During a meeting with delegates from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force at the Fourteenth National People’s Congress in March 2023, Xi Jinping called for the improvement of China’s ‘integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities’ and to ‘accelerate the modernisation of [the] army as a world-class armed force’. His speech was seen as a signal of China’s intention to speed up its military transformation. Indeed, in the new government budget announced in March 2023, Beijing revealed a yearly budget of RMB 1.55 trillion (USD 224.8 billion), marking a 7.2 percent increase from the 2022 budget.
Australia is increasingly concerned about China’s military ambitions. The Defence Strategic Review 2023, released on 24 April 2023, suggests that ‘China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second world War’. Whether the statement is true or not, it warns that China’s military rise, ‘without transparency or reassurance to the Indo-Pacific region… threatens the global rules-based order…that adversely impacts Australia’s national interests’. According to the Lowy Institute Poll 2022, 75 percent of Australians believe that China is very likely or somewhat likely to become a military threat to Australia in the next twenty years; 88 percent said they were either very or somewhat concerned about China potentially opening a military base in a Pacific Island country.
The governments of the United States (US) and its allies are certainly responding to China’s military rise. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a diplomatic and security network consisting of Australia, the US, India and Japan, was revived in 2017 to promote ‘an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient’. Since 2015, the US Navy has been patrolling in the South China Sea. By 23 March 2023, the US Navy has conducted 43 reported freedom of navigation operations in the area. Particularly, during the Trump administration, it navigated once every two months between 2018 and 2020. Moreover, in September 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the US announced a trilateral security pact, known as AUKUS. On 13 March 2023, the three countries agreed to increase nuclear submarine (SSN) port visits and training in Australia. More significantly, Australia will purchase at least three Virginia-class SSNs from the US in the 2030s and build its first SSN with technical support from the two countries in the 2040s.
Some media outlets have been hyping up the possibility of war with China, suggesting China will invade Taiwan by 2026 or engage in a war with the US over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. However, many China analysts have argued these claims are exaggerated and ‘devoid of concrete analyses on China’s intention and capability’. So, how much should Australia and its allies fear the PLA? While there are numerous intelligence and defence reports available, mostly from Washington, the public needs more context to understand China’s military rise.
Military Transformation Under Xi Jinping
Amidst China’s economic development, it has steadily increased its defence spending and military capability over the past three decades. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s military budget has increased by an average of 13 percent annually, with spending around 5 percent of the government’s total budget throughout the last decade. The PLA has developed numerous new types of military equipment, including the J-20 fighters, Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, Shang-II-class SSNs, aircraft carriers, DF-41 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and other materiel researched, designed, and built in China.
China’s military rise appears to have become more ambitious during the mid-2010s. The country has been in the thrall of the ‘strong army dream’ 强军梦, an integral part of the goal of national rejuvenation. Xi Jinping, who is the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, also made a few speeches on China’s military modernisation. For instance, in 2013, he advocated building armed forces that would ‘obey the Party’s command, that are able to fight and to win, and that maintain excellent conduct’ in order to ‘safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests’. In a series of speeches around 2016, he described the goal of PLA modernisation as being to ‘achieve the goal of a strong army’ and ‘build a world-class military’. In 2017, he set out the three milestones for PLA development: basic mechanisation and major progress in ‘informatisation’ 信息化 by 2020, modernisation of national defence by 2035, and building an all-round world-class military by mid-century. As a political rhetoric, the military’s three milestones echo the Party’s ‘Two Centennial Goals’; as military objectives, Chinese commentators and scholars describe the world-class military as having world-class operational theories, personnel, training, weapons and equipment, law-based management, combat power, innovation abilities. Some also use these milestones to address the military’s shortcoming in mechanisation, informatisation, intellectualisation and operation.
The PLA has undergone several significant reforms during this period. In 2015, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) was established to coordinate China’s arsenal of land-based ballistic missiles, including nuclear weapons. In 2016, the PLA reorganised its seven theatre commands into five, each designed to counter different security threats: Eastern Theatre Command is responsible for Taiwan, Southern Theatre Command for the South China Sea, Western Theatre Command for the Sino-Indian border, and Northern Theatre Command for North Korea. In 2019, the Central Military Commission adopted a new military strategy for the PLA titled ‘Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Era’ to address the shift of strategic assessment outlined in the 2019 National Defence White Paper aimed at countering growing threats from the US and Taiwan. However, as Joel Wuthnow and M. Taylor Fravel have suggested, this ‘new’ strategy was proposed against the backdrop of Xi’s ideological consolidation and indicated little operational or strategic changes. Concepts from previous military doctrines, such as ‘near sea active defence’, ‘informatisation war’ and ‘integrated joint operations’, are still included in the 2019 military doctrine.
Xi’s speech at the Two Sessions merely summarises China’s continual military development, rather than signifying substantial changes in the timeline of national defence modernisation. The PLA is still gradually addressing its technological and operational limitations. The State Council Institutional Reform Plan 2023 unveiled significant steps to restructure the Ministry of Science and Technology, including the establishment of a Central Commission on Science and Technology 中央科技委员会 to enhance the Party’s leadership over scientific and technological development.
The reform intended to ‘[push] forward the building of a national innovation system and structural scientific and technological reform, [study] and deliberating major strategies, plans and policies for the country’s sci-tech development, and coordinat[e] efforts to resolve major issues of strategic, guiding and fundamental significance in the sci-tech sector’. Although the PLA’s structure is not affected by the reform, the goal of the reform, including to address the limitation of technological self-reliance and promoting integrated research between civil and the military, falls in line with some of the PLA’s objectives in its military modernisation. Defence science and technology has been crucial in China’s technological innovation, so institutional reform in science and technology is relevant to national defence modernisation. Following the State Council reform focused on the sci-tech sector this year, we should see further reforms within the PLA to ground force, logistics and maintenance support, military staff training, and integrated warfare.
