Trump has left his mark on American politics in numerous ways. Many have been enraging, but some remain enlightening—none more so than the introduction of the idea that the current geopolitical moment should be defined by the return of great-power competition as post–Cold War Pax Americana ebbs.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, what’s the biggest threat of all?
In March 2021, the Pew Research Center found that nine in 10 Americans had come to see the People’s Republic of China as either an outright “enemy” or a strategic “competitor.” Half consider that “limiting China’s power and influence” should be the principal purpose of US foreign policy.1 That is a remarkable turnaround since 83 members of the US Senate voted to grant China permanent most-favored trading status in 2000.
But even at the time of the Senate vote, which would open the way for Beijing to enter the World Trade Organization, skeptical members of Congress insisted on what might be called “trust but verify” caveats to welcoming China into the post–Cold War liberal international order. Two provisions of the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act accompanied the Clinton administration’s push on opening Chinese trade: One chartered the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission to “review the national security implications” of the deal,2 and the second directed the Department of Defense to issue an annual report on the state of the Chinese military. Over the intervening two decades, the commission and the report have mirrored the increasingly fretful and ambiguous American understanding of the People’s Republic of China, and the Pentagon report, in particular, both charts and has shaped the scope and nature of the emerging China threat.
The latest Pentagon report shows just how far the pendulum has swung. It concludes that Beijing views the United States as not just a “rival” great power but a “clash of opposing systems” of political beliefs.3 Such strong language also marks a swing from President Joe Biden. As recently as the 2019 primaries, candidate Biden held the benign view that had been reflected in his Senate vote in favor of the 2000 trade pact, stating that Beijing was “not competition” for America. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” he declared on the campaign trail in Iowa. “I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks.”4
The 2021 China military power study, however, is a portrait of pretty bad folks with a voracious geopolitical appetite. It describes China as an ideologically revisionist power bent on creating an “international order . . . more advantageous to Beijing’s authoritarian system,”5 a conclusion that echoes Cold War rhetoric about the Soviet Union. And for several years, the report has concentrated on the “Chinese dream” of General Secretary Xi Jinping, the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” to, in the report’s summation, “surpass U.S. global influence and power, [and] displace U.S. alliances . . . in the Indo-Pacific region.”6
The new report also reverses past assessments of China’s nuclear forces, doctrine, and strategic purpose. Whereas the 2020 edition put the estimate of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal at just 200 warheads—a minimally deterrent, second-strike force—the 2021 report indicates an accelerating pace of nuclear modernization that would make 1,000 warheads within the decade and “three solid-fueled ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] silo fields, which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos.”7 This would put China “on the cusp of a large silo-based ICBM force . . . comparable to . . . other major powers”—that is, Russia and the United States, the two nuclear superpowers.8 The reemerging balance of nuclear terror is reinforced by the fact that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is adopting “a launch-on-warning posture, called ‘early warning counterstrike.’”9 This is, essentially, Dr. Strangelove with Chinese characteristics.10
Two other elements of the 2021 report stand out. While previous reports have long contained detailed reporting of Chinese missile-building programs, in this version the estimates of the number of short-range (less than 1,000 kilometers) and medium-range (1,000–3,000 kilometers) missiles have risen substantially, by several hundred missiles in each case. These are systems ideal for blanketing Taiwan, American and Japanese military bases, and the waters of the Philippine Sea that would be crucial in any US naval response to a Taiwan crisis.
Further, after several years of heavy hints about the Chinese military’s growing footprint and expanding operations, the Pentagon has started naming names, sketching out the network of potential Chinese bases and supply depots that would support global power projection, particularly naval power projection. The report observes that, at 355 ships, the PLA Navy’s battle force is the “largest navy in the world” and on course to reach 420 ships by 2025 and 460 by 2030.11 Moreover, the quality of Chinese ships is advancing rapidly, with Beijing’s first large-deck aircraft carrier, the Type 003, which is capable of catapult launches—essential for adding larger and more capable naval aircraft to the fleet—to enter service by 2024.
Yet the annual Pentagon report has been something of a trailing-edge indicator, reflecting the hopes that, by bringing Beijing into the post–Cold War economic order and opening trade, geopolitical stability— if not necessarily domestic democratic political reform in China—would continue; it would be in China’s national interest to join the world America had made. These hopes persisted through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations and remained strong among Donald Trump’s economic advisers. Each administration tended to arrive in office with a set and nearly unchangeable view of China policy. Thus, each set of military power reports contained almost identical rhetoric. And despite the 2021 report’s stark assessment, the Biden administration clearly is likewise of two minds, balancing the realities of rising strategic and military competition and Beijing’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, manipulation of the COVID-19 pandemic, theft of technology and intellectual property, and ideological assertiveness with the desire for cooperation on climate change and other supposedly “win-win” opportunities.
