Will the Pentagon’s alarmism about Chinese military and nuclear advancement be used to justify more US military spending?
The US Department of Defense (DoD) issued an assessment on the Chinese military on Wednesday, with a focus on the ambitious expansion of China’s nuclear stockpiles.
In its annual report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments, the Pentagon says Beijing is planning to quadruple the size of its current arsenal by 2030 that could see it top 1,000 warheads – two-and-a-half times the size than what last year’s report predicted.
Over the next decade, it says China aims to modernise and diversify its nuclear forces by “investing in, and expanding, the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms.”
Declaring China to be its principal security concern for the future, the DoD states Beijing’s buildup of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world-class” military will be complete by the end of 2049.
US officials believe that China’s strategy of achieving “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049 will come at the cost of US hegemony, as it seeks to “match or surpass U.S. global influence and power, displace U.S. alliances and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, and revise the international order to be advantageous to Beijing’s authoritarian system and national interests.”
The report also said satellite imagery shows at least three new missile fields under construction that contain “hundreds” of underground silos.
The Chinese foreign ministry rebuked the Pentagon’s report on Thursday, saying it “ignores facts and is full of prejudice.”
Director of the Federation of American Scientists Hans Kristensen described Beijing’s nuclear buildup as unprecedented, calling it “above and beyond anything we have ever seen in China before.”
Back in 2004, China stated that it possesses the smallest arsenal among the five nuclear-weapon states that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and even though it slightly increased during the following decade-and-a-half, Kristensen said that it always adhered to a minimum deterrent that Western intelligence estimated was in the order of a couple of hundred nuclear warheads.
“It is seen in that context that the current buildup is so dramatic and seems to contradict previous Chinese policy,” he told TRT World.
While Chinese leaders have publicly stated they refuse to be part of an arms race, Kristensen believes its military buildup is “most certainly in response to the other large military powers and has elements of a race for better nuclear capabilities.”
And so China appears to be getting ready to join the US and Russia as a preeminent nuclear power, with all the instability that entails.
“The unfortunate reality is that the United States and the PRC do not have the benefit of the same mature arms control relationship that we have with Russia, which was forged through decades of Cold War nuclear competition and cooperation,” Bonnie Jenkins, undersecretary of state for arms control, warned NATO in September.
Whether its nuclear stockpiling will call into question China’s no-first-use policy, Kristensen is not yet convinced. “In fact, China could perfectly well increase its nuclear arsenal and still maintain a no-first-use policy,” he argued.
“Whether anyone would trust such a policy is another matter.”
Without dismissing Chinese military buildup, it’s worth remembering that even outside estimates of China’s military budget put it at one-third of the US budget.
In 2020, US military expenditure reached at estimated $778 billion, an increase of 4.4 percent over 2019. As the world’s largest military spender, the US accounts for nearly 40 percent of $1.9 trillion in total global military outflows.
China’s military spending is the second highest in the world, and estimated to have totaled $252 billion in 2020 – representing an increase of about 2 percent over 2019 and 76 percent over the last decade.
Yet, as relations between Washington and Beijing sour en route towards what many believe is the new Cold War, concern over Chinese military growth is frequently juxtaposed against anxieties of US hegemonic decline.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Samuel Huntington saw the US having to confront an identity crisis. “Without the cold war, what’s the point of being an American?” he lamented, recounting John Updike’s mournful sojourn.
China now fulfills that function.
Since normalising relations in 1978 after the Iron Curtain fell, China has vacillated in the US imagination as a little brother that would become a responsible stakeholder in the US-led world order, while simultaneously imperiling that very order with its precipitous rise.
For over three decades a co-dependent relationship was fostered, before a dramatic decoupling began under the Trump administration in 2017.
US grand strategy, beginning with President Obama’s pivot to Asia, has since premised on reorienting Washington’s policy around managing Beijing’s growing footprint in the Pacific – a theatre long held to be the cornerstone of US imperium.
Now locked in a great power competition, consolidation of US military and commercial supremacy is viewed by Washington as a defensive posture in the face of perceived Chinese belligerence in the Pacific.
Rhetoric, meanwhile, has only been ramping up. “The biggest source of chaos in the present-day world is the United States,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in February. “The United States is the biggest threat to our country’s development and security.”
The US security establishment believes there is only one way to counter the growing Chinese threat: money. Every part of the US military is already putting forward Chinese growth as a motivating excuse for why it should get more funding.
In a testimonial in June, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US continues to possess “the best joint fighting force on Earth.” But only by spending additional billions of dollars annually, could it hope to “outpace” China’s projected advances in the coming decades, he added.
In July, Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “China is the pacing threat for us in uniform…We are gearing our capabilities, our programs, our training, our skills, our activities, et cetera, militarily with China in mind. There’s no question about it.”
“Pointing to foreign threats has always been a powerful argument to persuade Congress to fund US defense programs, and it is no different this time,” said Kristensen. “But the excessive scale of the Chinese buildup means the justifications carry more weight”.
Marine veteran Dan Grazier at the Project on Government Oversight was more blunt. “Pentagon brass and defense corporations don’t want to see flat or reduced budgets, and need justification to continue to request high budgets,” he wrote. “Raising the specter of a China threat gives them reason to request more money.”
But how real is the threat? Pentagon war-gaming exercises are frequently used to justify the need for new weapons, as did one carried out last year that reflected a battle for Taiwan.
“The US Air Force repelled a Chinese invasion of Taiwan during a massive war game last fall by relying on drones acting as a sensing grid, an advanced sixth-generation fighter jet able to penetrate the most contested environments, cargo planes dropping pallets of guided munitions and other novel technologies yet unseen on the modern battlefield,” Defense News reported in April.
Meanwhile, there is one shared security threat that the world will be forced to tackle: climate change. And a handful of intelligence agencies, including the US, have identified the consequences of climatic destabilisation as a major security challenge. So has China.
None of Washington’s assessments, however, consider the impact of climate change on China’s security. If UN forecasts are correct, extreme climate events will be occurring with more frequency, and prove ever more destructive – including countries like China, which is saddled with multiple climate vulnerabilities – ensuring militaries will be tasked with a huge role in combating it.
By 2049 then, is it more plausible that China’s world-class army will be fighting climate-related wars rather than American soldiers?
“Climate change is ongoing and gradual, but a military clash could happen fast,” said Kristensen, pointing to how some in the US government believe it is possible China will attack Taiwan in the next decade.
“And if a war did happen, it could potentially escalate to use of nuclear weapons, in which case the threat from climate change would seem less urgent than nuclear annihilation.”