Fall/Winter 2014
Number 27

The China Threat, 2014 Edition

By
Bill Gertz

The United States has underestimated the People’s Republic of China, its strategy, intentions, capabilities, and the nature of its system for decades. From its rapidly expanding and increasingly lethal high-technology conventional and strategic military capabilities to its large-scale theft of government and corporate secrets through cyber espionage, China today poses what is perhaps the greatest long-term threat to U.S. security and interests. This, despite the fact that trade and economic relations between the United States and the world’s most populous nation remain steadfast and interconnected.

Misjudgments about Chinese strategy, policies and activities abound in Washington, where a closed circle of China hands in government and academia have obfuscated about the nature of China’s system as a way of preventing what they regard as the emergence of an overstated new threat from China. Culpable, too, are business leaders and former government officials-turned-commercial consultants who benefit directly from Chinese government largesse. With U.S. trade with China worth $600 billion annually and mutual investments totaling around $100 billion, the stakes are high for the business community to avoid antagonizing China.

But three decades of U.S. policies toward China that failed to fully grasp the main ideological character and motivations of the Chinese regime have produced a comprehensive challenge that today is being played out economically, diplomatically and politically—and eventually may be played out militarily as well, unless steps are taken to correct course. The China Threat, the title of my 2000 book, was a word play on a Chinese government propaganda slogan called “The China Threat Theory.” According to defectors from China, monitoring levels of those who regard China as a threat around the world remains one of the highest priorities for Chinese diplomats, intelligence personnel and state-run media representatives. Measuring the “China Threat Theory” abroad is used in calculations for the pace and scope of modernization policies that are used by the Communist Party of China to maintain its control over the country’s 1.3 billion people. It is also the basis of Beijing’s use of sophisticated influence and propaganda efforts to counter it.

China’s leaders insist that those who oppose CCP rule have trumped up the “China Threat Theory” based upon anti-communist impulses. They argue that China is being victimized by the West and unfairly tarred as an aggressive, hegemonistic future superpower aiming to regain the status it once held regionally. Yet the emerging Chinese empire of the 21st century will not be limited to merely controlling the Asia-Pacific. China today is seeking inroads and influence among the nations of Europe, Africa, and South America. China, along with Russia, also is taking aim at the vast untapped resources of the Arctic. And in Asia, Chinese expansionism, manifested in the military bullying of its neighbors and vast claims over others’ waters and territory, has exponentially increased the danger of a new regional conflict.

The political threat

President Obama came into office on a platform of opposing the Bush administration’s “war on terror” generally, and specifically the extension of that war to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As a way of shifting focus, his administration adopted what came to be called the “Asia pivot”: a deliberate shift in focus and resources to Asia. But this effort has been repeatedly undermined in recent years on several fronts. The first has been the U.S. budget crisis, which has limited the ability of the U.S. military to move forces into the Asia-Pacific in a significant way. The second is Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, namely the annexation of Crimea and ongoing covert destabilization in southern and eastern Ukraine. Last has been the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the ultra-violent al-Qaeda offshoot that re-emerged during the civil war in Syria and by mid-2014 had launched an invasion of Iraq that included the seizure of Mosul, the second-largest city in the country.

As a result, the White House has gravitated toward the notion of China as a benign regional actor. In November, Secretary of State John Kerry, in a major speech on China policy, followed the pattern of past senior officials by wishing away differences with China on maritime disputes, human rights and other areas by praising the number of summits and meetings of senior officials that have been held, despite the fact that the meetings and diplomacy have done little to bridge the fundamental differences. Kerry summed up his policy speech with the hope that “the United States and China—who are both blessed with great strength, with ample resources, with extraordinary people—can do important things now and can do them together.”(1)

The Administration’s hopes, however, have done little to dissuade China’s actions or policies. Indeed, cooperation with China has not produced a more benign relationship. And, while some argue that China still lags behind the United States in its use of soft power, there is ample evidence that it is engaged in a type of unconventional, non-kinetic warfare against the United States already.

