China Rising: New Challenges to the U.S. Security Posture

By Ellis, Jason D.; Koca, Todd M. | Strategic Forum, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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China Rising: New Challenges to the U.S. Security Posture

Ellis, Jason D., Koca, Todd M., Strategic Forum

Key Points

The future strategic capabilities of the People's Republic of China (PRC) will substantially differ from the past; both numerical increases and significant qualitative improvements are likely.

Key information gaps, aggravated by a lack of transparency, hamper our understanding of China's expanding nuclear and missile capabilities, doctrinal innovations, and evolving strategic intentions.

While U.S. and PRC interests intersect in a number of areas, there are also important differences. The status and future disposition of Taiwan is perhaps the single greatest flashpoint for conflict, a case in which U.S. deterrence of a range of PRC military steps may fail and escalation ensue.

A rising power, China is striving to become a heavyweight in Asia. The long-term complementarity of U.S. and PRC interests is predicated in large part on Beijing's strategic choices.

In a context of uncertainty, prudent planning requires that the United States develop and deploy deterrent and defense capabilities that appropriately safeguard national interests.

Some claims by opponents of ballistic missile defense that prospective deployments will trigger a reactive Chinese arms buildup of long-range and/or short-range missile systems tend to confuse cause and effect. China is modernizing and numerically increasing its deployed missile forces; ballistic missile defense is a countermeasure against that buildup, not its cause.


The nature, scope, and viability of the strategic relationship between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United States have emerged as leading security policy issues. Among the many reasons for this are: China's evidently growing defense budget and its military modernization campaign; its often threatening rhetoric over Taiwan; its reputed espionage activities; and disputes over collateral security issues, such as China's continuing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, Beijing's lack of transparency concerning its strategic capabilities and modernization programs, and the intentions that undergird each, make it difficult to confidently forecast China's future direction; yet significant strategic decisions undertaken today will have far-reaching and long-term implications. There is a growing sense among defense analysts and specialists that the future disposition of Chinese strategic forces may only modestly resemble that of the past. Looking ahead, U.S. policymakers must address three central questions: (1) the likely extent of China's strategic modernization; (2) the degree of complementarity of U.S. and PRC regional and strategic interests over time; and (3) the implications of each for U.S. foreign and defense policy.

Evolving Capabilities

There is remarkably little verifiable information on China's military programs and strategic capabilities. The relative absence of accountability and transparency in China's defense establishment, together with the importance of deception in Chinese strategic tradition, underscore the difficulties inherent in credibly assessing PRC strategic capabilities. Unreliable or incomplete open source information and the circular effect of repeated cross-referencing help explain discrepancies in unclassified estimates of China's force posture and attributes.

As the accompanying table illustrates, the approximately 20 Dong Feng (DF)-5/5A intercontinental ballistic missiles constitute the backbone of China's strategic nuclear forces. An aging, liquid-fueled, silo-based, single-warhead system, the DF-5/5A is assessed to be capable of reaching anywhere in the United States. China also maintains a small number of intermediate-range DF-4 missiles and a much larger stock of medium-range and short-range ballistic missiles. The two-stage, solid-fueled DF-21/21A, which is replacing the DF-3/3A, has an estimated 600-kilogram payload and an 1,800-kilometer range; its sea-launched counterpart is the Ju Long (JL)-1.

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