

  6. Slack

    November 19, 2021 at 5:50 pm

    Biden is no warmonger (but he voted for iraq war in 2002) unlike his compatriots in Congress, DoD and the war media, whether you like him or not.

    US endless wars have created a lopsided political, social and economic world plus streams of refugees. And the prospect of looming global armageddons.

  7. David Chang

    November 20, 2021 at 5:30 pm

    I hope the Democratic Republican Party trust God.

    President Trump has explained the one China policy, which is to hope that all China people trust God instead of relying on force.

    So I hope Mr. Holmes agree with President Trump.

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