In an interview last month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, spoke bluntly about China’s growing military challenge. The principal military advisor to the president asserted that Beijing had already “developed a significant military today, as of right this minute.” He further acknowledged that the Chinese armed forces “are on a path […] to be on par with the US at some point in the future” and have “stretched their legs and are becoming a global power.” Across the Pacific, the prognosis about Taiwan’s ability to resist China’s use of force has become pessimistic, if not fatalistic. Admiral (ret.) Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明), the former head of Taiwan’s military, conceded that, “Time is definitely not on Taiwan’s side.” In his view, “It’s only a matter of time for them to gather enough strength” to credibly threaten the island.
While the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is clearly looking far beyond mainland shores even as it prepares for the worst over Taiwan, hard choices lie ahead for Beijing. The reality is that China’s globalizing military could impose opportunity costs on the massive resources Beijing needs to prevail over Taiwan should deterrence fail. Like household spending decisions about remodeling one room at the expense of upgrading another, every yuan China devotes to power projection forces is one fewer yuan it can invest in capabilities primarily suited for a cross-Strait war. The opposite is also true. This global-local dilemma will weigh on China’s calculus. In this context and others, the United States and its allies can shape Beijing’s decision making by bolstering Taiwan’s defense and by strengthening their own deterrent posture.
The Global-Local Dilemma
To fulfill China’s global ambitions, the PLA is building an expeditionary force at breakneck speed. Aircraft carriers, multi-mission surface combatants, amphibious assault ships, and fleet replenishment vessels will provide Beijing the global means to wage war at sea, project power ashore, police the oceans, and show the flag. These capabilities will boost Chinese power and prestige abroad while threatening to upend the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
This globalizing force, however, will have to compete for resources since there are other military capabilities that China needs in order to deter or defeat Taiwan—the PLA’s “main strategic direction [主要戰略方向]” since the 1990s. Beijing’s preoccupation with the island as a major flashpoint continues to tie up a sizable portion of resources that would otherwise be available for missions farther afield. Chinese statesmen will face increasingly difficult tradeoff choices that they have not had to contemplate in the past.
The PLA must amass and maintain a force that is adapted to the peculiar needs of a potential cross-Strait war. Some of these warfighting tools are tailored to coerce or attack the island. They are not easily transferable or relevant to China’s global ambitions. Short-legged platforms built to perform a few critical missions are particularly inapplicable to expeditionary operations. China’s longer-range land-based strike systems, including missiles and aircraft, are oriented narrowly toward a Taiwan contingency.
The PLA Rocket Force’s short-range ballistic missiles are one-way precision weapons intended for use against Taiwan and other nearby targets. Coastal combatants lack the range and the seaworthiness to venture far from home waters and generally conduct a narrow range of tasks. Coastal anti-ship and air defense batteries can only defend their respective sectors along the approaches to the mainland. Beyond the costs of procuring the weaponry, the associated expense of maintaining, operating, manning, recapitalizing, and training is likely sizable.
Many of these military assets, the fruits of decades-long investment, are designed almost exclusively for a potential war over Taiwan. To the extent that these contingency-specific forces consume a slice of China’s defense spending, the PLA’s requirement to fight and win against the island and to defeat third-party intervention constitutes a kind of tax on its global ambitions.
This apparent resource tradeoff should be subjected to close study. American and allied policymakers should have a better sense of the price China must pay for going global to inform their strategies for a long-term competition. They should test whether the opportunity costs between China’s general-purpose forces for expeditionary missions and its contingency-specific forces for a Taiwan confrontation pose meaningful fiscal dilemmas.
It is not clear whether the PLA’s dual force structure for local conflicts and global operations is sustainable over the long haul. It may very well prove overly burdensome. Whether China can go global, despite the resources that Taiwan and other close-by disputes continue to consume, remains a critical question for the Chinese leadership and military brass. This uncertainty will grow more acute as China runs into economic headwinds that have been building well before the budget-busting COVID-19 crisis.
Forcing Harder Choices on Beijing
If China’s global ambitions impose a discernible opportunity cost on its military capabilities over Taiwan and vice versa, then the United States and its allies possess leverage to steer Beijing’s resourcing decisions. Washington and allied capitals can exacerbate China’s global-local dilemma by pursuing strategies that compel Beijing to dilute its scarce capital across its priorities close to home and its prerogatives beyond the Western Pacific.
The PLA is seeking local preponderance in maritime Asia and has exhibited interest in obtaining overseas access and presence across the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Thus, the debate on whether the United States and its allies should hem in China behind the first island chain—the transnational archipelago that runs from Japan to the Philippines—or whether they should draw out the PLA to the open oceans where the allies excel in blue-water combat presents a false choice. The allies must prepare to compete near and far from China’s backyard.
