Regional Voices on the 2022 China Military Power Report
STR/AFP via Getty Images

Regional Voices on the 2022 China Military Power Report

by Paul Huang, Kei Koga, Nguyen The Phuong, and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
February 23, 2023

In November 2022 the U.S. Department of Defense released its annual report Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. The report, commonly known as the China Military Power Report, assesses the current trajectory of the PRC’s military and security strategy. Since the report’s release, China has continued to modernize its military capabilities and publicly surveil foreign competitors, presenting a clear risk to the United States and its allies and partners. NBR asked leading experts from countries across the Indo-Pacific to comment on China’s rising military power.

Paul Huang

Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation

The findings of the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2022 China Military Power Report compel analysts to draw sobering conclusions regarding the state of affairs and trajectory of the military balance between China and other countries in the Indo-Pacific. The report accords special attention to the military balance between China and Taiwan—the primary target of this historically unprecedented military expansion.

The main takeaway of the “Taiwan’s Ability to Deter Force” section is that Beijing’s “multi-decade military modernization effort continues to widen the capability gap” between China’s and Taiwan’s militaries. The PLA’s capabilities to jointly project firepower across naval, air, rocket force, and ground domains further optimizes China’s advantage in any future conflict.

The report, however, falls short of calling out Taiwan’s lack of preparedness. It takes at face value the claim of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense that the Taiwanese reserves are 2.3 million strong. This number is wildly off the mark, considering that in 2021 only 110,000 reservists were called up for a week-long refresher that consisted of nothing more than basic weapons training. Taiwan’s reserve infantry brigades and even regular army units are still designed and operated based on decades-old understanding of the PLA that is out of touch with its current capabilities and doctrines.

The report also notes the Ministry of National Defense’s investment into supposedly “asymmetric warfare” such as “high-speed” vessels and sea mining tools, without elaborating on how such minor, local hardware acquisitions offset the military’s extreme vulnerabilities and flawed posture across the board. “Fast” missile corvettes, for example, cannot outrun even the PLA’s slowest subsonic anti-ship missiles. The addition of these vessels with nearly zero anti-air defenses only exacerbates the vulnerability of the Taiwanese navy’s heavily outdated, poorly defended major surface fleet, which even in 2023 has no ships equipped with modern necessities like a vertical launching system.

The 2022 China Military Power Report further assesses that the PLA’s capabilities offer China a host of military options to employ against Taiwan, ranging from a large-scale invasion of the island, maritime and air blockades, and precision missile strikes against key civil and military targets to more limited coercive measures. The report insists that the PLA’s amphibious lift capacity still falls shy of guaranteeing a “full-scale” invasion of Taiwan. Nonetheless, it acknowledges China’s deployment of new amphibious warfare ships like the Type 075, Type 071, and fast-moving civilian roll-on/roll-off vessels to overcome gaps in amphibious lift capabilities.

Finally, the 2022 report revives the term anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) to describe the PLA’s long-range strike power aimed to deter and defeat potential U.S. intervention in a conflict. Most importantly, the report validates these capabilities by citing China’s robust space-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets that have reached parity with—if not superiority to—U.S. assets. The fact that China’s in-orbit satellite fleet has doubled from 2018 to 2021 is evidence that the “missing link” needed to support the PLA’s A2/AD kill chain is now all but complete and has removed the last lingering doubt that an anti-ship ballistic missile like the DF-21 or DF-26 could indeed pose a lethal threat to U.S. aircraft carriers in the theater.

Decision-makers in Taipei should reflect on this reality and what it entails for the U.S. “defense guarantee” that they insist is still a given. If the goal of such domestic messaging is to downplay threats to prevent a general collapse in morale, it will no longer work. On the other hand, the report might give the Taiwanese people a renewed sense of urgency and a need for self-preservation. This could be the only way for Taiwan to build public support for making the difficult but necessary policy decisions to reform and strengthen its badly outmatched military.

Paul Huang is a Research Fellow at the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation.

Kei Koga

Nanyang Technological University

The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2022 China Military Power Report resonates with Japan’s current strategic thinking, as evinced by its new National Security Strategy released in December 2022. While the China Military Power Report states that China aims to “revise the international order in support of Beijing’s system of governance and national interest” and is now acquiring such a capacity, the National Security Strategy refers to China’s military activities in the region as “unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge” for Japan’s security, as well as for the stability of the existing international order. The China Military Power Report raises three points that are particularly important for Japan.