For instance, a Pentagon-sponsored study produced for the Office of the Secretary of Defense reveals that China is waging political warfare against the United States as part of its strategy of seeking to drive the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region. The study, entitled “China’s Three Warfares,” was produced for the Office of Net Assessment. It outlines the employment of three types of warfare—legal, psychological and media—currently being used by Beijing as surrogates for conventional and nuclear warfare.(2)

“The Three Warfares is a dynamic three-dimensional war-fighting process that constitutes war by other means,” according to Cambridge University professor Stefan Halper, who directed the study. “It is China’s weapon of choice in the South China Sea.”(3)

There, China has imposed what it calls a “Nine-Dash Line” covering about 80 percent of the sea and has claimed the waters as its own territorial waters. The Chinese declaration includes the disputed Parcel Islands in the northern part of the sea, and the Spratlys in the southern area. China in late 2013 announced it was setting up a new legal authority to administer the area of the Nine-Dash Line, putting Beijing at odds with Vietnam and Philippines, which claim the Paracels and Spratlys as their islets.

China carried out one of its most provocative encounters with the United States on December 5, 2013. That’s when the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which was sailing in the northern South China Sea, encountered a Chinese navy amphibious ship that sailed in front of the Cowpens and stopped some 100 yards from a collision. The Cowpens veered sharply to avoid the collision and the Pentagon denounced the action as a dangerous maneuver.

Tensions were further heightened the following August, when a Chinese J-11 interceptor jet flew within 20 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft over the South China Sea. The incident, which took place in international airspace, was denounced by the Pentagon as an “unsafe and unprofessional intercept, which posed a risk to the safety and the well-being of the air crew and was inconsistent with customary international law.”(4) In response, China, following its “Three Warfares” playbook, denounced the Pentagon, denied its pilot flew in a reckless manner, and falsely asserted that the Chinese pilot had operated professionally. But the provocation followed a pattern of increasingly aggressive aerial intercepts that began in late 2013 and involved other close calls with U.S. aircraft in March, April and May of 2014.(5)

China’s use of political warfare techniques is aimed at acquiring territory, resources and influence. “China’s Three Warfares [are] designed to counter U.S. power projection,” the Net Assessment report says. “The United States is one of four key audiences targeted by the campaign, as part of China’s broader military strategy of ‘anti-access/area denial’ in the South China Sea.”(6) The goal of this political warfare is to create doubts about the legitimacy of the U.S. military presence in Asia, an important first step in China’s long-range objective of forcing the United States to remove its forces from the region and diminishing its relationship with other regional states.

The military threat

The term “Anti-Access/Area Denial” is the Pentagon’s buzz phrase for China’s high-technology weapons—offensive capabilities designed specifically to defeat U.S. and allied forces in a regional conflict. They include an array of weapons and capabilities that pose asymmetric threats to strategic U.S. military advantages. Some of these weapons are widely known. Many others are in their late testing and development stages, and are closely guarded secrets.

The Chinese military threat is very different from the pattern of development used by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when bomber gaps and missile gaps emphasized developing a balance of both conventional and strategic nuclear forces to maintain a geopolitical equilibrium. In the case of China, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not attempting to match the United States weapons system for weapons system. Rather, the Chinese approach is to develop asymmetric warfare means, dubbed “assassin’s mace” weaponry. The concept is derived from China’s Warring States Era (roughly 475 BC to 221 BC), during which niche war-fighting capabilities were developed that allowed weaker states to defeat a more powerful and better-armed foe.

China has developed five key areas of “assassin’s mace” weapons. They include anti-aircraft-carrier weapons; space and anti-satellite weapons; cyber warfare and cyber espionage capabilities; strategic nuclear forces; and anti-missile defense capabilities. In all five, the Chinese military is either ahead of the United States or within close range of matching comparable U.S. military capabilities. This reality runs counter to the widespread notion that up until a few years ago had dismissed Chinese forces as essentially a “junkyard army” saddled with large ground forces equipped with obsolete weapons and lacking sufficient command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to wage modern, combined arms warfare. The new PLA, in other words, has gone largely underestimated. And because it has, a large segment of the U.S. government and military do not understand the nature of the contemporary threat from China.

