There are around two million personnel in the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Picture: PA).
By David Hambling, technology expert
A report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency has warned that Chinese military power is reaching a tipping point.
For decades the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as the Chinese military is known, was a ground-based force focused on defending the borders and suppressing unrest.
Now China is starting to look outwards, and the PLA is becoming capable of projecting power.
The report indicates that the country is getting ready to flex its wings.
In the past, Russia was always the benchmark for opposing forces.
From 1981 onwards, the Defence Intelligence Agency produced an annual report on Soviet military power, to provide politicians, the military community and the public with a comprehensive overview of the nation posing the most significant threat.
The new report, China Military Power, is the first to look elsewhere for a potential major opponent.
The PLA has traditionally been an army of millions of infantrymen with rifles.
Its strength lay in sheer manpower; in the Korean War, the PLA reportedly used human waves of massed troops to overwhelm the opposition. In those days the PLA lacked modern weapons and armoured vehicles, and some units did not even have trucks.
The PLA’s air force consisted of second-hand Russian MiGs, while its navy was a handful of boats for coastal operations only.
The new PLA is one of modern equipment on land, air and sea.
Military spending in China is a closely-kept secret, but according to the best estimates, the spend in 2018 was about £150bn – three times as much as in 2002.
The most newsworthy item in the report is confirmation that China is working on two stealth bomber programs and not just one as previously thought. The H-X or H-20 is a strategic bomber, and there is also a smaller, medium-range stealth aircraft.
In terms of technology, China starts from way behind, facing Western powers which already have a whole array of modern equipment. But according to the report, this gives them a "latecomer advantage".
Rather than having to invest in research and development to develop from scratch, China has been able to buy technology right off the shelf – or acquire it via espionage. This greatly speeds up the development process.
Thanks to massive state investment in science and technology, China is also able to compete on equal terms in newly-developed fields
This applies in areas like hypersonic weapons which can manoeuvre at speeds of greater than Mach 5 inside the atmosphere, and quantum radar able to detect stealth bombers.
Many Chinse projects are aimed specifically at neutralising the advantages held by Western powers.
Western navies rely on strike groups built around aircraft carriers to project force, while China has only recently started operations on its first carrier and cannot compete directly.
Instead, China developed special weapons like the giant DF-26 missile, a long-range, ground-based missile which it is claimed is able to sink an aircraft carrier.
When US forces carried out a ‘freedom of navigation’ passage through the South China Sea this month, the Chinese put out a statement that they had deployed missiles "capable of targeting medium and large ships" in the area.
Other nations have not developed such technology partly because of restrictions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Similarly, recent pictures show a Chinese warship at sea with what appears to be an electromagnetic railgun.
This is a novel type of weapon which launched shells with a high-powered electrical system rather than gunpowder; it is potentially capable of firing a stream of shells and hitting targets hundreds of kilometres away.
Long time no see, the railgun test ship is spotted undergoing sea trials these days. pic.twitter.com/WdxXkyYWrF— dafeng cao (@dafengcao) December 29, 2018
Railguns could pose a real challenge to existing defensive systems. The US Navy has been working on similar technology for years, but it seems that China may be edging ahead.
China also appears to be working on ways of removing the West’s space assets.
The report mentions development of a variety of anti-satellite weapons, including directed energy devices, jammers and missiles.
These might be used to knock out the sensing, communications and navigation satellites on which Western forces are heavily reliant.
China is still far from being able to project force worldwide, but its current focus is much closer to home.
The island of Taiwan has long asserted its independence from China, however, China still maintains that Taiwan is one of its provinces and insists they will be reunited one day.
Any action would potentially bring China into conflict with the US, which sides with Taiwan, and this has damped down any chance of conflict.
The concern expressed in China Military Power is that the PLA’s confidence is growing fast.
At the same time, China is also pushing territorial claims in the South China Sea, putting it in dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines.
China has gone as far as building artificial islands in the disputed waters, which may be used as military bases. Again, the dispute would draw in America – this was why the US Navy was steaming through with on that "freedom of navigation" voyage this month.
If things continue on their current course, the Chinese leadership will decide that they are strong enough to back up their claims on Taiwan and in the South China Sea with military force.
Then it will be up to the rest of the world to decide how to respond. Any action will be at China’s time of choosing – and as the report warns, that time may not be far away.