China on Its Way to Becoming Powerful Enough 'to Beat Any Military in the World,' U.S. Says

A new Pentagon report has detailed the rise of China's armed forces, criticizing what the U.S. military has viewed as an increasingly serious challenge to its own global interests.

The Defense Department published a news release on Wednesday to accompany the "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China" report it published earlier this week and presented to Congress. The document painted China's initiatives to expand its economic clout and the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) as malign measures intended to boost Beijing's world influence at the expense of other countries, including the U.S., in the region the Pentagon calls the Indo-Pacific.

As reported in the news release, "the Chinese government seeks to overturn the established international order that has kept the peace in the region since World War II and allowed Asian countries to develop." Chinese President Xi Jinping apparently planned to accomplish this through the "One Belt, One Road" project, which improves Chinese trade routes in and beyond the continent, as well as through widespread military reforms that the Pentagon said were partially based on quick U.S. victories against Iraq in the early 1990s.

"Chinese military planners looked at what the United States accomplished in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 and charted their way forward. The PLA is fundamentally restructuring to challenge and beat any military in the world," according to the report.

Chinese airborne troops fire rocket launchers during a training exercise in this photo shared as part of a Chinese People's Liberation Army report published July 18. China has begun training its troops for new types of combat, including on new terrain and in cyberspace. Chinese People's Liberation Army/

China—which "is not an enemy" but "certainly an adversary of the United States"—maintained the world's largest armed forces, and Xi has rapidly invested in modernizing their warfighting capabilities, according to the report. The reforms include streamlining ground forces to make room for new technologies and to enhance the country's naval power in the South China Sea, a region in which Washington and other governments have opposed Beijing's sprawling territorial claims. The U.S. has accused China of militarizing a set of islets and reefs known as the Spratly Islands, to which China has moved military and civilian infrastructure in what Beijing has argued was a legitimate project within its proclaimed sovereign maritime borders.

The report found that "China's construction in the Spratly Islands demonstrates China's capacity—and a newfound willingness to exercise that capacity to strengthen China's control over disputed areas, enhance China's presence and challenge other claimants." One of these claimants, Taiwan, has also been the declared the target of numerous Chinese naval drills, which the country's military leadership has described as reminders that the self-ruling island nation of Taiwan was just a renegade Chinese province that would never gain full independence. The report stated that "the PLA has rapidly expanded its overwater bomber operating areas, gaining experience in critical maritime regions and likely training for strikes against U.S. and allied targets."

China's growing international economic network also has the U.S. concerned. The "One Belt, One Road" Initiative has forged new ties between Beijing and countries across Asia, including in the Middle East, and in Africa and Europe. The result has been greater competition for the U.S., which is currently locked in a bitter trade dispute not only with China but with Canada, the European Union, India, Mexico and Russia. The Pentagon report highlighted Chinese opposition to South Korea's deployment of the advanced, U.S.-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system as an example of Beijing's financial strong-arming, saying China hit South Korea with trade restrictions after the eventual installment of the system and "China's economic muscle movement had to be noted in other global capitals," according to the report.

The vast extension of China's economic infrastructure has a military dimension as well. China has begun training its armed forces for more overseas deployments to protect Beijing's interests abroad. As the report noted, "the growth of China's global economic footprint make its interests increasingly vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, serious natural disasters and epidemics. This vulnerability places new requirements on the PLA to address these threats."

A map published July 24 shows the projects subsumed under China's One Belt, One Road program. The ambitious initiative seeks to revitalize China's historic trade routes and extend them across the globe. Mercator Institute for China Studies/Reuters

Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian dismissed the report, arguing that "the Chinese military has strengthened its modernization drive in order to safeguard the country's sovereignty, security and development interests, and safeguard world peace, stability, and prosperity. The reform of the Chinese military, the development of weapons and equipment, and the building of cyberspace defense capabilities are justified. The accusations in the U.S. report are pure speculation."

He defended Chinese moves in the South China Sea, asserting that the Spratly Islands and Taiwan were part of China.T he ministry also accused the U.S. military of escalating the situation through "Freedom of Navigation" patrols that "provoke and create tensions, which is the real threat to regional peace and stability."

"The United States has published the so-called "China Military and Security Development Situation Report" year after year, which has damaged Sino-U.S. mutual trust and is inconsistent with the common interests of both sides," the ministry spokesman said. "We demand that the U.S. side abandon the Cold War mentality, objectively and rationally view China's national defense and army building, stop publishing irrelevant reports, and take practical actions to maintain the stable development of relations between the two militaries."