To defeat American carriers, which represent the most important power projection capabilities for the United States in Asia, the Chinese are developing advanced attack submarines and a unique anti-ship ballistic missile—a space-transiting high-speed missile with enough accuracy to be able to attack an aircraft carrier at sea. Senior Navy officials have said that although the Dong Feng-21D or “East Wind” anti-ship ballistic missile has undergone limited testing it is considered in the early stages of what is called its initial operating capability.(7) The DF-21D is a lethal weapon for which the U.S. Navy currently has limited defenses. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, has said the current strategy for countering the missile is to disrupt its “kill chain”—the string of sensors that are part of the long-range targeting mechanism.(8)

For space weaponry, China has developed a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile that has been tested several times, most notably in 2007, when one of the missiles blasted an aging weather satellite and produced tens of thousands of pieces of debris that continue to hit both manned and unmanned satellites. Other Chinese space weapons include ground-fired lasers that can disrupt the optics of photographic reconnaissance satellites, and small, maneuvering satellites with robotic arms that can grab or smash orbiting satellites.

Chinese anti-satellite warfare was a key factor in the Pentagon’s development, beginning in the mid-2000s, of a new battle concept called Air Sea Battle. Based on annual military exercises, the Air Force and Navy realized that with a salvo of 20 anti-satellite missiles targeting key U.S. military communications and intelligence satellites, military operations by high-tech U.S. forces could be stymied.

The Chinese cyber warfare threat has been present for nearly a decade but only gained public attention in the past several years, after a series of high-profile cyber espionage cases, notably the 2009 cyber attacks against Google and other U.S. corporations that were dubbed Operation Aurora. The forces that carried out the attack were revealed by security researchers in 2014 to be a group of government-linked cyber spies known as the Axiom Group, who conducted a massive and global campaign to steal both government and private sector secrets of benefit to the Chinese systems.(9)

On May 1, 2014, the Justice Department for the first time made public another element of the Chinese cyber threat when it indicted five PLA officers who are part the PLA’s General Staff Third Department, the electronic intelligence agency known as 3PLA, and a Shanghai-based group called Unit 61398. The hackers, according to court documents in the case, worked as technology consultants to Chinese state-run industries. The Chinese firms were given the stolen U.S. trade secrets; the State Nuclear Power Technology Corp., for example, was the recipient of stolen data on Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor. The cyber espionage followed Westinghouse’s deal with State Nuclear Power in May 2013.

These cyber attacks are part of China’s comprehensive centralized modernization program. They are used by Chinese civilian and military intelligence services in a coordinated program to benefit Chinese industries and government agencies. In early 2014, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board was the first to disclose that secrets relating to the F-35 fighter project had been obtained by the Chinese through cyber espionage.(10) U.S. officials said the Chinese successfully used its cyber spies to penetrate a British subcontractor for the F-35.

The nuclear threat

China’s government regularly issues public pronouncements designed to portray the development of its military forces as non-threatening and strictly defensive in nature. However, on October 28, 2013, China’s Communist Party–affiliated Global Times newspaper published an unprecedented article revealing PLA plans to conduct submarine-launched nuclear missile strikes on the United States.(11) Using maps of a nuclear strike zone and resulting radiation plumes over the Pacific Coast, the article stated that attacks on downtown Los Angeles and a nuclear debris plume spreading from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago would kill between 5 million and 12 million Americans. “In general, after a nuclear missile strikes a city, the radioactive dust produced by 20 warheads will be spread by the wind, forming a contaminated area for thousands of kilometers,” the Global Times report said. “The survival probability for people outdoors in a 12,000 to 14,000 kilometer radius is basically zero. Based on the actual level of China’s one million tons TNT equivalent small nuclear warhead technology, the 12 JL-2 nuclear missiles carried by one Type 094 nuclear submarine could cause the destruction of five million to 12 million people, forming a very clear deterrent effect.”(12)

The Obama administration remained silent in response. Spokesmen for the White House, Pentagon and State Department would not comment. Then in November, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, was asked about the Chinese nuclear attack threat and dismissed it as not being credible.(13)

Yet China’s strategic nuclear forces modernization is one of the most significant elements of China’s overall military buildup, and is being carried out in utmost secrecy—on the part of both the Chinese military as well as the limited exposure of the problem by the U.S. government. The covert buildup of nuclear forces includes as many as five new strategic missile systems, most of them deployed on road-mobile launchers and missile submarines. To compound the problem, China’s government and military have refused to engage in substantive discussions about the purpose, scope and capabilities being developed for use in a nuclear conflict. The Chinese believe that any discussion of its nuclear forces will undermine their deterrent value. For Chinese leaders, secrecy is a strategic weapon to be guarded closely, especially as it relates to what Beijing regards as its key adversary, the United States.

The exact number of Chinese nuclear warheads remains a subject of considerable debate. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate China has around 240 strategic nuclear warheads—that is, warheads capable of being used on long-range missiles. But estimates by other private analysts put the number of warheads at higher levels, based on the growing size of China’s missile forces and its fissile material production infrastructure. The former general in charge of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, Gen. Victor Yesin, has stated that the actual number of Chinese strategic warheads is closer to 1,000 and could be as many as 1,500—nearly six times the U.S. intelligence estimate.(14) In December 2014, China conducted the first flight test of a new DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile that U.S. defense officials say was outfitted for the first time with simulated multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. The use of multiple warheads represents a major leap in China’s strategic nuclear forces.

Aside from warheads, perhaps the most significant development within China’s strategic nuclear forces was put on display for U.S. intelligence agencies on January 9, 2014. On that day, China carried out the first test of a hypersonic glide vehicle, a strategic nuclear delivery system launched atop a ballistic missile but which flies along the edge of the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds—between 3,840 miles per hour and 7,680 miles per hour, also known as Mach 5 to Mach 10, respectively. The hypersonic vehicle, called the Wu-14, is part of Chinese strategic nuclear forces and is being designed specifically to defeat U.S. strategic missile defenses, which are currently not designed to knock out maneuvering, high-speed targets.

Misreading Beijing

The threat posed by the People’s Republic of China is serious and has been misunderstood for decades. The problem has been made worse by a lack of American leadership and a failure to understand the character and objectives of the regime in China. Despite its impressive economic achievements, China remains a nuclear-armed communist dictatorship and has shown few signs of initiating political reforms commensurate with the scope and breadth of economic changes it has undergone.

U.S. diplomacy toward China for the past decade has been dominated by summits among leaders and strategic dialogues at lower levels. Yet these meetings, for all of their optics, have produced little in the way of concrete steps that could mitigate the looming confrontation that may be in the offing, based on China’s asserting its hegemony in Asia and elsewhere.

Bill Gertz is National Security Columnist with The Washington Times, and Senior Editor of The Washington Free Beacon. He is the author of six national security books, and editor and publisher of Flash//CRITIC, a news service devoted to the issue of cyber threats (flashcritic.com).


1.    John Kerry, remarks at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, November 4, 2014, http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/11/233705.htm.

2.    Stefan Halper, “China: The Three Warfares,” Report for the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense, May 2013.

3.    As cited in Bill Gertz, “Warfare Three Ways,” Washington Free Beacon, March 26, 2014, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/warfare-three-ways/.

4.    Amaani Lyle, “DoD Registers Concern to China for Dangerous Intercept,” DoD News, August 22, 2014, http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=122997.

5.    Halper, “China: The Three Warfares.”

6.    As cited in Gertz, “Warfare Three Ways.”

7.    See Bill Gertz, “China Has Carrier-Killer Missile, U.S. Admiral Says,” Washington Times, December 27, 2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/dec/27/china-deploying-carrier-... see also Tony Capaccio, “China’s Anti-Carrier Missile Now Opposite Taiwan, Flynn Says,” Bloomberg News, April 18, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-18/china-s-anti-carrier-missile-no....

8.    Bill Gertz, “Chinese Missile Forces Pose Threat to U.S. in Future Conflict,” Washington Free Beacon, July 28, 2014, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/chinese-missile-forces-pose-thre....

9.    See Bill Gertz, “New Chinese Intelligence Unit Linked to Massive Cyber Spying Program,” Washington Free Beacon, October 31, 2014, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/new-chinese-intelligence-unit-li....

10.  Ibid.

11.  Pei Shen, ‘‘China Has Undersea Strategic Nuclear Deterrent against United States for the First Time,’’ Global Times, October 13, 2013.

12.  Ibid.

13.  See Bill Gertz, “Admiral: China Nuclear Missile Submarine Threat is Not Credible,” Washington Free Beacon, November 16, 2013. http://freebeacon.com/national-security/admiral-china-nuclear-missile-su....

14. Aleksey Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin and Sergey Oznobishchev, eds., “Prospects for China’s Participation in Nuclear Arms Limitation,” Georgetown University Asian Arms Control Project, November 8, 2012, http://www.scribd.com/doc/112572145/AAC-China-Nuclear-Limitations-Russia....