The PRC’s Bid for Strategic Superiority

The unrelenting pace of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) nuclear and conventional modernization continues without abatement. The PRC continues its bid for global strategic military superiority in order to coerce the U.S. and its allies and threaten U.S. national security interests as no other power has in history.

This fact was again brought to light this past week at the PRC’s “Two Sessions,” the early March annual meeting of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, where a 7.2 percent increase to the annual budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was announced. This is the second year in a row where the PLA’s budget grew by 7.2 percent and continues the three-decade trend by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to prioritize spending on the PLA, which is always above the PRC’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

Any announced increase in spending on the PLA is almost certainly higher since the PRC’s statement does not consider key areas of defense-related spending such as research and development, civil-military fusion programs, or the reality of purchasing power parity that comes from lower wage costs for the PRC. As such, the U.S. intelligence community (IC) assesses that the PRC spends about as much as the U.S. does on defense.

While many Western defense analysts compare the total amount of money spent by the PRC on the PLA versus the U.S., what matters most is not the number of dollars that are spent but what a nation gets for that money. In that regard, the PRC is getting a lot more bang for the buck.

For example, the PRC’s nuclear expansion has evinced a flood of new evidence that is now coming to the fore. The seeds of this deadly fruit were planted many years ago. ICBMs do not spring, like Athena, from the head of Zeus. They take many years of design, development, and testing before they are deployed. The fact that this nuclear modernization was identified by the U.S. but was dismissed, discounted, or ignored is a profound indictment of the IC, as we argue in our new book, Embracing Communist China: America’s Greatest Strategic Failure. We argue that the politicization of the IC is profound, as they have consistently downplayed the existential danger posed by the PRC.

In a recent development, the PRC has developed a new generation of mobile Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), as U.S. Air Force General Anthony Cotton, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, revealed in Congressional testimony and as reported by Washington Times journalist Bill Gertz. Gen. Cotton’s testimony now confirms that the PRC has more ICBM launchers than the U.S. He echoed his predecessor, U.S. Navy Admiral Charles Richard, in describing the PRC’s nuclear advances and buildup as “breathtaking.”

In contrast, “breathtaking” is not a word that would be used to describe the state of the U.S. nuclear arsenal or infrastructure, unless employed in a rather different context, such as “breathtakingly moribund.” The 400 silo-based Minuteman III ICBMs are aging and nearing the end of their life cycle. They will be retired as the Sentinel ICBM is deployed, but the Sentinel is plagued by delays and cost overruns. It will also be silo-based, not mobile, and will not be cold-launched, so the silo might be reloaded.

Moreover, in addition to the new mobile ICBM, the PRC has many mobile ballistic missile systems. The PRC possesses two-road mobile ICBMs as well as mobile intermediate-, medium-, and short-range ballistic missiles. The PRC has also expanded its ICBM fields, including adding 300+ new silos for the solid-fueled DF-31 and DF-41 and perhaps a silo-based version of the new ICBM. The new ICBM may also be rail-based at some point in the future.

The military expansion is important for Americans to grasp because this rapid and “breathtaking” military growth indicates that the PRC is intent on global military domination and is targeting the United States because it is the last barrier to its dominance. This buildup reveals the intent of the PRC and should cause American national security leaders to recognize that it was not the U.S. expansion of its nuclear capabilities that caused the PRC’s rapid expansion. What we are witnessing today is all part of the CCP’s grand strategy of dominance.

The military superiority that the PRC seeks will permit it to coerce the U.S. and its allies through its escalation dominance, the possession of military superiority at each level of conflict, from the conventional to tactical nuclear weapons to theater and finally at the strategic level. This superiority will allow Beijing to force the U.S. to yield in crisis situations or in the event of conflict. It is also noticed by key allies like Japan and partners like India. The PRC’s potent nuclear capabilities will test the extended deterrent of the U.S. like it has not been tested for forty years. The alliance and force posture of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific depends upon U.S. nuclear and conventional superiority, which has deterred aggression and maintained stability in this region for decades. Now that both capabilities are being tested by the PRC, there is a considerable risk that this peace and stability will unravel.

The Cold War with the Soviet Union stayed cold because the U.S. and its allies could match Soviet strength and did not permit the Soviets to develop capabilities for which the U.S. did not counter. In contrast, the present period of international politics is defined by U.S. inaction, lethargy, and strategic insouciance toward the growing conventional and nuclear capabilities of its enemy. At this pace, the present Cold War with the PRC will not stay cold but will most certainly turn into a hot war if the U.S. does not respond to defeat the PRC’s bid for nuclear and conventional superiority.

James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer are authors of Embracing Communist China: America’s Greatest Strategic Failure.

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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

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 a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: This photo taken on April 7, 2023 shows the rocket force of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army PLA transferring a missile before the combat readiness patrol and military exercises around the Taiwan Island. The Eastern Theater Command of the PLA has accomplished all tasks in the combat readiness patrol and military exercises carried out from April 8 to 10 around the Taiwan Island.The operations have comprehensively tested the integrated joint combat capability of the PLA's multiple services and arms under actual combat conditions. (Photo by Liu Mingsong/Xinhua via Getty Images)