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A Pentagon report says China might deploy submarines to the Arctic as a deterrent against nuclear attacks. Photo: Handout

China threatens to blunt US military edge, Pentagon warns

  • China’s growing international reach is adding to mistrust and fuelling US fears of being replaced as world leader, observers say

The Pentagon has warned that China’s military modernisation has the potential to erode core US advantages in technology and operations.

The warning was issued on Thursday in its annual report on developments in the Chinese armed forces, a document that also cautioned about China’s ambitions in the Arctic and the risks presented by Beijing’s “influence operations”.

“China conducts influence operations against cultural institutions, media organisations and the business, academic, and policy communities of the United States, other countries and international institutions to achieve outcomes favourable to its security and military strategy objectives,” the report said.

“Over the coming decades, they [China’s leaders] are focused on realising a powerful and prosperous China that is equipped with a ‘world-class’ military, securing China’s status as a great power with the aim of emerging as the pre-eminent power in the Indo-Pacific region.”

While the report singled out various programmes designed to help realise those ambitions, it also said Beijing had eased off on the public hard sell.

“Recognising that programmes such as Made in China 2025 and ... [the Belt and Road Initiative] have sparked concerns about China’s intentions, China’s leaders have softened their rhetoric when promoting these programmes without altering the programmes’ fundamental strategic goals,” it said.

Military specialists said the report underlined the strong distrust of Beijing in Washington, which was using a “whole-of-government” approach to warn against the security threats posed by China to the US.

“The accusations ... indicate the US is extremely suspicious about China’s military modernisation, which will increase mistrust between the China and the US,” Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said.

US defence report flags China’s expanding military reach in the Arctic

Macau-based military analyst Antony Wong Dong said China’s growing international reach was also adding to the lack of trust.

“China in fact is making use of its economic and cultural strength to increase its global influence. This has fuelled Washington’s suspicions about Beijing’s political and military intentions and deepened the mistrust between the two countries,” Wong said.

The Pentagon report also flagged “China’s expanding capabilities and interest” in the Arctic, saying civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean.

That presence could include “deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks”.

The US report warns about Chinese military activity in the Arctic. Photo: Xinhua

Zhou said the assessment was scaremongering by the US.

“It’s impossible for China to send submarines to the Arctic because none of its submarines is strong enough to cut through or break the ice,” Zhou said.

Collin Koh, a military expert from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the US was responding to activities such as China’s frequent deployment of the Xuelong research ship to the Arctic.

It was also reacting to Beijing’s cosying up to Moscow over the joint exploration of the Northern Sea Route – a shipping route promoted by Russia that runs along the Kara Sea along Siberia to the Bering Strait – he added.

“[The accusation of possible deployment of submarines to the Arctic] could be a pre-emptive warning based on indications it has observed to date. Plus it’s open knowledge that Beijing does have polar ambitions,” Koh said.

“Naturally the hypothesis for future trends will be that where China builds its interests, the military presence shall follow.”

The Pentagon report also said that Beijing was expected to extend the more than two decades of defence spending increases, and maintain the People’s Liberation Army as the world’s second-largest military spender after the US.

In addition, it accused the PLA of cybertheft in its pursuit of becoming a “world-class” military.

“China uses a variety of methods to acquire foreign military and dual-use technologies, including targeted foreign direct investment, cybertheft, and exploitation of private Chinese nationals’ access to these technologies, as well as harnessing its intelligence services, computer intrusions and other illicit approaches,” it said.

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Shanghai-based international relations analyst Shen Dingli said the report reflected the US’ growing anxiety towards China’s expanding global footprint.

“All these discussions and reports about China reflect the US’ fear of it being replaced by China as the world leader and they are thinking about how to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Shen also said the report was a reminder to China to review its US policy and strategy to avoid further complications in bilateral relations.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Pentagon warns of growing Chinese threat to US power