The first point is China’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal, which potentially undermines the extended nuclear deterrence that the United States has long provided its allies in East Asia, including Japan. According to the report, China is on track to increase its nuclear warheads up to 1,500 by 2035 and expand its arsenal of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, including multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. At the same time, by locating its sea-launched ballistic missiles in the South China Sea and Bohai Gulf, China could overcome its relative nuclear disadvantage vis-à-vis the United States in the medium term. China’s more capable long-range strike capabilities against the United States would change the existing credibility of U.S. extended deterrence and substantially alter the strategic balance. In this context, Japan has recognized the essential role of the U.S.-Japan alliance, as shown by its willingness to frequently consult with the United States and clarify its defense role.

The second point is the consistent increase in China’s assertive presence in the maritime domain, particularly the East China Sea. While conducting influence operations to construct narratives to justify its behavior, China directs the PLA Navy, China Coast Guard, and maritime militias to harass and disrupt Japan in the East China Sea, including around the Senkaku Islands. For this reason, Japan closely monitors institutional reforms spearheaded by Xi Jinping that will enable more integrated maritime operations and allow China to coordinate military and nonmilitary means to encroach on Japan’s maritime territories. In this context, the United States’ continued reiteration that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty covers the islands administered by Japan serves as reassurance, especially amid concerns about China’s gray-zone operations.

The third point is the increasing immediacy of threats to stability in the Taiwan Strait. Although the strategic benefits of an invasion of Taiwan are unlikely to outweigh the costs, China’s lack of transparency does not provide sufficient information about its intentions under Xi. As a result, the China Military Power Report indicates that the course of China’s military development is aimed at preparing for a potential Taiwan contingency. Japan agrees with this assessment. Its new National Security Strategy equates Japan’s concerns about the stability of the Taiwan Strait with those of the entire international community.

Overall, Japan shares the same strategic concerns expressed by the China Military Power Report. Although its detailed defense plan and cooperation in critical areas need to be further discussed with the United States and other security partners, Japan is already actively engaging with the United States through the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (“2+2”). This commitment was underscored at the January 2023 summit meeting in Washington, D.C., between the two allies. Further enhancement of military cooperation is therefore expected.

Kei Koga is Associate Professor in the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme in the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the book Managing Great Power Politics: ASEAN, Institutional Strategy, and the South China Sea (2022).

Nguyen The Phuong

University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy

The United States’ 2022 China Military Power Report details the U.S. Department of Defense’s close monitoring of China’s military modernization process. The Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) has also been keeping a careful watch on the PLA. Considering developments in the South China Sea disputes since the early 2010s, the overall battle readiness and technological capabilities of the PLA cause great concern in Vietnam. Moreover, the rapid transformation in both quality and quantity of PLA forces has exponentially increased the power gap between China’s and Vietnam’s militaries. This further complicates strategic calculations, as well as the modernization process of the VPA itself.

Currently, the priority combat environment of the Vietnamese military is the air-sea domain of the South China Sea and its related cyber environment. This is reflected in the VPA’s military modernization motto: “Straight forward to modernity.” Therefore, the interoperability of the various PLA services in the South China Sea has been and will continue to be closely watched. Vietnam’s level of interest, however, depends on different contingencies and their probability, which are divided into two types: gray-zone operations during peacetime and wartime contingencies. In the short to medium term, allocating resources to address gray-zone scenarios will be prioritized. The long-term priority, beyond 2030, is to ensure the construction of a modern military capable of responding to any situation, including an armed conflict.

A war at sea with China in the short to medium term, from Vietnam’s point of view, is highly unlikely. Such a war would be detrimental to Vietnam. The most probable scenario would be a naval conflict in the South China Sea following a potential mass preemptive strike by long-range weapons and cyberattacks to cripple Vietnam’s critical infrastructure and capabilities to strike back. A maritime blockade of Vietnamese outposts in the Spratly Islands is another potential operation that China could undertake.

In both cases, Vietnam would be in a weak position. The PLA’s integrated air defense capability in the South China Sea ensures effective cover of its critical assets in the artificial islands. Moreover, the PLA’s improvements in amphibious attack and antisubmarine warfare capabilities, as well as progress in the development of supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, render Vietnam’s defense posture in the Spratly Islands highly vulnerable. China could further improve its ability to project power in the South China Sea through investments in the Ream Naval Base and Dara Sakor International Airport in Cambodia.

