One of the best surveys on China’s growing might comes from the Pentagon’s annual Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, also known as the China Military Power Report. Often running several dozen pages the non-alarmist yet detailed writing gives the reader a frank assessment of how the PLA keeps getting better. While it’s true the PLA does lag behind the US military in many areas, China today can aford to close the gap little by little.
Nearly 20 years since the PLA commenced its multifaceted overhaul for each of its branches–a broad effort that was supposed to negate the US’ presence in the Western Pacific–and the results are jarring. This year’s Pentagon report pores over every facet of the growing menace, combining facts-heavy text and useful graphics. Remarkable examples of the latter are found on pages 23, 27, and 30 where headquarters and bases for the PLA ground, naval, and air forces are pinpointed on a map of China.
The 2017 report is 106 pages long and divided between six chapters, with three appendices–I, II, and III. Like its predecessors, this year’s report offers a wealth of media, with plenty found within the first chapter alone. The highlight is a map on page 11 illustrating China’s activities within its disputed Nine Dash Line. High resolution photos of its notorious artificial islands are provided as well.
Briefings on each of the PLA’s branches from page 22 to 35 reveal the inordinate advantages it now enjoys by having Asia’s largest army, navy, and air force. Only the rocket forces and the strategic support forces remain works in progress.
Most revealing is Chapter 5, Force Modernization for a Taiwan Contingency, that examines how much the PLA has improved over their rivals across the strait. It’s now apparent Taiwan has fallen far behind. This is explained on page 82, which mentions Taiwan’s meager defense budget and dwindling manpower. A colored map on page 78 shows how the island nation is now smothered by shore-based missiles from the mainland.
While China still spends far less than the US on its military–2016’s budget cost Beijing $144.3 billion–it is approaching peer status with remarkable speed. According to the Pentagon, the PLA’s shortcomings are a persistent reliance on Russian weapon systems and less than adequate air defense technology. On the other hand, its A2/AD or anti-access area denial capabilities are nothing to sniff at.
But to emphasize how vulnerable China remains in case of a major international crisis, a colored map on page 44 illustrates its energy routes, i.e. the areas where oil and gas imports pass through.
For completionists, Appendix I is a calendar listing of military-to-military exchanges between Beijing and Washington, DC in the past year with a partial listing that covers upcoming events. Under Appendix II is a comparison of PLA and Taiwan armed forces numerical strength. Appendix III is an acronym guide.
Readers can access the report for free straight from its source. Seen below is a reproduction of Appendix II comparing China and Taiwan military data.
Taiwan Strait Military Balance, Ground Forces (2016)
|Total||Taiwan Strait Area||Total|
|Mechanized Infantry Divisions||7||1||0|
|Mechanized Infantry Brigades||25||6||3|
|Army Aviation Brigades||11||5||3|
Taiwan Strait Military Balance, Naval Forces (2016)
|Total||Eastern & Southern Navies||Total|
|Tank Landing Ships||34||32||12|
|Medium Landing Ships||21||15||4|
|Diesel Attack Submarines||54||34||4|
|Nuclear Attack Submarines||5||2||0|
|Ballistic Missile Submarines||4||4||0|
|Coastal Patrol (Missile)||88||70||45|
|Coast Guard Ships||185||N/A||25|
Taiwan Strait Military Balance, Air Forces (2016)
|Total||W/in range of Taiwan||Total|
|Special Mission Aircraft||115||75||25|
China’s Missile Forces (2016)