Initiatives aimed at driving up the costs of Chinese aggression against Taiwan could rivet the PLA’s attention to the island, drawing investments away from Beijing’s global plans. Conversely, measures that target the PLA’s vulnerabilities in distant theaters could siphon spending from warfighting capabilities for a cross-Strait contingency, thereby undermining a core mission of the Chinese armed forces. Washington and its partners should maneuver Beijing onto the horns of a dilemma, steepening the costs of the choices Chinese leaders must make about their defense priorities.
Frontline states, such as Taiwan and Japan, have already begun to invest in capabilities to raise the costs of Chinese aggression in offshore areas. They have acquired anti-access weapons of their own, including ship-killing missile units, that would increase the PLA’s risks of operating in the littorals. The US military is also developing operational concepts that would enable its forces to operate well inside the range of Chinese firepower and to fight PLA forces with dispersed, composable, survivable, and lethal units. Allied efforts to enhance resilience against China’s first-mover advantage, such as measures to harden basing infrastructure, would further erode Beijing’s confidence in its war plans. The United States has drawn closer to Taiwan in recent years and it needs to adopt new policies that further loosen constraints on US military ties with the island. Others, such as Japan, should follow suit.
Moreover, a future conflict over Taiwan would likely expand beyond the first island chain. In addition to deep strikes against targets located as far as Guam, the PLA could conduct long-range attacks from the manmade Spratly bases toward the Sulu and Philippine Seas and the Bay of Bengal. Those manmade islands can host missiles, aircraft, warships, and sensors, forming a formidable bastion and launch pad in the heart of the South China Sea. The Chinese navy could dispatch surface action groups and attack submarines to prowl the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific to disrupt allied operations. In the future, forward-deployed PLA forces would already be positioned along key sea lanes that the US Navy relies on to surge or swing forces from one theater to another.
The allies must therefore be prepared to wage war against the globalizing PLA in multiple theaters, some located far from the Chinese homeland. The United States and its allied partners should be poised to aggravate the global-local dilemma by rendering the operational environment inhospitable to China’s prospective expeditionary forces and overseas presence. Furthermore, they should hone their skills to hold at risk China’s expeditionary fleet and the sea lines of communications that supply its forward-deployed forces. The ability to cut off PLA units operating in distant regions would exploit the inherent logistical difficulties of sustaining global operations and would deepen Beijing’s paranoia about losing command and control of its forces.
The goal is to sow doubt in the minds of Chinese decisionmakers about their prospects for success in a cross-Strait war and about the survivability of their power projection assets in faraway theaters. If the allied measures above stimulated enough fear, Beijing could be compelled to spend more to alleviate the global-local dilemma than it would otherwise prefer or to prioritize capabilities for one front at the expense of the other. Either outcome would likely slow, if not complicate, China’s global and local ambitions.
To be sure, a cost-informed analysis might find that the tradeoffs between China’s globally and locally oriented forces may not be as sharp as one might assume. For one thing, contingency-specific and general-purpose forces are not mutually exclusive in their functions. The PLA’s expeditionary forces add to Beijing’s ability to coerce or defeat Taiwan. They would multiply the lethality of those units assigned specifically to wage war against the island. For another, Beijing has shown over the past decade that it possesses the wealth to construct power projection forces at an impressive scale and speed, even as it has simultaneously deployed a powerful deterrent force against Taiwan and other local flashpoints. Perhaps China can have it both ways.
Even if that were the case, it would still behoove the United States and its allies to force more difficult choices on Chinese leaders and to induce Beijing to feel less confident about its ability to manage the global-local dilemma. Doing something would be preferable to doing nothing at all. Efforts to impose opportunity costs, even marginal ones, would do more to preclude Beijing from gaining strength unimpeded. Such moves may even postpone China’s plans, buying precious time for the United States and its partners to organize resistance. There is a critical need for sustained high-level discussions between senior military planners in the United States and Taiwan on how best to force difficult choices on Chinese leaders.
Finally, China’s global-local dilemma shows that Taiwan’s future will not only determine Asia’s power balance, but it will also influence Chinese decisions as Beijing extends its influence beyond the Western Pacific. Indeed, China’s path to preeminence overseas runs through Taiwan. So long as the island keeps Beijing at arm’s length, Chinese leaders will not have the luxury of going global unconstrained. In addition to Taiwan’s geostrategic centrality, economic dynamism, and democratic vibrancy, the island’s salutary role in complicating China’s expansion abroad will further cement its unassailable importance to regional and global security.
The main point: While much has been made of China’s increasingly globalized military operations, Beijing will face difficult decisions in determining how to allocate its defense spending in coming years. In order to make these choices more challenging, the US and its allies should work to strengthen Taiwan’s defense and enhance their own deterrent capabilities.