China's new village between PRC's Tibet Autonomous Region and Arunachal Pradesh (Planetlabs)

The US Secretary of Defence has submitted an annual report to the US Congress on the military and security developments involving China. The report extensively touches upon China's alleged two-pronged war with Taiwan and India and the possibilities of China expanding its overseas bases into new frontiers.

The report intends to address the current and probable future of China in terms of the military and technological development of the PLA (People's Liberation Army) and the tenets and probable development of Chinese security and military strategy.

There is also the important aspect of China's diplomatic and non-military-based influence operations that have made countries like Australia and Singapore stand up and take notice. Finally, we will also learn how China intends to dig into today's technological advancements and innovations to better equip its forces. With China's official defence budget having doubled since 2012 to a whopping $205 billion, it is imperative to keenly look at China's military strategy.

Aadil Brar, a Chinese affairs specialist, spoke exclusively to India Today to discuss this report at length.

China's Conflicts With India And Trespassing

The Pentagon report says that the PLA has had multiple skirmishes with the Indian army on the borders and specifically mentions cases of Chinese trespassing into Indian territory. Most importantly, it refers to the building of a tiny village like a colony by China in the upper Subansiri region of Arunachal Pradesh.

The details read: "Sometime in 2020, China built a large 100-home civilian village inside disputed territory between China's Tibet Autonomous Region and India's Arunachal Pradesh state in the eastern sector of the LAC. These and other infrastructure development efforts along the India-China border have been a source of consternation in the Indian government and media. In contrast, China has attempted to blame India for provoking the standoff through India's increased infrastructure development near the LAC. Asserting that its deployments to the LAC were in response to Indian provocation, Beijing has refused to withdraw any forces until India's forces have withdrawn behind China's version of the LAC and ceased infrastructure improvements in the area."

The Western Theatre Command is oriented toward India and counterterrorism missions along China's Central Asia borders. It is also geographically the largest theatre command within China and is responsible for responding to conflict with India and terrorist and insurgent threats in western China.

Within China, the Western Theatre Command focuses on Xinjiang and Tibet Autonomous Regions, where the CCP perceives a high threat of separatism and terrorism, particularly among Muslim Uyghur populations in Xinjiang.

The PLARF (People's Liberation Army Rocket Force)

The PLARF organises, mans, trains, and equips China's strategic land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces and associated support forces and missile bases. The PLARF is a critical component of China's nuclear deterrence strategy and its strategy to deter and counter third-party intervention in regional conflicts.

In 2020, the PLARF advanced its long-term modernisation plans to enhance its "strategic deterrence" capabilities. In view of this, it has reportedly launched more than 250 ballistic missiles for testing and training. This was more than the rest of the world combined. Year 2020 also saw PLARF field its first operational hypersonic weapons system, the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) capable medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM).

The PLARF continues to grow its inventory of DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), which can conduct both conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets as well as conventional strikes against naval targets. New intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are being developed that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear warhead production, partially due to the introduction of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities.

China has commenced building three solid-fuelled ICBM silo fields, which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos. On China's future in this space, Aadil opines, "The emphasis on PLA's 2027 goal in the report was a relatively new topic that didn't feature in the previous report. The report says China is pursuing modernisation of the PLA with the target date of 2027, which can provide Beijing with a credible military option during a Taiwan contingency."

"The report adds that China is building a new ICBM that will improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and which will require increased production. We know China is building ICBM silos, but the report adds that China is building a new type of ICBM. According to the report, DF-41s are likely candidate for the deployment in the silos that have been built so far," he added.

Aadil further said, "The most watched and discussed of all the developments was the projection that PLA will have 1000 warheads by 2030. This a projection by the US DOD. China has the capability to reach that target. The report also says China is moving towards a launch-on-warning strategy for its nuclear arsenal. Both these are very significant confirmations of some of the recent trends we have noticed in open-source analysis."

The China-Taiwan Conflict

Although China publicly advocates peaceful unification with Taiwan, it has never renounced the use of military force. The circumstances under which China has historically indicated it would consider using force remain ambiguous and have evolved over time.

The Pentagon's report suggests that China has a range of options for military campaigns against Taiwan, from an air and maritime blockade to a full-scale amphibious invasion to seize and occupy some or all of Taiwan or its offshore islands.

