Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) attends a military parade with former presidents Hu Jintao (L) and Jiang Zemin in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019

Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) attends a military parade with former presidents Hu Jintao (L) and Jiang Zemin in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019 Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s Increased Military Activity Near Taiwan a ‘New Normal’ Says Pentagon

The Pentagon identifies 2027 as a key deadline for China military modernization, then 2035 and 2049.

China is aiming for “a new normal” of increased military activity around Taiwan, a senior defense official said ahead of the release of the latest edition of the Pentagon’s China Military Power report, which highlights ambitious military-modernization plans for 2027, 2035, and 2049.

“What we do see is sort of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] establishing kind of a new normal in terms of the level of military activity around Taiwan” in the wake of the August visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, the official told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. 

During and after Pelosi’s visit, the Chinese military fired missiles and staged large exercises near Taiwan in what many interpreted as an intimidating show of force

“What we've seen since then is that it has not gone down to the level that we were accustomed to prior to her visit. So it is lower than the immediate period after her visit, of course, but…we have seen them sort of trying to set this new normal,” the official said. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said much the same earlier this month. 

“The PRC's military activities in the Taiwan Strait are growing increasingly provocative, with PLA [People’s Liberation Army] aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers on a near-daily basis. We've seen a sharp increase in the number of dangerous PLA intercepts of U.S. and allied forces—including Canadian aircraft—that were operating lawfully in international airspace over the South and East China Seas,” Austin said at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada.

Over the past two years, U.S. military officials, notably then INDOPACOM Commander Adm. Phil Davidson, have expressed concern that China might attempt a military takeover of Taiwan by 2027.

The U.S. official on Monday declined to be that specific. “I wouldn't speculate that it's a specific date when the PRC would decide to use force.” The Pentagon report released today doesn’t endorse or dismiss that date but rather discusses 2027 in terms of China’s ambitious modernization goal. 

“If realized, this 2027 objective could give the PLA capabilities to be a more credible military tool for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to wield as it pursues Taiwan unification,” the report says. “The 20th Party Congress report focused on intensifying and accelerating the PLA’s modernization goals over the next five years, including strengthening its ‘system of strategic deterrence’.”

What does that look like? The report says it looks a lot like the Pentagon’s own joint all-domain command and control vision of interlocked air, sea, land, space and cyberspace weapons and capabilities rapidly sharing data for faster and more devastating operations. 

“The PLA is aggressively developing capabilities to provide options for the PRC to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention in the Indo-Pacific region,” the report says. But it adds: “Although the PLA has undertaken important structural reforms to promote joint operations, its capability to carry out joint operations in support of counterintervention or joint campaigns outside the First Island Chain remains in its infancy.”

The official also noted the PLA’s progress in implementing those structural reforms and in “fielding modern indigenous systems, increasingly [sic] PLA's readiness, and strengthening its ability to conduct joint operations across the full range of air, land and maritime as well as nuclear space and counterspace, electronic warfare and cyberspace operations.”

Beyond 2027, the report highlights a more important milestone for the broader competition with China. “The PLA plans to ‘basically complete modernization’ of its national defense and armed forces by 2035. If China continues the pace of its nuclear expansion, it will likely field a stockpile of about 1500 warheads by its 2035 timeline.” 

The official said that that figure was in line with estimates outlined in last year’s report

China’s military-civil fusion strategy will play a large role in that. The “development strategy includes objectives to develop and acquire advanced dual-use technology for military purposes and to deepen reform of the national defense science and technology industries, and serves a broader purpose to strengthen all of the PRC’s instruments of national power,” the report says.

The Pentagon has few, if any, means to counter the strategy but the Biden administration has spearheaded its own efforts in that direction, first through the CHIPS Act, which seeks to reshore key microprocessor and microchip manufacturing, and through a series of targeted sanctions to keep advanced chip plans and development out of China. 

Gregory Allen has studied the situation as the director of the Project on AI Governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The CHIPS act is a natural companion to the export controls,” he said. “It will invest tens of billions of dollars in the U.S. semiconductor industry. Not only will the CHIPS Act funding help U.S. and allied companies mitigate the loss of some Chinese revenue from the export controls, the Act also includes guardrails to prevent those investments from subsidizing expansion in China. If a company receives funding from the CHIPS Act, they are prohibited from expanding advanced node semiconductor manufacturing capacity in China.”  

Said Allen, “AI was the top technology priority listed in China’s most recent five-year economic plan and is central to China’s strategy of military-civil fusion. However, the Biden administration’s recent export controls on advanced AI chips and semiconductor manufacturing technology essentially guarantee that China will not achieve its near-term goals for AI…The crackdown on protests in China also reflect one of the other major concerns that U.S. allies have about China’s AI sector. In addition to military modernization, China’s government use of AI is concentrated on domestic surveillance and censorship.”

Earlier this month, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters, “China is not shy about their goal. They want to be the No. 1 power in the globe by mid-century, by 2049. And they want to do that military, diplomatically, informationally, economically, and so on and so forth.” 

But, Milley added, “China is not going to be a better military than the United States military is. But they're going to try, but they're not going to get there. We will be No. 1 five years from now, 10 years from now, and 50 years from now. We are not going to let China take No. 1.”