The Pentagon was also clearly unprepared to respond to Congress’s concerns about China’s military modernization, which had begun in the mid-1990s; the Chinese were as shocked and awed as anyone to see the ease with which the US military defeated the Iraqi army in Operation Desert Storm. The first Chinese military power report’s first section was subtitled “Gaps and Uncertainties,” remarking on “how little is known about the most significant aspects of Chinese military power. Chinese secrecy is extensive.” The report was even in the dark about the Chinese defense budget, estimating that it might be as much as four times the official amount of $20 billion. “Since the 1980s,” the Pentagon admitted, “U.S. military exchange delegations to China have been shown only ‘showcase’ units, never any advanced units or any operational training or realistic exercises.”12
The Pentagon sorted its ignorance into three categories. It confessed it could not calculate how the Chinese military stacked up against Taiwan—a principal interest for Congress. It lacked understanding of almost every aspect of a net assessment:
There is much more the United States can learn about both sides’ ideas of statecraft, their approaches to the use of force, their perceived vulnerabilities, and their preferred operational methods, as well as about the political and military organizations that produce military assessments and plans.13
Nor did it grasp the levels of PLA training, logistics, doctrine, command and control, special operations, and mine warfare. Lastly, while it thought it had identified worrisome “emerging methods of warfare that appear likely to be increasingly important in the future—particularly missiles and information warfare,” it didn’t know what to make of these developments.14 Indeed, these two measures have turned out to be a constant and growing problem for the US military. The report did estimate that the PLA had about 350 short-range ballistic missiles in its arsenal and was building about 50 per year while “developing variants . . . that enable attacks against [US bases on] Okinawa.”15
The report assumed greater confidence in understanding the ends and means of Beijing’s strategy. This, the Pentagon concluded, was essentially conservative, content to modernize and increase its “comprehensive national power” within the “shi,” translated as the existing “strategic configuration of power”16—that is, the American-led international order. This was based on the “24-character strategy” of Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader during the reforms of the 1980s and whose followers still held the highest posts in government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Deng strategy was translated as “keep cool-headed to observe, be composed to make reactions, stand firmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time, never try to take the lead, and be able to accomplish something.”17 (The Defense Department added its own italics for emphasis.)
While acknowledging that Beijing “believes that the United States poses a significant long-term challenge,”18 the existing balance of military power heavily favored the United States, especially in the wake of the Gulf War, the 1990s intervention in the Balkans, and the 1995 and 1996 Taiwan Strait crises. “Chinese analyses,” the Pentagon was convinced, “indicate a concern that Beijing would have difficulty in managing potential U.S. military intervention” in the western Pacific or South China Sea.19
The George W. Bush administration put a consistent stamp on the reports from 2004 to 2009. These were the high point of the strategy of encouraging Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder”—a phrase coined by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick20—playing a constructive role in the liberal international order under Hu Jintao’s leadership of China. Hu was the first general secretary and president from the generation that came after the Maoist revolution, and he promoted Beijing’s “peaceful rise” as a great power.21 Thus, the Bush administration adopted a variant of Ronald Reagan’s trust-but-verify approach to Beijing, acknowledging the dichotomy between China’s increasing ambitions and capabilities and its continuing desire for the US-guaranteed security that had framed its economic growth and integration into the international trade regime.
