America's alarm over China's military modernisation - SOAS China Institute

//America’s alarm over China’s military modernisation

America's alarm over China's military modernisation

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark A. Milley (September 2021). – Photo credit: U.S. Secretary of Defense (Flickr)

By Duncan Bartlett | 10 November 2021

Trusted media outlets claim that Beijing is becoming increasingly powerful in cyberwarfare and missile technology. Duncan Bartlett says readers should consider the sources of the reports before reaching conclusions.

Xi Jinping has stated that he wants to build a world class military by 2049 – the centenary of the Communist Party`s takeover – as part of the “great revival of the Chinese nation”.


In an era of great power competition, this inevitably leads to media scrutiny as to how far China is able to match, or even surpass, the United States in key areas of technology and defence.


Journalists are eager for stories on this topic, especially if they sound an alarm. The US Department Defence recognises this demand and regularly offers material to reporters on which they base their articles.


Stories which are built upon briefings with shadowy, unnamed sources are, by their very nature, hard to verify. Yet they intrigue readers and add a frisson of secrecy and drama to a reporter’s work.


The headlines which emerge are often sinister.


China plans to quadruple its nuclear arms stockpile by 2030, Pentagon says appeared on the front page of the Financial Times on November 4th, 2021.


The story, which was filed out of the newspaper`s Washington bureau, said that China could have 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and would boost its stockpile – currently estimated in the low 200s – to at least 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade.


This report was based on information given to an FT reporter by the Pentagon.


No doubt the FT`s editors felt that their source was reliable, which is why the article was splashed on its front page. The FT is proud of its broad news coverage, which goes well beyond the sphere of business. It has made much with its clashes with the authorities in Beijing over its reporting of China and has now moved key members of its team to Taiwan and Singapore. The FT is owned by Nikkei, a Japanese media organisation.


The nuclear arms build-up was not the only China-related scoop to appear in the Financial Times recently. In September, an unnamed Pentagon source told the paper that China has tested a hypersonic missile, which can fly at five times the speed of sound.


The pieces about the nuclear and hypersonic weapons in the FT were fairly light on data but included some colourful quotes from people who said they were “caught by surprise” by the “eye popping” information.


These pieces were used as the basis for stories by a range of other media outlets. The Economist noted that an expansion of China’s nuclear capacity would leave it with a much smaller number of nuclear weapons than America or Russia, which each have around 4,000 warheads.


Not all media outlets allowed the Pentagon`s warnings to go unchallenged.


For example, the BBC claimed that China had “denied” the FT`s report about the hypersonic missile.


Yet tellingly, the Global Times – a mouthpiece for the most wolfish faction of the Chinese Communist Party – chose to give its readers the impression the new weapon could well be a real threat to the United States.


“It is important to note the unstoppable trend that China is narrowing the gap with the US in some key military technologies, as China is continuously developing its economic and technological strength,” said the paper.


The Global Times added that China doesn’t need to engage in an “arms race” with the US. Yet at the same time, it turned the alarming headlines in the western press as an opportunity to hail China’s enhanced military status.


China`s case to have the edge over the United States in areas of advanced warfare was also supported by Nicolas Chaillan, who recently resigned his position as the U.S. Air Force’s first software chief.


Chaillan told the Financial Times: “We will have no competing fighting chance against China in fifteen to twenty years. Right now, it’s already a done deal. It is over, in my opinion.”


Pressing his point home in interviews with other international media outlets and meetings in Washington, Challian said the US Department of Defence has placed too much dependence on conventional military assets – such as fighter jets, tanks, and missile systems – and has fallen behind China in fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and cyber security.


For Chaillan, “whoever dominates in artificial intelligence will control the world”.


Broadcasters latched onto the warnings. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, called China’s suspected testing of hypersonic weapons “very concerning” during an interview on Bloomberg Television.

"I don't know if it's quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it's very close to that," he added, referring to the shock felt by the US in 1957, when the Soviet Union beat America into space with its Sputnik satellite.

"The Chinese military is expanding rapidly in space, in cyber and in the traditional domains of land, sea and air," General Milley told Bloomberg. "We're in one of the most significant changes in what I call the ‘character of war."

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten was more specific about the missile programme when he met a group of defence writers.


“What you need to be worried about is that in the last five years – or maybe longer – the United States has done nine hypersonic missile tests and in the same time the Chinese have done hundreds,” claimed General Hyten.


For most readers, the inevitable conclusion is that China is a powerful country which is causing alarm at the highest levels of the US Department of Defence.


Only a few people will have the military expertise to know if the claims being made in the media are plausible.


However, from the perspective of the Chinese propaganda department, it is a welcome development that respected western outlets such as the Financial Times are bolstering the prestige of the People’s Liberation Army. 

Duncan Bartlett is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute and hosts the Institute’s weekly podcast, China In Context. He is currently teaching diplomacy and international relations on the Economist Executive Education course, ‘A New Global Order`, and is a former Correspondent for the BBC in Asia.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.