Will China Wage a War?
The large-scale military exercises around Taiwan in early April (as a response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy) suggest that the PLA has become more capable in integrated warfare and deployment of aircraft carriers. Nonetheless, military capability building is a gradual process. While the PLA has the budget and resources for research development, personnel training lags behind technological advances. For instance, a report from the US Naval War College suggests that the Chinese navy has ‘faced tremendous pressure to keep pace with the rapid expansion and modernisation of the [naval] surface fleet and its growing mission set’. According to an article published in a Chinese military magazine last year, the PLA Navy needs at least 200 pilots for its aircraft carriers, but it lacks of a fighter trainer specifically designed for carrier-based operations. Therefore, although the PLA Navy built its third aircraft carrier last year, construction of the fourth one was stalled. More importantly, apart from the a border skirmish with Vietnam in 1979 and a minor naval battle at the Johnson South Reef in 1988, also against Vietnam, the PLA has not fought in a war for more than four decades. It still lacks experience in warfare.
Multiple organisations in the US, including the US Air Force and the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), have already simulated few war games of the PLA pursuing military operation against Taiwan, but with varying results. Some suggest that in a war between China and Taiwan, China would likely win. However, we should factor in US domestic political consideration in the hype of a war scenario. The outcome of those war game simulation needs to be weighed against the fact that there are often intentionally skewed in favour of US forces in order to strive for more resources for national defence.
Whether China has the capability to wage war, and whether China will go to war are two different questions. As the US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the House Intelligence Committee, ‘It is not our assessment that China wants to go to war’. The concept of a world-class military, as Taylor Fravel, an expert in Chinese military strategy, argued, does not ‘illuminate the PLA’s global ambitions or how it envisions using force’. It has limited geopolitical implication of where China would project its military power. Rather, it expresses ‘China’s aspiration to become a leading military power in the world’. It is essential to distinguish the differences between China’s military ambition and policy outcomes.
Launching a war in the Indo-Pacific is complicated. Strategically as well as politically, the PRC would prefer to win Taiwan without fighting. It needs to consider the consequences of sanctions and sea lane supply blockages from the West if there is a war across the Strait.
Will AUKUS Help to Deter China’s Military Rise?
There is no doubt China’s military capability is on the rise. The AUKUS security pact has been described as a ‘demonstration of unity and resolve is as powerful deterrence signal to the region’. To the US, AUKUS indicates its commitment in maintaining its pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific. To Australia, AUKUS suggests Australia is more likely to rely on ‘the US committing to the “integrated deterrence” approach that the Biden administration set out in its 2022 Indo-Pacific strategy’. As Ben Herscovitch suggests, ‘if Australia chooses to deploy its nuclear-powered submarines in support of a US-led effort to defend Taiwan, then AUKUS will have made China’s military goals harder to achieve’.
However, it is important to note that the submarines themselves do not serve as a deterrent. The AUD 368 billion deal is a long-term process, and the first of the new submarines are not expected to be delivered until at least the 2040s. By that time, it is likely that the PLA will have developed sufficient means for countering the AUKUS-class submarines, such as anti-ship missiles, SSNs, and ballistic missile nuclear submarines, which China is currently building. In fact, the US Congress Research Service report suggested in 2022 it is likely China will have a new class of SSN by the mid-2020s. Furthermore, China’s naval development consists of an aspiration to expand its influence globally, beyond the close water of Taiwan, in which a submarine deal is simply incapable to deter.
What, then, is AUKUS for? Since the deal was announced in March 2023, Australian experts have debated its strategic implications. As the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen submits, there is a bigger question the Albanese government must answer: ‘how exactly will these submarines make Australia safer’? Australia must take China’s military rise seriously, but it is not helpful to assume this will lead to war. Instead, Canberra should approach this comprehensively and cautiously, and develop a clearer understanding of China’s military rise under Xi Jinping as well as its strategic goals and institutional reforms. There also needs to be a wider and more constructive public debate about the best ways to respond to China’s rise and safeguard Australia’s security in the broadest sense of the term.
 However, the official defence budget in China can sometimes be misleading, as some research and development may fall under the category of science and technology. See: China Power Team, ‘Making sense of China’s government budget’, China Power, 15 March 2023, online at: https://chinapower.csis.org/making-sense-of-chinas-government-budget/
 For China’s naval capability building, see: Chan, Edward Sing Yue (2021), China’s Maritime Security Strategy: The Evolution of a Growing Sea Power. Routledge. Congressional Research Service (2022), China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress, RL33153.
 See: Rory Medcalf, ‘The AUKUS debate needs clear reasoning, not hot air’, Australian Financial Review, 24 March 2023, online at: https://www.afr.com/policy/foreign-affairs/the-aukus-debate-needs-clear-reasoning-not-hot-air-20230322-p5cugo; Stephen Nagy and Jonathan Ping, ‘The end of the normative middle power ship’, Australian Outlook, 13 March 2023, online at: https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-end-of-the-normative-middle-power-ship/; Matthew Sussex, ‘Time to grow up: Australia’s national security dilemma demands a mature debate’, The Conversation, 24 March 2023, online at: https://theconversation.com/time-to-grow-up-australias-national-security-dilemma-demands-a-mature-debate-202040; and Sam Roggeveen, ‘What “Utopia” got
wrong about China and defence policy’, The Interpreter, 6 April 2023, online at: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/what-utopia-got-wrong-about-china-defence-policy