One can read the Pentagon’s latest report on Chinese military power, released last Thursday, in many ways, but two interpretations come to mind most easily. On one hand, one sees clear continuities with previous versions of this congressionally mandated annual assessment. This year’s report does not highlight any radical changes or breakthroughs in Chinese military capabilities during the past year and does not foresee any revolutionary developments over the coming one. On the other hand, the document depicts a comprehensive and unrelenting Chinese military buildup whose sheer size and persistence should, if trends continue, propel China to superpower status in a few decades.
Despite the rise to power of a new generation of Chinese leaders during the past few years, and their more assertive policy regarding regional disputes and other issues, Chinese defense policy continues to follow trends established during the previous decade.
The Chinese armed forces, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), continue to operate at ever-greater distances from Chinese territory, including for supporting global peace and security missions as well as for more unilateral coercive activities. China remains the leading contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. In addition, the Chinese navy continues to assign a few ships to the Gulf of Aden to counter pirates that operate from bases in Somalia. Meanwhile, Chinese warships can increasingly be found patrolling in the disputed waters of the East and South China Seas. The Chinese armed forces are also engaging in larger and more complex exercises.