In the South China Sea, the VPA has been under constant pressure from China’s gray-zone tactics. The overwhelming presence of China’s maritime militia and coast guard have overextended Vietnam’s maritime forces and driven Vietnamese fishers out of their traditional fishing grounds. China will further strengthen its law-enforcement and paramilitary forces by both increasing the number of vessels operating in disputed waters and integrating them into its high-tech network of maritime domain awareness capabilities. Its coast guard, as well as its maritime militia, will become more professional and aggressive.

In addition, China’s artificial islands in the Spratly Islands have played an important role in strengthening Beijing’s de facto control of the disputed waters through the deployment of three-dimensional C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities. This negatively affects the deployment and maintenance of the Vietnamese defense posture in maritime hot spots and creates a great advantage for Beijing in peacetime scenarios. China is also trying to construct an integrated air defense system to cover its strategic outposts in the South China Sea. However, with the right investment and the advantage of geography, the VPA could asymmetrically inflict extensive damage on these assets in wartime.

Finally, Vietnam is concerned by China’s modernization of its military through the increasing employment of high-tech technologies, including space, cyber, and autonomous systems. The VPA understands the impact of these components on the battlefield in both peacetime and wartime. High-tech weapon systems offer the PLA new ways of conducting coercive and kinetic activities, thereby further expanding the capability gap in its favor. Given this advantage, it would take considerable time, resources, and determination for the VPA to develop an effective countermeasure.

Nguyen The Phuong is a PhD candidate in maritime security and naval affairs at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Observer Research Foundation

China’s growing military power has been a source of increasing concern in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The U.S. Department of Defense’s latest China Military Power Report highlights several developments that are consequential for India as an immediate neighbor.

At the strategic level, the report cites China’s perceptions of the current international order as incompatible with China’s own vision of a new world order, premised on Xi’s “community of common destiny.” While Beijing argues that the emerging multipolar world order is consistent with its perceptions of global power trends, it continues to view U.S. power as hampering the realization of its goals.

This outlook has implications for India’s foreign and strategic policies. A stronger India-U.S. partnership is not one that aids China’s goals. China is likely to view this growing closeness as a problem, while remaining a primary driver behind this development. Similarly, China is unhappy with the many U.S.-led minilaterals in the region. India’s active participation in several of these groups puts it at odds with Beijing, which New Delhi must worry about.

The simple truth revealed by the China Military Power Report is that China is set on a course to seek hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, which India will oppose. Indian leaders have repeatedly said that they want a multipolar Asia just as they want a multipolar world. On the surface, this might seem different from the U.S. conception, but in practice it means opposition to China’s hegemony over Asia. Although China opposes U.S. hegemony, India and others suspect that Beijing’s support for multipolarity is a cover for replacing U.S. power with Chinese hegemony.

A second notable aspect of the report is China’s continually growing defense expenditures. China announced a 6.8% hike in its defense spending in 2021 to reach a total declared budget of $209 billion. This increase follows consistently high spending for more than twenty years, making China one of the world’s top military powers. At the same time, China’s strong economy has so far helped Beijing avoid some of the pitfalls that the Soviet Union faced in the 1980s because of its high defense spending. But as China’s growth rate declines, the country will face some difficulties if it continues high defense spending. Even with lower defense spending, however, China will still be a formidable power relative to India and other Indo-Pacific countries. A more concerning aspect of China’s military spending is its lack of transparency, which adds to the worries in the region. Given the ongoing Sino-Indian border disputes, increased Chinese defense spending will most directly affect India’s security along its land border. Yet, over time, China’s defense spending will also make its presence felt in the seas around India.

A third consequential aspect of China’s growing military power that is highlighted in the China Military Power Report is Beijing’s sudden and unexplained expansion of its nuclear weapons program. The quantitative and qualitative shifts in China’s nuclear capabilities have consequences for both India and the Indo-Pacific region. Though India has so far not reacted to the new trend in China’s nuclear weapons program, it is bound to react at some point. This response is likely to be manifest not so much in quantitative or doctrinal terms but through a qualitative acceleration in India’s nuclear capabilities. Indo-Pacific powers also must worry about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments in the region, and whether a misperception of U.S. credibility could make Beijing even more reckless than it already has been over the last few years.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi.