The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) expansion in the western Pacific is aimed at ousting the United States armed forces from the region in the long term so that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can easily assert control and influence over neighbouring regions.
The Sydney-based think tank, the Lowy Institute, has released a paper examining the build-up of PLA maritime and aerospace capabilities, it also found that Australia could no longer rely on sheer proximity from Asia as a defence, and Australian authorities needed to prepare contingencies in case of conflict.
“China appears to be building a force specifically intended to be able to eject the U.S. military from the western Pacific by force, to stare it down in a crisis, or to encourage the United States to step away from its current commitments due to overstretching, defeatism, or frustration with allies,” author Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security wrote.
“While the degree of any such development could vary widely, even a partial withdrawal of U.S. power from the western Pacific would accelerate the ongoing deterioration in the regional military balance, with profound consequences on the freedom of action of regional nations like Australia,” he added.
Shugart noted that if the United States were to vacate the region, it could encourage nations like Japan and South Korea to adopt a neutral role. This would allow Beijing to focus its efforts further afield.
The report outlined Beijing’s build-up included mass production of naval warships, ballistic missiles, and advancements in bomber aircraft in recent times. New airbases in the South China Sea also extended the reach of current PLA bombers.
The PLA has also been expanding its fleet of DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile launchers. The U.S. government estimated in 2018 that the PLA had 16 to 30 launchers. By 2020, the number was over 200.
Beijing’s bomber aircraft, the H-6, has also seen rapid upgrades and new models. From 2009, the PLA Air Force produced the H-6K, H-6J, and the H-6N, the latter of which has the range to strike anywhere in Australia even if dispatched from mainland China.
Further, Beijing’s overall shipbuilding efforts have outstripped the United States in recent years with Beijing building 38 million tonnes of shipping, compared to 70,000 tonnes from the U.S in 2020.
However, in terms of new naval hardware, the United States and the PLA remain on par.
“Were China building a military truly focused on largely defensive objectives, one would expect to see an emphasis on smaller escort ships, coastal defence missiles, fighter aircraft, and the like,” Shugart wrote.
“Instead, China has engaged in the largest and most rapid expansion of maritime and aerospace power in generations. Based on its scope, scale, and specific capabilities, this build-up appears designed foremost to threaten the United States with ejection from the western Pacific, and thereafter to achieve domination in the Indo-Pacific,” he added.
“To be sure, the PLA’s missile forces are not invincible or unstoppable,” he said, noting that U.S. armed forces were likely developing countermeasures to disrupt Beijing’s communication and reconnaissance satellites and, in turn, interrupting any potential offensive.
“One can also imagine robust efforts to disrupt, whether via kinetic means or otherwise, the links and nodes in China’s command and control networks that would be necessary to transmit targeting information from its sensor networks to its missile units,” he said.
In July, 120 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) siloes were discovered in the north-western city of Yumen, indicating an expansion in the CCP’s nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, U.S. and democratic forces have not backed down and have continued carrying out military exercises in the region.