Politics & Policy

Evaluating China’s Military Strength

The Department of Defense’s new report provides too little analysis, and arrived too late.

The Department of Defense recently released its long-overdue annual report on China’s military power. The document tells us much about how the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration would like to approach relations with China, and not nearly enough about China’s military modernization. It suggests we have a Congress that does not take the China challenge seriously and a White House that is uncertain how to tackle it.

The problems started with the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which revised the 2000 NDAA — the law that requires an annual DOD report to Congress on China’s military power — in a number of ways. Most noticeably, the 2010 NDAA changed the report’s title from “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” to “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” which obscures the report’s purpose by framing China as a passive actor. China’s development of an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability, for example, is not a military development involving China; it is a decision by China to enhance its military power.

Also, before the 2010 NDAA, the report’s scope included “the tenets and probable development of Chinese grand strategy”; now, Congress has stripped away every mention of “grand strategy.” DOD had in the past been instructed to provide analysis of “trends in Chinese strategy that would be designed to establish [China] as the leading political power in the Asia-Pacific region and as a political and military presence in other regions of the world.” Now, DOD must report on “trends in Chinese security and military behavior that would be designed to achieve, or that are inconsistent with,” “the goals . . . shaping Chinese security strategy and military strategy.”

Further, since its inception, the report’s purpose has been to inform the Senate and House about Chinese military power so that Congress can adequately fund U.S. defense needs; this is why the law requires that the report be submitted by March 1 of each year, long before the NDAA debates take place. But this year, not wanting to anger the Chinese — who have complained about the report year after year — the White House delayed its release, presumably excising declassified information that it deemed too provocative. (The Chinese complained anyway.) By the time the administration released the report to the public, Congress was in recess and the rest of Washington on vacation. Published too late to have the impact that it should on the congressional debate over the 2011 NDAA, and at a time when few members of Congress are likely to comment, the report has failed in its purpose: to inform Congress as it prepares the coming year’s defense-spending bill.

It seems that the White House wishes to avoid an open, honest, and public debate about China’s military modernization and intentions in Asia. Such a debate might make it more difficult for the administration to pursue a cooperative approach to relations with Beijing. While the recent decisions to wade into the South China Sea territorial disputes and to send the USS George Washington to exercise in the Yellow Sea — both of which elicited strident Chinese objections — suggest that the White House might be abandoning that approach, the report’s handling should make outside observers think twice. At best, it suggests a confused China policy; at worst, that the president prefers “business as usual” — or rather, business as in 2009. This president seems most comfortable when he is extending an open hand; he is unlikely to quickly set aside the “strategic reassurance” policy articulated last year. If that means manipulating the public’s perceptions of a rising China, then so be it.

The irony of this state of affairs, unfortunately, seems to be lost on this administration. It is Beijing — not any report produced by the Defense Department — that is primarily responsible for how China is perceived. As the new report notes, “the limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.” Beijing fails to satisfactorily explain the reasoning behind its aggressive military modernization, thus generating concern and suspicion amongst its neighbors and in the United States.

Unfortunately, the DOD report also fails to adequately explain Chinese military modernization. A close reading reveals that the modernization is robust, and is occurring across all of the service branches. But the report (like its predecessors) does not explain how these developments are related to each other or to Beijing’s strategic goals. What role will they play in China’s security strategy? In China’s military strategy?

For example, this year’s report, like last year’s, notes that China is developing an aircraft carrier and that its navy has already started training pilots for carrier-borne aviation. But it does not explain that aircraft carriers are the quintessential instrument of military power projection. A nation does not build them if it does not see a need to project air power to distant shores. With Chinese carriers patrolling the seas, Guam, Australia, all of Southeast Asia, and the entirety of India will for the first time be in range of People’s Liberation Army tactical aircraft.

The 2010 report similarly lacks analysis of the developments in China’s missile force. While it mentions the 2nd Artillery Corps’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), few details are provided, and no attempt is made to explain the impact it will have on the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate in the Western Pacific.

The report is vague about the PLA’s overall missile buildup as well. It notes that “China is fielding an array of conventionally armed ballistic missiles [and] ground- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles . . . to hold targets at risk throughout the region.” But again, there is no explanation of what this might mean for U.S. forces in the region. Can those missiles hit American bases and those of our allies? What kind of damage can they inflict?

Though you wouldn’t know it from reading the report, China likely envisions using ASBMs, other ballistic and cruise missiles, future carriers, and other capabilities — including nuclear and quiet conventional attack submarines, cyber- and space-warfare assets, and an integrated air-defense system — in pursuit of its regional goals. Those goals are, in short, to unify Taiwan with the mainland, to settle East and South China Sea disputes in China’s favor, and, more broadly, to assert its primacy in the region.

In a Taiwan Strait crisis, for example, the PLA could use its missile force to strike American aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific, and airbases in Japan and potentially on Guam. Strike-group ships that survived could be stalked by multiple, increasingly stealthy submarines. Meanwhile, the now-limited number of tactical aircraft that the U.S. could send to the fight would face a highly sophisticated air-defense system on the Chinese mainland, but only if they could bypass or punch through combat air patrols launched from Chinese carriers in the East China and Philippine Seas. Chinese cyber and space operations would further complicate American efforts to bring force to bear. This would leave China’s air force, ground forces, and smaller surface warships to focus their efforts on Taiwan.

This is a relatively straightforward story, and one that the DOD reports have failed to tell over the years. China, thankfully, has a long way to go before it will be able to successfully pull off such an operation. But American forces in Asia are vulnerable, and increasingly so as Chinese military modernization continues. The administration should provide the American people and the U.S. Congress with a full accounting of PLA modernization and Chinese strategic goals, and of how they are linked; armed with such an accounting, Congress would be in a position to fund the military America needs for the Asia-Pacific region. Congress, of course, also has a responsibility to ensure that it is getting the information it requires. Last year’s changes to the DOD China report were ill considered and should be revisited.

When it comes to China, this administration seems to be pulled in two directions. It spent much of 2009 trying to reassure China that the U.S. welcomes its rise; the White House’s handling of the report was one effort in that broader campaign. At the same time, there has been the occasional glimpse of a more confrontational approach to Beijing: Secretary Clinton’s Internet-freedom speech, arms sales to Taiwan, Secretary Gates’s remarks at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia Security Summit (also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue), and the recent diplomatic contretemps over the South China Sea.

Hopefully, the president is learning that these two approaches need not be mutually exclusive. With an honest recognition that the United States and China share some interests but not others, the president should, sooner or later, settle on the proper course: to cooperate with China on issues where goals intersect, and to vigorously defend those U.S. interests that China threatens. If the two countries can find a way to cooperate on climate change or in international economic forums, they should do so. But Washington should be less concerned with “reassuring” Beijing and more concerned with deterring it from upsetting the American-led international order.

This requires both an unwavering commitment to the security of U.S. allies and partners in Asia — including Taiwan — and the maintenance of an American preponderance of military power in the region. The role of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region should be, first and foremost, to deter Chinese aggression. Absent a robust, resilient force in the region, Beijing will be tempted to resort to force to achieve its goals. And absent an honest public debate in this country about China’s rise — a debate the report fails to foster — that robust, resilient force may one day be a thing of the past.

– Michael Mazza is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.


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