A startling Pentagon report has revealed that Beijing’s military modernisation and expansion programs have seen the People’s Liberation Army leapfrog the US and its allies in the region, as the nation focuses on developing an “increasingly modern and flexible force”.
The unique geographic realities of Indo-Pacific Asia ranges from vast swathes of deep, open ocean to Australia's west, to relatively shallow, congested and narrow archipelagic bound choke points, including the Straits of Malacca, Lombok Strait and into the South China Sea (SCS).
These serve as unique tactical and strategic challenges for all regional nations, including Australia – China has recognised the unique geographic and strategic realities facing it and has responded with an unprecedented period of military modernisation and expansion, with the People's Liberation Army Navy and its strategic missile forces are at the forefront of the nation's focus.
Further complicating the calculus is the advent of advanced and integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, introduced largely by the Chinese on reclaimed islands in international waters in the SCS.
While sea control has traditionally been the domain of ocean going, 'blue water' navies, the strategic realities combined with the modernisation programs expanding regional naval capabilities requires a hybrid approach, combining traditional 'blue water' and 'green water' capabilities and doctrines.
China’s pursuit of a credible blue water naval capability is taking a step closer to reality with recent civilian imagery revealing the results of the rising power's unprecedented period of naval modernisation and expansion.
Forming key components of this future force is a range of major surface and subsurface combatants, with a growing force including various aircraft carrier, large deck amphibious warfare ships, guided missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates and auxiliary replenishment designs as the core of the 'blue water force' and 'green water' forces of advanced guided missile frigates and corvettes.
These attempts to develop regional supremacy have also seen the development of an integrated system of natural and man-made island fortresses in the South China Sea as the rising superpower flexes its muscles amid the chaos caused by COVID-19.
In response, the US announced its ‘pivot’ towards the Indo-Pacific under the former Obama administration in 2013, moving to reassure regional US allies like Australia, Japan and emerging allies like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam that the pre-eminent global power was committed to the enduring freedom and stability of the region.
Despite these early reassurances and renewed investment in the strategic capabilities of the US military under the Trump administration – the global responsibilities of the US, particularly in the Middle East, and the potential for conflict with Iran has once again drawn the attention of the US, providing an opportunity for China to enhance its military presence in the South China Sea.
Recently, Indonesia has joined a growing coalition of regional nations, each with their own interests in the South China Sea to push back against an increasingly assertive China and its designs for regional dominance.
While the US and its allies, including Australia, have made concerted efforts to directly counter Beijing's increased militarism in the region, a startling new report commissioned by the Pentagon for Congress, titled Military and Security Developments involving the People's Republic of China: 2020 has revealed the startling progress of the nation's efforts.
Concerningly, the report identifies that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has already achieved parity and in some cases exceeds the capabilities of the US and its allies, with the report stating:
"The PRC’s strategy includes advancing a comprehensive military modernisation program that aims to “basically” complete military modernisation by 2035 and transform the PLA into a 'world class' military by the end of 2049.
"The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen the PRC’s ability to counter an intervention by an adversary in the Indo-Pacific region and project power globally. In 2019, the PLA continued to make progress implementing major structural reforms, fielding modern indigenous systems, building readiness, and strengthening its competency to conduct joint operations.
"China has already achieved parity with — or even exceeded — the United States in several military modernisation areas."
Strategic deterrence modernisation efforts
While the Chinese nuclear arsenal is still dwarfed by that of the US, the nation has made the modernisation, expansion and overhaul of its strategic deterrent force a major priority – beginning with the introduction of the People's Liberation Army Air Force's (PLAAF) first nuclear-capable, air-to-air refuellable bomber, the H-6N, the planned introduction of its own B-2 Spirit like stealth bomber and a modernisation of the PLAN's strategic missile submarines.
Beijing's land-based nuclear missile force and its increasingly capable conventional ballistic missile force are also undergoing an expansion with the US making its first estimate of the nation's strategic nuclear arsenal and its growth trajectory over the coming decades.
The Pentagon report states, "The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is responsible for the PRC’s strategic land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces.
"The PLARF develops and fields a wide variety of conventional mobile ground-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. The PRC is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces. The number of warheads on the PRC’s land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years."
In addition to this, Beijing is redoubling efforts to grow its conventional anti-ship, ground, air and sea-launched capabilities designed specifically to target and counter the backbone of the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific, the aircraft carrier and supporting battlegroups while enabling greater levels of tactical and strategic mobility for their own rapidly developing blue water naval forces.
Leveraging the full spectrum of national power
A key component of Beijing's growing tactical, strategic and economic advantages over the US and its allies, all of whom are now floundering amid prolonged periods of economic stagnation. Further impacted by COVID-19 is the nation's rampaging industrialisation supported by government policy that nurtures and protects the national interest.
The Pentagon report clearly identifies the efforts made by Beijing to expand its national power and prestige and the 'national strategy' used to maximise the increasing capability of its industrial base.
"The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) strategy aims to achieve 'the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation' by 2049. China’s strategy can be characterised as a determined pursuit of political and social modernity that includes far-ranging efforts to expand China’s national power, perfect its governance systems, and revise the international order," it says.
Expanding on this further, the report states, "The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) frames this strategy as an effort to realise long-held nationalist aspirations to 'return' China to a position of strength, prosperity, and leadership on the world stage. The CCP’s leadership has long viewed China as embroiled in a major international strategic
competition with other states, including, and in particular, the United States.
"In 2019, China intensified its efforts to advance its overall development including steadying its economic growth, strengthening its armed forces, and taking a more active role in global affairs."
Shifting towards the nation's economic policy, the Pentagon report articulates the 'Military-Civil Fusion' (MCF) development strategy, stating, "The CCP prioritises economic development as the 'central task' and the force that drives China’s modernisation across all areas, including its armed forces.
"China’s economic development supports its military modernisation not only by providing the means for larger defence budgets, but through deliberate Party-led initiatives such as OBOR and Made in China 2025, as well as the systemic benefits of China’s growing national industrial and technological base.
"The PRC pursues its MCF Development Strategy to 'fuse' its economic and social development strategies with its security strategies to build an integrated national strategic system and capabilities in support of China’s national rejuvenation goals.
As part of this policy platform, the Pentagon articulates six key points forming the foundation of Beijing's rising economic, political and strategic success:
- Fusing the China’s defence industrial base and its civilian technology and industrial base;
- Integrating and leveraging science and technology innovations across military and civilian sectors;
- Cultivating talent and blending military and civilian expertise and knowledge;
- Building military requirements into civilian infrastructure and leveraging civilian construction for military purposes;
- Leveraging civilian service and logistics capabilities for military purposes; and,
- Expanding and deepening China’s national defence mobilisation system to include all relevant aspects of its society and economy for use in competition and war.
However, in light of these challenges, is the $270 billion announced by the Commonwealth enough to put Australia ahead of the curve, or is it simply a case of getting the nation’s defence capability to where it needed to be at the beginning of the 2010s?
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea lines of communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over.
In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.
To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.
As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.
It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.
There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – "If you want peace, prepare for war".