These years were also a high-water mark of Bush military self-confidence—of “Mission Accomplished” after the successful invasions to topple the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and then Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Indeed, first among the “key developments between the 2003 and 2004 reports to Congress” was an appraisal of China’s “‘lessons learned’ from Operation Iraqi Freedom.”22 In this assessment, the PLA was “rethinking” its conclusion in the wake of the Balkan wars of the 1990s that “airpower alone is sufficient to prevail in a conflict” and, in particular, reevaluating “their assumptions about the value of long-range precision strikes, independent of ground forces, in any Taiwan conflict scenario.” Whether this assessment reflected the administration’s pride in “the success of Coalition joint operations” and “allied weapon system integration/interoperability” or improved intelligence is unclear.23 The report also admitted that the Pentagon had “much to learn about the motivations and decisionmaking behind China’s military modernization”24—but the conclusion was that the Chinese had begun an “ambitious, long-term . . . effort to develop capabilities to fight and win short-duration, high-intensity conflicts along its periphery.”25
The PLA was likewise said to believe that American intervention “in conflict scenarios involving China, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, is increasingly likely.”26 Thus, the framework of China’s pursuit of a crafty “assassin’s mace”27 to raise the cost of US power projection formally entered the department’s lexicon, as did a focus on PLA anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) systems. Discussing “PLA counters to foreign intervention,” the report speculated that “China could consider a sea-denial strategy to hold at risk US naval forces approaching the Taiwan Strait. Deep-water naval mines, submarines, cruise missiles, and even special forces could be employed to threaten a US aircraft carrier.”28
Despite its claims of uncertainty in its assessments, the Bush administration continued to revise and raise its estimates of Chinse defense spending (thought to be as high as $80 billion per year at the time, climbing to almost $300 billion in the 2020s) and missile inventories (about 500 short-range ballistic missiles and development of medium- and solid-fueled intercontinental-range systems). These forces were “likely to increase substantially over the next few years,” as were their “accuracy and lethality.”29 The report also added several sections on “information operations,” which might be seen as a precursor to the broader current concern with gray-zone warfare.
With the 2008 report, however, the hopes that China would act as a responsible pillar of the international order had faded. The Pentagon report had taken on an almost plaintive quality: “No country has done more to assist, facilitate, and encourage China’s national development and its integration in the international system.” Yet Beijing’s “expanding and improving military capabilities [were] changing East Asian military balances” that had “implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region.” The administration was clearly worried: “The lack of transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability”—that is, America’s status as a global superpower. This, in turn, presaged a darker future: “This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging” behavior by the United States and its allies.30
Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009 promising a “Pacific pivot.” While this was in good measure a move away from Europe, where the administration embarked on a slow but steady reduction of US forces, and the Middle East, especially from the “surge” of troops in support of a counterinsurgency campaign late in the Bush administration, it also reflected a fundamental reassessment of America’s strategic interests. Speaking in Japan in November 2009, Obama recalled his Hawaiian birth and childhood in Indonesia and declared himself to be the “first Pacific president,” stating that “the Pacific rim has helped shape my view of the world.” But his view was of a modulated form of American attention, with an emphasis on achieving a consensually derived order, implemented through multilateral organizations that would “advance the security and prosperity of this region.” And in this, he imagined a constructive role for China: “The rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” He added, “In Beijing and beyond, we will work to deepen our Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and improve communication between our militaries.”31
The administration’s 2010 China military power report dutifully followed suit, further quoting the November speech: The relationship with Beijing “has not been without disagreement and difficulty. But the notion that we must be adversaries is not pre-destined.” The report even found a silver lining in China’s increasing power-projection capabilities. “China began a new phase of military development by articulating roles and missions for the People’s Liberation Army . . . that go beyond China’s immediate territorial interests,” it observed, noting Beijing’s contributions to international peacekeeping missions, humanitarian and disaster relief, and counter-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea. “The United States recognizes and welcomes these contributions.” In sum, the Pentagon was encouraged—spouting a line common to its theater commanders—that military-to-military ties could help with “reducing mistrust, enhancing mutual understanding and broadening cooperation.”32 What the initial military power reports had regarded as Potemkin village shows by the PLA were now taken as tokens of transparency.
Obama’s hopeful attitude continued through the term of Hu’s leadership, yet the military facts of PLA modernization began to stack up against the administration’s narrative. The 2012 report included a full-blown exposition of A2AD framework that increasingly was entrenched in the Defense Department through the advocacy of Navy Under Secretary Robert Work, who would become deputy secretary of defense in 2014. That year’s review also cataloged
the inaugural flight testing of the J-20 stealth fighter; limited power projection, with the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier for sea trials; integrated air defenses; undersea warfare; nuclear deterrence and strategic strike; improved command and control; and more sophisticated training and exercises across China’s air, naval, and land forces.33
Sotto voce, the Pentagon admitted that the Chinese military was on a path to becoming a global rival, a great power in capability and capacity.
Xi’s general secretaryship almost immediately made for a hardening line in the White House and the Defense Department. The new Chinese leader had, in his June 2013 “Sunnylands summit” with Obama, framed a “new pattern of major power relations,”34 though what that meant was anyone’s guess. Initial reviews were positive, even among sober-minded China analysts.35 Yet by the time the subsequent annual reports to Congress were written, Xi had also announced his “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation and consolidated CCP domestic control and ambition to be a rule-maker and simply a “stakeholder” in international affairs.
