Testimony: China’s military modernization program

China’s military modernization program has continued apace, with defense spending growing for the 24th consecutive year, making China the second-largest defense spender after the United States. China spent an estimated $175.4 billion on defense in 2019, with funds going to personnel, training, and procurement. The increase in resources and effort has resulted in more frequent, sophisticated, and multifaceted People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presence and activities in the region and beyond. China’s main line of effort remains centered on East Asia, and its concerns are over the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and Taiwan. Below I capture the major developments in China’s regional activities with a focus on the South China Sea and China’s military presence beyond East Asia, as well as address recent developments in the SinoRussian relationship and the publication of the 2019 Chinese Defense White Paper.


Military vehicles are parked on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, China August 15, 2019. Reuters

Regional Activities

Taiwan is the driving scenario for the PLA—in its training, procurement, reforms, and reorganization. Most Chinese military developments have implications for Taiwan. All of the Chinese navy’s platforms, both undersea and surface, could be used to coerce, blockade, attack, or invade Taiwan. China currently has the largest navy in the world, with 300 ships consisting of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, submarines, and amphibious assault ships. The construction of the Type 095s nuclear attack submarine, which began in 2017, and the first Type 055 Nanchang destroyers that China will likely put in service this year could be useful to blockade Taiwan. The Chinese Air Force is also developing a new strategic stealth bomber called the Xian H-20. The H-20 will join the J-20 fighters, Y-20 airlifters, and Z-20 helicopters in the PLA Air Force’s “20” series of new aircraft. Many observers believe the “20” means they will be in service around the year 2020.

Chinese military improvements are especially concerning given China’s increasingly strident rhetoric over Taiwan. In his New Year’s Day speech, Xi Jinping warned Taiwan that unification is the ultimate goal of any talks over its future and any efforts by the island to assert full independence would be met by armed force.5 Based on this and subsequent speeches, it seems that Xi demands concrete progress toward reunification, though it is unclear exactly what that means. At the very least, China probably wants to restart bilateral talks and thus hopes that the political party in Taiwan that is more amenable to this path, the Kuomintang, will win the presidency in 2020.


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