China continues to signal its willingness to use military force against Taiwan. The PLA has a range of options to coerce Taipei based on its increasing capabilities in multiple domains. China could pursue a measured approach by signalling its readiness to use force or conduct punitive actions against Taiwan. The PLA could also conduct a more comprehensive campaign designed to force Taiwan to capitulate to unification or compel Taiwan's leadership to the negotiation table under Beijing's terms.

Notably, China would seek to deter potential US intervention in any Taiwan contingency campaign - capabilities relevant to deterring or countering potential US intervention were among those that China highlighted during its October 2019 military parade celebrating its 70th anniversary.

The PLA could initiate the military options listed below individually or in combination:

Air And Maritime Blockade

PLA writings describe a Joint Blockade Campaign in which China would employ kinetic blockades of maritime and air traffic, including a cut-off of Taiwan's vital imports, to force Taiwan's capitulation. Large-scale missile strikes and possible seizures of Taiwan's offshore islands would accompany a Joint Blockade in an attempt to achieve a rapid Taiwan surrender, while at the same time, posturing air, and naval forces to conduct weeks or months of blockade operations if necessary.

China will also likely complement its air and maritime blockade operations with concurrent electronic warfare (EW), network attacks, and information operations (IO) to further isolate Taiwan's authorities and populace and to control the international narrative of the conflict.

Limited Force Or Coercive Options

China could use a variety of disruptive, punitive, or lethal military actions in a limited campaign against Taiwan, probably in conjunction with overt and clandestine economic and political activities supported by a variety of IO to shape perceptions or undercut the effectiveness or legitimacy of the Taiwan authorities. Such a campaign could include computer networks or limited kinetic attacks against Taiwan's political, military, and economic infrastructure to induce fear in Taiwan and degrade the Taiwan population's confidence in their leaders. Similarly, PLA special operations forces (SOF) could infiltrate Taiwan and conduct attacks against infrastructure or leadership targets.

Air And Missile Campaign

China could use missile attacks and precision air strikes against air defence systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities to degrade Taiwan's defences, neutralise Taiwan's leadership, or break the Taiwan people's resolve.

Invasion of Taiwan

Publicly available Chinese writings describe different operational concepts for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. The most prominent of these, the Joint Island Landing Campaign, envisions a complex operation relying on coordinated, interlocking campaigns for logistics, air, and naval support, and EW. The objective would be to break through or circumvent shore defences, establish, and build a beachhead, transport personnel and materiel to designated landing sites in the north or south of Taiwan's western coastline, and launch attacks to seize and occupy key targets or the entire island.

When asked about the possibility of China waging a "two-pronged" war with Taiwan and India, Aadil said that it is highly unlikely.

"China seems to be pursuing a strategy to secure the Western borders for a future Taiwan contingency. CCP takes history seriously. China believes the growing India-US cooperation can create problems along the LAC in the future, especially during a situation vis-à-vis Taiwan. China also has Tibet in mind where the internal culture and political life isn't entirely in Beijing's control. That's my own opinion on the strategy mentioned in the report," Aadil said.

He further said, "PLA 'accelerated its training and fielding of equipment', especially because of the border tensions with India, according to the report. First, securing the border with India has emerged as an important topic for the PLA in case Beijing decides to attack Taiwan. Second, the emphasis on border security - targeted at India - is a long-term strategic goal for the PLA. The latter is a new development that we are still trying to understand. The report hits the nail at the right spot by underscoring the connection between the India-China border and Taiwan because securing the Western border is now critical to long term security towards the East vis-à-vis Taiwan. Some experts have alluded to this connection, but it's a new topic even in the scholarship about PLA."

PLA's Overseas Basing And Influence Operations

China is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances. Beyond its base in Djibouti, China is pursuing additional military facilities to support naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection. China has likely considered several countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan, as locations for PLA facilities, as per the Pentagon's report. It would be highly unlikely and surprising if countries like Singapore and Indonesia were to indeed allow China to establish a base in their shores owing to the ever-increasing protectionism and the tensions in the South China Sea.

When asked about the PLA's exploits in the South China Sea, Aadil adds, "The report says China has stopped reclaiming land in the South China Sea since the 2015 reclaiming of land in the Spratly's. But the report adds China has the capability to support military operations from South China Sea bases. This is an important capability in the case of tensions with the US or Taiwan. PLA isn't ready yet to use PLAN to project power outside of its immediate neighbourhood, which would include launching attacks from submarines or naval platforms. The report says China is targeting to develop that capability."