The 2015 report, in particular, marked a watershed. “China’s military modernization has the potential to reduce core U.S. military . . . advantages,” it warned, noting that the PLA budget had increased at an annual rate approaching 10 percent and predicting similar increases “for the foreseeable future.” Beijing was “investing in capabilities designed to defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party—including U.S.—intervention during a crisis or conflict.”36 Two other factors gained increased emphasis. “China is also focusing on counter-space, offensive cyber operations, and electronic warfare capabilities meant to deny . . . the advantages of modern, informationized warfare” that characterized US military operations. Second, “China also started reclaiming land and building infrastructure at its outposts in the Spratly Islands” in the South China Sea, enabling the PLA “to use them as persistent . . . military bases of operation” in waters claimed by several nations, including the US treaty ally in the Philippines.37
Yet, even in 2016, the Obama administration could not get itself to a point of openly acknowledging strategic competition with China. Yes, “China [had] demonstrated a willingness to tolerate higher levels of tension in the pursuit of its interests,” but it “still seeks to avoid direct and explicit conflict with the United States.” Xi, like his more moderate predecessors, remained an essentially rational actor.
China’s leaders understand that instability or conflict would jeopardize the peaceful external environment that has enabled China’s economic development, which is central to the perpetuation of the CCP’s domestic legitimacy. In the near-term, China is using coercive tactics short of armed conflict, such as the use of law enforcement vessels to enforce maritime claims, to advance their interests in ways that are calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict.38
Trump has left his mark on American politics in numerous ways. Many have been enraging, but some remain enlightening—none more so than the introduction of the idea that the current geopolitical moment should be defined by the return of great-power competition as post–Cold War Pax Americana ebbs. Debating whether the president ever read his 2017 National Security Strategy has long been a Washington parlor game, but the document, produced during Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster’s brief and stormy tenure as national security adviser, has reframed America’s understanding of China’s rise; even the Biden administration cannot escape its shadow, much as it loathes all things Trump.39
The great-power framework provided the context for Trump-era Pentagon reports, which became more direct in tone and included “special topic” supplements that were deeper dives into subjects that reflected the US military’s emerging concerns. The reports typically began with a straightforward assessment of Chinese security strategy; the pretense that China’s motives and means were ambiguous was a thing of the past. “China’s leaders are leveraging China’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military clout to establish regional preeminence and expand the country’s international influence,” declared the 2019 edition. Among that year’s “special topics” was a dissection of Beijing’s “influence operations.” These included the PLA’s traditional “Three Warfares” doctrines—psychological, public opinion, and legal—but involved the whole of the Chinese government and people. These operations were directed against “cultural institutions, media organizations, and the business, academic, and policy communities of the United States, other countries, and international institutions” and included appeals to “overseas Chinese citizens or ethnic Chinese citizens of other countries . . . through soft power or, sometimes, coercion and blackmail.” The goal was to establish networks of overseas “power brokers” to “facilitate China’s rise.”40
Trump-era reports also concluded that the goals of Chinese military modernization were no longer simply local. Although the Taiwan scenario remained the PLA’s main “strategic direction,”41 it was not just a direct cross-Strait bean count but a larger, multi-theater view that included the China-India border and the East China Sea and South China Sea—in all, encompassing five separate commands.
Taken as a whole, the annual Chinese military power reports have tracked a sea change in what can be said in polite company in Washington about China; the shift from potential “stakeholder” to geopolitical “great-power competitor” is neither complete nor irreversible. The business community, for example, still covets the prospect of profits from Beijing. But attitudes among national security elites have hardened, and the report release is a reliable headline-making event. In this respect, the design of the original legislation has been fulfilled. However, the larger intent—to frame America’s defense investments—has not been realized. The Trump administration boasted that it would “adapt its forces, posture, investments, and operational concepts to ensure it retains the ability to . . . deter aggression, protect our allies and partners, and preserve regional peace, prosperity, and freedom.”42 This it did not do, nor did its predecessors or successors. Since the end of the Cold War, US defense budgets have been cut roughly in half, from the Reagan-era peak of more than 6 percent of gross domestic product to a projected 2.7 percent; the increases of the second Bush administration were devoted to waging the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East, not responding to the China challenge.43
Neither has any administration followed the model of the Reagan-era Soviet Military Power report that inspired the China reports’ authors. The Russia report was, as even its critics lamented, a “call to action” that buttressed the Reagan administration’s buildup.44 The China report has produced a conventional-wisdom consensus about the dark side of China’s rise, but that has yet to translate into appreciable action.