Peter Brookes: Best keep close eye on China’s better, ‘badder’ military

Peter Brookes

Peter Brookes

In the foreign policy and national security field, one way to “eyeball” the seriousness of a potential threat that one country poses to another is to use the formula: Threat = military capabilities + political intent.

It’s not perfect by any means, but gives a quick idea of danger.

In other words, if Country A has significant military capabilities, but no political ill will toward country B, then the probability of war between A and B is lower.

On the other hand, if Country A has significant military capabilities and has political ill will toward country B, then the possibility of conflict between A and B is higher.

And so on.

War, of course, isn’t inevitable, but more or less probable than it would be strictly by chance depending on the strength of the military and political variables.

This little academic aside is purposed to provide a framework for you to view the Pentagon’s most recent report to Congress on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016.”

In terms of threat, it’s troubling.

On the capabilities side of the calculation, the Pentagon report notes that the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA – the collective name of China’s armed forces – is modernizing across the board.

It’s becoming better – and “badder.”

For example, according to the Defense Department, the PLA has established a Strategic Support Force for conducting cutting-edge cyber and space operations. It’s developing counter-space weapons that will nail an enemy’s satellites.

One of China’s military strengths is its ballistic missile arsenal, the largest in Asia. Not surprising, the Pentagon reports that the PLA rocket force is developing several new types of offensive missiles – many directed at us.

The PLA navy is the biggest – once again! – in Asia with 300 ships, including its first aircraft carrier with a near-operational air wing, writes the Pentagon. It adds that by 2020, China will have some 70 attack and strategic ballistic missile submarines.

The PLA air force is the largest in Asia – sensing a pattern here? – and “is rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities … ” China now has two stealth fighter programs, the document notes.

The report goes on for 140-plus pages, doling out info on China’s muscled military. Naturally, Beijing sees Washington as “playing up the so-called ‘China military threat’ card,” according to China Daily, a government newspaper.

What else would Beijing say?

That brings us to political intent. Frankly, it’s harder to calculate than capabilities. It can also change quickly, where capabilities can take years to field.

But that said, China sees the United States as a strategic rival not only in Asia, but globally.

Indeed, the Pentagon asserts that Chinese leaders see building up the PLA “as essential to achieving great power status … They portray a strong military as critical to advancing Chinese interests…”

Beijing is nothing if not ambitious. It wants Washington to quietly give up its preeminent position in the Pacific. But it’s clearly preparing for other less peaceful scenarios, too.

This Pentagon report tells us that the PLA is building the military might to fulfill the Chinese Communist Party’s political will – whatever those intentions might turn out to be.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.

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