China is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances. Beijing may assess that a mixture of military logistics models, including preferred access to commercial infrastructure abroad, exclusive PLA logistics facilities with prepositioned supplies co-located with commercial infrastructure, and bases with stationed forces, most closely aligns with China's overseas military logistics needs.

"The aspect which is relatively new is a more international role for the PLA. Though the aspiration has existed in the Chinese consciousness, it is rarely mentioned in official documents. We have also heard about a new military base in Tajikistan. There is interest in using the PLA to create an environment which is more conducive and secure for the PLA," Aadil said.

China has also been keenly focusing and driving its non-military influence operations across the globe. We have seen countries like Singapore and Australia take defensive measures by bringing in anti-foreign interference laws recently. India Today had recently covered this extensively. Such influence operations usually target cultural institutions, media organisations, business, academic, and policy communities, and international institutions, to achieve outcomes favourable to its strategic objectives across countries that are critical to China's interests. Their activities seek to condition domestic, foreign, and multilateral political establishments and public opinion to accept Beijing's narratives and remove obstacles preventing attainment of goals. A cornerstone of China's strategy includes appealing to overseas Chinese citizens or ethnic Chinese citizens of other countries to advance the Party's objectives through soft power engagements. China also sometimes uses coercion or blackmail to manipulate overseas China citizens to conduct influence operations on behalf of China, such as threatening ethnic Uyghurs living in the United States with imprisonment of their family members. Chinese intelligence services often facilitate these operations.

Additionally, China targets ethnic Chinese citizens of other countries to support its foreign technology acquisition strategy. Its "Thousand Talents Program" targets people of ethnic Chinese descent or recent China emigrants whose recruitment China government views as necessary to China's scientific and technical modernisation, especially regarding defence technology. Aadil expressed that Covid-19 was a good example of China's influence operations. "I would say the Covid-19 pandemic is a good example of CCP's relative success at diverting the criticism against the CCP and turning it into a race-related matter under the stop-Asian hate campaign. We have seen some nasty instances of hatred against Asian community during Covid-19, but Beijing has skilfully used that to stop public opinion from becoming even worse than where it is now," he said.

It is noteworthy to remember China's "Three Warfares" concept - which comprises psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare. This was first initiated in PLA's operational planning in 2003. The PLA will likely continue to develop its digital influence capabilities by incorporating advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the quality and deniability of its messaging.

Technology-Based Force Modernisation

The PLA has reorganised a key military think tank-the Academy of Military Science (AMS) - and reasserted this organisation's leadership of military science research programs. The revamped AMS is tasked with driving defence innovation and ensuring that the PLA's warfighting theory and doctrine fully capitalise on disruptive technologies like AI and autonomous systems. Given China's willingness to deploy emerging technologies rapidly and at massive scale as well as China's focus on MCF, the PLA would likely quickly benefit from any domestic scientific breakthroughs with military utility.

On the PLA's modern warfare technologies, Aadil said, "PLA has made some significant advancement on deploying AI-capable platforms and other ISR capabilities at the border. PLA's improved ISR and networked warfare capabilities along the LAC was a key development cited in the report. I have alluded to these developments based on my reading of PLA's open-source information. PLA has installed fiber optic network in remote areas of the Himalayas. These capabilities in military technology have direct implications for India. But these technologies may not always perform as well in the extreme Himalayas."

As of 2020, the PLA has funded multiple AI projects that focus on applications including machine learning for strategic and tactical recommendations, AI-enabled wargaming for training, and social media analysis. It is also developing unmanned systems in all domains and has tested unmanned air, ground, and maritime systems with limited AI capabilities.

Potential Military Applications of Some Emerging Technologies Include:

- AI and Advanced Robotics: enhanced data exploitation, decision support, manufacturing, unmanned systems, and C4ISR
- Semiconductors and Advanced Computing: enhanced cyber operations and weapons design, and shortened R&D cycles
- Quantum Technologies: secure global communications, enhanced computing and decryption capabilities, enhanced position, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities
- Biotechnology: precision medicine, biological warfare, enhanced soldier performance, human-machine teaming
- Hypersonic and Directed Energy Weapons: global strike and defeat of missile defence systems, and anti-satellite, anti-missile, and anti-unmanned aircraft system capabilities
- Advanced Materials and Alternative Energy: improved military equipment and weapon systems.