We have identified a condition of international politics that we term “threat deflation”—where one state consistently underestimates the nature and scope of the threat it faces from an adversary. Unfortunately for the American people, and U.S. national security, the archetype of threat deflation has been the United States in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union until today. Successive U.S. presidents, save the Trump administration, underestimated the PRC to a large degree because of the success of the pro-PRC engagement school of thought which has dominated the opinion of elites within the American national security community. Regrettably, the Biden administration has returned to governance by the engagement school of thought, as evidenced by the Department of Defense recently released annual report to Congress Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2023.
The report’s virtues include its overview of the PRC military’s expanding capabilities, doctrine, and growing global presence, and description of developments in each of the Chinese military services, nuclear forces, special operations forces, joint logistical support force, and the Strategic Support Force, which is responsible for space, cyber, communications, technical reconnaissance, and information and psychological warfare capabilities and missions in support of the other services.
However, for understanding the PRC threat—precisely what Congress intended each annual report to be—the framework is a triumph of the engagement school. Accordingly, the report is a disastrous failure of its mission and is a case study in threat deflation. This failure is compounded when we recognize the tremendous chance the medium provides to explain the nature of the PRC’s military threat and global ambitions. There is great opportunity cost concerning what the report should have been to educate and inform, but did not. Threat deflation is a pernicious strategic problem that plagues the U.S. national security community. It is a problem that the Biden administration will not solve but only compound.
This analysis focuses on five major problems that only help to continue threat deflation when the report might have improved the American people’s and Congress’ understanding of the PRC’s hard-power threat.
First, the report accepts the PRC’s projection of its national strategy as “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” only to be achieved by 2049. What is of significant concern is that the report repeats this Chinese Communist Party (CCP) declaration without critical analysis or understanding that the term is deceptive and a euphemism for the PRC’s domination, and the timeline is subterfuge, as the CCP makes its bid for global hegemony today, far before 2049.
By accepting the PRC’s characterization, the report threat deflates rather than accurately portrays the scope and immediacy of the threat. A key aspect of the CCP’s political warfare campaign is to convince Americans that its strategic ambition will not be realized until mid-century when in fact it is realizing that ambition today. For instance, the report states “the CCP has not defined what it means by its ambition to have a “world-class” military by the end of 2049.” Or this classic statement of threat deflation, “the PLA increasingly views warfare as a confrontation between opposing operational systems, rather than a war of annihilation between opposing mechanized military forces.”
These are dangerous and misleading statements because the totality of military growth and expansion of lethal warfighting capabilities that are documented throughout the rest of the report, even as deflated as they are, does in fact prove the PRC is realizing its military ambitions today, not in a quarter-century from now. The cause of this Olympian ambition, as well as the necessity to confront and defeat the U.S., is the Communist ideology of the PRC. The ideology of Communism receives scant mention, which implies the report’s authors do not understand the importance of the Chinese Communist Party Communist ideology.
Hence, there is massive disconnect in the report between what it says the PRC’s ambition are and the ubiquitous and frenetic activity of the PRC’s military that it documents. This inherent failure of foresight demonstrates the tremendous strategic error made by the engagement school. George Orwell wrote: “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” On the PRC threat, Orwell was wrong. What was happening was clear. Year-after-year, in front of nose of the U.S. intelligence community, military, think tanks, and presidential administrations except for Trump, the PRC was becoming more powerful. The engagement school ignored it. In this regard, Orwell has to be modified: “to ignore what in front of one’s nose is actually easy to do, especially if there is money to be made.”
Second, the Strategic Rocket Force’s alarming and breathtaking expansion of its capabilities and infrastructure to support nuclear weapon production and maintenance. Just in numbers, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has expanded all types of ballistic missiles from short range to intercontinental, ground launched cruise missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles. The report notes the PLARF has “probably” completed the construction of its three new solid-propellent ballistic missile fields in 2022, which will contain at least 300 new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The growth of the PRC’s ballistic missile capabilities would allow it to conduct conventional as well as nuclear strikes against the American homeland. The report also notes that the PRC has adopted a dangerous “launch on warning” posture called “early warning counterstrike” where warning of an attack causes a PRC counterstrike before there are any detonations on PRC soil. The report notes the PRC’s nuclear infrastructure is robust in contrast to the U.S.’s with plutonium, uranium, and tritium production able to sustain the rapid expansion of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal.
Interestingly, the report acknowledges the PLARF “possessed more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023—on track to exceed previous projections,” which is a back-handed admission of the previous year’s report which had underestimated the number of PLARF nuclear warheads at 400. It is rather curious that in the very next sentence the report estimates the PRC will only have “over 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030,” as if their previous years of underestimating the PRC’s nuclear force levels never occurred and do not impact their assessment for the future.
Third, the report notes the PLA continues to engage in dual-use (both civilian and military applications) biological activities and chemical weapons developments including pharmaceutical-base agents and toxins, and concerningly that the U.S. cannot certify that the PRC has met its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention to eliminate its chemical weapons capabilities while the U.S. has destroyed the last of its chemical weapons. This is of concern for reasons of deterrence of biological or chemical weapons use, as the U.S. cannot match the PRC’s capabilities without threatening nuclear escalation in the event of a chemical weapons attack.
The fourth area of threat deflation relates to the PRC’s expanding military alliances. For instance, with Russia, the report asserts “the Russian war on Ukraine represented a major, unexpected challenge for Beijing.” This statement is also notable, “despite on-going military cooperation, the PRC and Russia continue to stop short of characterizing its partnership as a formal alliance with mutual security guarantees,” as if the lack of such a statement has any bearing on the actual military cooperation and interoperability of these two like-minded nations. The same threat deflating approach is also applied to Iran where the report asserts “the PRC almost certainly does not have extensive relations with Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, or Iranian- backed militia groups in Iraq,” yet offers no such proof. Again, these statements demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of Communist ideology and how the CCP is expanding its power by creating its own form of hub-and-spoke alliances with Russian, Iran, North Korea, and many other nations in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These are serious failures of forethought that are not trivial differences but have enormous consequences for America’s national security.
Fifth, the report has small and seemingly inconsequential omissions or errors, but when combined, the cumulative effect is the very essence of threat deflation. For instance, the analysis of the PLA Navy seemed to be a hodgepodge of selected facts, but made no mention of the PLA Navy’s new Type 901 comprehensive fast resupply ships, no mention of technology transfer regarding the Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) on the new PLAN aircraft carrier Fujian, or most importantly, a comprehensive assessment about the PLAN’s ability to conduct an invasion against Taiwan or other naval operations against allies in the region or globally.
In sum, each individual service is treated individually, along with a section on joint operations, but each section seems to conclude the PLA is decades away from being a threat—instead of considering that the growth of each service combined with the strategic intentions of the CCP represents a clear and present danger.
In summary, the report’s authors have what can be described as a “Carpenter’s Approach to Analysis” where they seem only able of “snapping a chalk line” of the capabilities of the PLA at a single point in time and are unable to connect the trend line of past rapid growth to future projections where the same growth trend lines are likely to continue. Sadly, once again, the Biden administration has missed an opportunity to accurately portray the immediate nature of the PRC’s military power and its aggression against U.S. interests—most importantly to the American people, U.S. global and national security interests, as well as numerous U.S. allies and partners and ultimately to world peace and stability which are in tatters today.
The most pernicious impact of the threat deflation in this report is that it provides cover for the Biden administration and Congress to continue to ignore the military threat from the PRC and not be pressured into taking the actions that are required to reverse course.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.