WASHINGTON — In August 2022, after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, China’s military did the talking.
It lobbed ballistic missiles around the island, some landing just inside Japanese waters. More than 20 Chinese aircraft flew across the midpoint between the mainland and Taiwan, a move once considered taboo. The People’s Liberation Army staged elaborate military exercises, rehearsing the parts it could play in an actual invasion.
There were two key aspects of the response: One, the PLA flouted norms — and has kept doing so in the year since — that had kept the Taiwan Strait stable for decades. And two, while China’s government had multiple ways to signal its displeasure at the visit, it chose its military.
This is a new hallmark of Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping, according to the Pentagon’s annual assessment of China’s military strength.
“The [People’s Republic of China] has increasingly turned to the PLA as an instrument of statecraft to advance its foreign policy objectives,” the report noted.
In other words, when China senses a problem abroad, it’s now more likely to use the military to solve it. This approach, say Pentagon officials and outside analysts, has been in the works for years and speaks to the PLA’s weight class.
China has spent decades bolstering its military with the goal to fully become a “world class” force by 2049. That offers challenges for the U.S., which has spent recent years shoring up alliances and partnerships in the vast Indo-Pacific region.
While the U.S. may soon encounter Chinese forces in more areas around the globe, it’s also concerned about China’s desire to unite Taiwan with the mainland, since Beijing considers the island nation a rogue province. And a foreign policy reliant on military force could make an invasion more likely.
“If you go back to 2016, the military element was part of what has been a diplomatic, economic, information, influence and military pressure campaign against Taiwan,” a senior Pentagon official said on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. “What we’ve seen in more recent years is the military playing a more outsized role in that pressure campaign.”
‘A more precise hammer’
Nearly every world power, if not all, uses its military for statecraft — not least the United States. Take for example the two flotillas America rushed to the Middle East after Israel declared war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in October.
China may have longed for such a capability, but lacked the military strength.
Then came Xi Jinping.
Since he took office in 2012, the Chinese president has steered massive amounts of money into the military. It now spends the second-most money on defense with a budget of about $230 billion in 2022, according to the Pentagon report; only America’s defense spending exceeds that amount, with the Defense Department’s fiscal 2022 budget reaching $740 billion.
In October 2022, Xi reaffirmed his goal for the PLA to be capable of unifying Taiwan with the mainland by 2027. By 2035, its modernization effort is to be “basically complete,” the Pentagon noted.
Among the trends noted in the Pentagon’s report are a rise in China’s ballistic missile arsenal, the addition of 30 ships in the People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet, and a growth in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s combat aircraft fleet.
And last year, the Chinese military continued its trend of holding increasingly more military exercises with Russia, one of America’s leading adversaries. The Pentagon anticipates the PLA will host more joint drills with foreign partners in the years ahead.
China’s military is also “very likely” working to grow the number of overseas logistics facilities after the first such base in Djibouti in 2017, the report noted.
“We’re going to have to be prepared for PLA presence, ultimately, in locations where we’re not used to having them,” the Pentagon official said.
Closer to home, China’s military has shown assertiveness in the South China Sea and around Taiwan. The Pentagon has recently released videos showing Chinese jets buzzing past U.S. and allied aircraft in the region. In one example, a Chinese J-11 fighter flew within 10 feet from an American B-52 bomber at night. There were more than 180 of these “coercive and risky” intercepts against American aircraft in the last two years — more than occurred in the previous decade, according to the Pentagon.
This is part of a larger effort by Beijing to use the military as a regional bouncer, per U.S. assessments.
“They’re leaning on the PLA more to try to intimidate, to coerce, to increase risk, and thereby make the U.S. ... and other countries think twice about conducting actions that we have every right to conduct,” the Pentagon official said.
So far, this midair activity has amounted to only close calls. In part, that reflects China’s newfound capabilities. For example, in 2001, one of its aircraft crashed into a U.S. surveillance plane, leading to a short-lived diplomatic crisis.
But today, China’s pilots are more skilled and its aircraft more advanced, allowing them to fly closer to adversaries while avoiding a collision, according to Rod Lee, director of research at the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute.
“They can use the military maybe not as a scalpel, but it is a more precise hammer than it used to be,” Lee told Defense News.
According to Meia Nouwens, a China expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, Beijing may increasingly find diplomacy less appealing when it comes to its relationship with Taipei.
“It just seems like perhaps they’re more willing [to use the PLA] because they have the capability to do so, but also because there are fewer options left for them to explore,” she said.
Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.