For nearly 10 years, Beijing has been tightening its grip on strategic zones within its sphere of influence, notably in the South China Sea. Now, according to the Pentagon’s 2018 annual report on China’s military power, that buildup is coming of age: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has ramped up not only its land army but also its naval and other capabilities to the extent that it could “degrade core US operational and technological advantages.” As a result, the PLA has the capacity to control these contested and strategically important waters in almost every scenario, barring all-out war with the US.
Though Chinese military might still does not match America’s, Beijing has caught Washington and its allies on the back foot and shifted the balance of power in the Pacific. There are now major implications for US interests in the open seas, where American warships have moved unrivalled since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Change has been rapid, having accelerated after Xi Jinping took the premiership five years ago. Keen to project “blue water” power and protect China’s growing global interests, he has purged commanders accused of corruption and declared that “building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today.” The Chinese military has long focused on fending off invaders by land but, since 2015, has shed around 300,000 enlisted soldiers and officers. Despite previous denials, Chinese officials now admit that Beijing has militarized the Spratly Islands and other key shoals in the South China Sea, deploying missiles there, escalating tensions and putting waters between the Philippines and Vietnam in range.