Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Conflating Chinese Military Modernization Goals with a Timeline for Compelling Taiwan

Following a secretive conclave of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee in October 2020, China’s leaders unveiled a new military modernization benchmark set to be achieved by 2027. The goal quickly became fodder for misinformation regarding Beijing’s military ambitions, and confusion about the goal continues to drive bad analysis and reporting today. Most concerningly, some are conflating China’s military modernization goals with a supposed timeline for compelling Taiwan to unify with mainland China. Misreading China’s military modernization goals is dangerous and risks leading to costly miscalculations.

The CCP’s initial announcement about the 2027 goal contained scant details and simply called for “ensuring the achievement of the 2027 centennial military building goal” to mark the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Subsequently released details about the goal were largely boilerplate, echoing existing calls for accelerating the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and “intelligentization” (the employment of AI-enabled systems) while also modernizing military theories, organizational form, training and personnel, and weapons and equipment.

Crucially, the 2027 goal is not a call for expediting the overall timeline for PLA modernization. The benchmark does not replace the long-established goals of “basically complet[ing]” modernization of the military by 2035 and transforming the PLA into a “world-class” force on par with the U.S. military by mid-century. Put more simply, the 2027 goal does not signal a compression of the existing modernization timeline, but rather a doubling down of near-term efforts to ensure that medium- and long-term goals are met.

Nevertheless, some analysts interpreted the 2027 goal as a call for completing the modernization of the Chinese military ahead of schedule. Reports indicate that even some U.S. defense officials mistakenly concluded that the 2027 goal amounts to “an eight year acceleration from 2035.” Within the news media, some reports severely overhyped the goal, claiming that it signals Beijing’s desire for the PLA to be on par with the U.S. military by 2027—more than two decades ahead of what Chinese leaders actually envision.

New misinformation about the 2027 goal has emerged in recent weeks—this time in response to assessments included in the annual U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) report to Congress on China’s military power, which was released in early November. News coverage of the report in Taiwan and elsewhere frequently featured eye-catching headlines asserting that Beijing “plans to force Taiwan to [the] negotiating table by 2027.”

This interpretation is incorrect. The DoD report does not include an assessment that China will take military action in 2027, or at any specific time. The DoD report does state that if the 2027 goals are met, “this would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”[1] It also notes that (unspecified) Chinese media sources have linked the 2027 goal to providing China with the capability to compel Taiwan to the negotiating table, but the report does not indicate that this is DoD’s own assessment. Notably, the report’s conclusions are similar to statements made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, in which he notes that China wants the ability to invade and hold Taiwan by 2027 but may not intend to invade in the near-term. This is a crucial distinction. Having the capability to invade Taiwan is not the same as having the intent to invade the island.

Failing to accurately interpret China’s goals for 2027 is dangerous for three key reasons. First, the suggestion that Beijing has a definitive, knowable timetable for confronting Taiwan militarily gives a false impression of security that Taiwan will be safe from military invasion for another five to six years. China’s assessed intent to acquire the capabilities to mount an invasion by 2027 does not mean that China will not invade prior to 2027. Taiwan has significant agency here. For example, if Beijing interprets actions by Taipei as a move toward formal independence, Chinese leaders may conclude that an invasion is the only option left. Put differently, it is possible that any number of developments could compel Beijing to launch an invasion before 2027, even if it means doing so at great cost and before the PLA is better prepared to execute such complex operations.

Overstating China’s ambitions for 2027 also leads to a false sense of inevitability. Even if China does muster the capabilities to successfully invade and hold Taiwan by 2027, that does not necessarily mean China will ever choose to do so. China will almost certainly suffer significant diplomatic, economic, and military repercussions should it decide to invade Taiwan. A kinetic military invasion is likely an option of last resort for Beijing, and it is highly unlikely that any Chinese leader would base such a decision purely on whether the PLA has sufficient capabilities. Larger strategic and political calculations are sure to play a role.

Finally, misinterpreting China’s goals for 2027 could lead the United States and its allies to make costly mistakes when designing the optimal future military force structure and posture. Under conditions of limited resources, decisionmakers need to take into account time horizons when making choices about force structure and readiness. If a potential conflict with China is likelier in the short- or medium-term, military leaders would need to forego long-term investments in new capabilities and prioritize certain measures—such as immediately shifting forces to the Indo-Pacific or delaying the retirement of legacy platforms—to enhance readiness. If a conflict with China is likelier in the long-term (for example in the 2030s), decisionmakers could focus on investing in new technologies, platforms, and doctrines that may take longer to develop and adopt.

It is critical that the United States and its allies get this right; the presence of their military forces in the Indo-Pacific is crucial to deterring potential Chinese military aggression. Given the currently available evidence, it would be extremely risky for Washington and its partners to base their diplomatic and military plans for the region on the assumption that China will move to compel Taiwan militarily in or by 2027.

Leaders in Washington and allied capitals must not allow their decisions on these matters to be colored by misinformation about China’s goals. There are a bevy of factors that could lead China to make a move—or not—at any time. Assuming that PLA capabilities are the sole variable, or even the main variable, in Beijing’s calculus would be a costly and dangerous mistake.

[1] The DoD report’s multiple assessments on this issue reflect varying degrees of confidence. Twice the report states that realizing the 2027 goal “could” provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency, while elsewhere the report states that it “would” provide Beijing with more credible military options.

(Photo Credit: GUANG NIU/POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

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