The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is on course to become the most significant military force in East Asia after the United States within the next decade, by modernizing to create a military capable of defeating regional forces and credible enough to deter intervention by outside forces. As China expands its area of operations, U.S. and PLA forces will come into contact with increasing frequency, which makes continued U.S.-China strategic consultation critical to avoid accidental confrontations.

Larry Wortzel of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and David Finkelstien, Director of the Chinese Studies Center at the CNA Corporation, offered their assessments of China’s military modernization and the threat it poses to the United States and Asia in the third of Carnegie’s China policy debates. Carnegie senior associate Michael Swaine moderated the event.

Contingencies and capabilities
The first Gulf War “shocked the PLA into confronting the stark reality that it was incapable of fighting twentieth-century warfare,” according to Finkelstein. In 1993 the PLA embarked on a holistic modernization program designed to develop the capabilities necessary for the small, high-technology conflicts typical of the latest generation of warfare.

The PLA also designed its modernization program to prepare for several contingencies. Open-source data indicate that China is preparing for possible conflict with the United States, potentially over Taiwan, and is also focused on being able to defeat Taiwan. Wortzel argued that China is close to achieving that goal and is capable of dominating the militaries of other Asian powers (excepting Japan).

The fact that the United States treats China as an enemy in its strategic planning is a driver of Chinese military planning, according to Wortzel.

Implications for the United States
The potential for miscalculation and misreading of intent are the biggest threats to the PLA and the U.S. armed forces, and as the PLA expands its area of control into parts of the Pacific to which the U.S. has traditionally had unfettered access the potential will increase. Confidence-building measures and regular defense consultations are the best way to reduce the threat posed by the PLA.

However, Wortzel and Finkelstein agreed that as long as China’s decision-making process remains opaque the United States must maintain a sufficient deterrent. The U.S. should also ensure that allies are not selling sensitive military technology to the PLA.

Both participants stressed that while the PLA is preparing for scenarios in which they could engage with the U.S. military, conflict is far from inevitable, given the deep economic and strengthening political ties between the two countries. Continued military-to-military exchange is crucial to preventing an arms race and to reduce the likelihood of unintentionally igniting a security crisis. Each side should make clear what actions will lead to conflict.