Pentagon warns of China’s plans for dominance in Taiwan and beyond

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Washington.

China conducted more ballistic missile tests last year than the rest of the world combined and is on course to possess 1,500 nuclear weapons within the next decade, the Pentagon warns in an assessment of Beijing’s rapidly expanding military posture.

The findings are detailed in a report for Congress released publicly in unclassified format Tuesday. It outlines China’s broad desires to pursue global dominance but comes as the Chinese Communist Party faces perhaps the most serious internal challenge to its authority in decades, with audacious demonstrations against President Xi Jinping’s harsh coronavirus lockdowns having included, in some cities, demands for his ouster.

Pentagon officials, in detailing the report, were careful not to draw any links between the protests – which overnight brought a crackdown from police – and China’s military planning. But at the very least, the uprising represents a complication for Xi as he attempts to exert authority over other unwilling subjects in the region, including in Taiwan, where U.S. officials remain doubtful he can achieve his goal of uncontested dominance.

Many have pointed to 2027 – the 100-year anniversary of China’s People’s Liberation Army and a target date Xi has set for modernizing military capabilities – as the point when Taiwan needs to worry about being attacked. Speaking to reporters, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder struck a more measured tone.

“As the report highlights, we don’t believe an invasion is imminent,” Ryder said.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition on anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon, went further, describing as “ambitious” the benchmarks China hoped to achieve by 2027 while intimating that the Defense Department had doubts about Beijing’s ability to reach its goals within that time frame.

“We know what they want to accomplish, which is really to have more credible military capabilities for a Taiwan scenario,” this official said. “In terms of what they’ll actually be able to accomplish by 2027, I think that remains to be seen.”

Instead, the Pentagon thinks China has been trying to establish a “new normal” when it comes to Taiwan, with more missile launches, more naval activity, and more “centerline crossings” over the Taiwan Strait by Chinese military aircraft. Those activities intensified dramatically after the Taiwan visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this year and have “not gone down to the level that we were accustomed to,” the official said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said he is committed to maintaining the “status quo” surrounding Taiwan’s status, warning his Chinese counterpart last week against taking “destabilizing” actions. The United States has taken umbrage at China’s pattern of menacing U.S. vessels and those of U.S. allies navigating the South China Sea, calling the close encounters “unsafe and unprofessional,” and warning they could lead to catastrophic accidents. Austin and others have told their Chinese counterparts that if the measures are designed to prevent Western powers from exercising their rights to freedom of navigation, they won’t work.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Pentagon’s report emphasizes Washington’s alarm over Beijing’s missile tests and the geopolitical implications of its expanding nuclear arsenal.

“The more proliferation there is, the more concerning it is – the more deeply destabilizing to the region it is,” Ryder told reporters.

But China’s stockpile – the world’s third-largest – is starting to pose a global challenge as well. It has more than 400 nuclear weapons, the report notes, and the 135 ballistic missile tests it conducted in 2021 “was more than the rest of the world combined.” Those numbers sharpen what’s known publicly about Beijing’s nuclear development program, long a subject of close scrutiny as other research has detailed the country’s construction of missile silos and other infrastructure to support its expansion.

The report calls foul on suggestions that China is not seeking to use its nuclear energy production infrastructure to produce fissile materials for those weapons. “Despite China’s public support for a fissile material cutoff treaty, we judge that Beijing intends to use this infrastructure to produce nuclear warhead materials for its military in the near term,” the report states.

The Pentagon expresses deep misgivings about China in the nonproliferation realm as well. Beijing has a no-first-strike policy, but has long maintained that if the United States wants to talk arms control, it must first agree to the concept of nuclear parity among leading nations. China’s nuclear arsenal is still far smaller than that of the United States, which has about 5,500 warheads, or Russia, which has almost 6,000, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Yet China’s advancements – and its plans to increase production of everything from hypersonics to tactical nuclear weapons – puts the communist regime on a footing where the Pentagon thinks its leaders need to come to the arms-control negotiating table now. Its reluctance to do so, the report states, is “negatively impacting global strategic stability – an area of increasing global concern.”

“I don’t see any clear indication that they’re looking for a first-strike kind of capability here, but certainly they’re developing a set of capabilities that would give them a range of options for sort of deterrence signaling,” the senior defense official said. That capability, the official added, “does raise some questions about what their intent will be in the longer term.”

Further threatening the global balance, the Pentagon says, are the relationships China is pursuing outside its direct geographic sphere of influence to expand a more conventional military footprint. The report notes how China and Russia, for example, continue to hold joint exercises. Such cooperation – even if China has not given Russia military supplies for its Ukraine war effort – demonstrates that Beijing “still seems to see a lot of value in their partnership,” according to the defense official.

The report provides a list of countries in which the Pentagon thinks China has “likely considered” establishing military logistics facilities “to support naval, air and ground forces projection,” in a style similar to the Chinese military’s support base in Djibouti, which sits just a few miles from a U.S. base, Camp Lemonnier.

Those countries include: Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan, the report says. The senior defense official cautioned that the list should be read as an indication of the areas in which China was “trying to make progress,” and not a warning that a second base like the one in Djibouti was imminent.

Beijing has made more concrete moves to establish bases near neighboring nations, potentially as a means of exerting influence over disputed territory. The Center for Strategic and International Studies this week published satellite imagery revealing what appears to be completed construction of a military outpost along China’s border with India, near a region over which both countries claim to have sovereignty. The development was first reported Tuesday by Politico.