Washington Watch

July 1, 2012

Puff the Magic Dragon

China wants to “avoid direct confrontation with the US” and continues to configure its armed forces for action against Taiwan, according to the latest official Pentagon assessment of China’s military power. Nevertheless, China is pursuing a long-term military modernization program with designs on projecting power well beyond its traditional sphere of influence, the report concludes.

The publicly released version of the 50-page document, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012,” offers the least-detailed survey of China’s armed capabilities since Congress began requiring the annual report in 2000. In broad terms, the report touts the potential for the US and China to avoid military conflict—including a new section focusing on US and Chinese military-to-military contacts—and goes light on details of China’s advancements in key areas such as missiles and stealth.

A classified version also was supplied to Congress.

China maintains a steady pace in adding to its conventional missile technology and arsenal, particularly near Taiwan; is fielding advanced air defense systems; and is proceeding with a robust upgrade of its nuclear forces, according to the report. It is also aggressively asserting its claims on disputed territories in and near the South China Sea and continues to mount cyber attacks and intrusions on military and contractor networks around the world, the Pentagon report said.

Briefing reporters on the document’s public release in May, David F. Helvey, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, acknowledged the annual report has “a new look and a new format. We’ve streamlined and consolidated” the information in it, he said, in keeping with new Pentagon guidance “for how we’re handling reports to Congress.”

In its early years, the report was a treasure trove of details on Chinese military systems and their potential for challenging or defeating US capabilities, though never as detailed as its progenitor, “Soviet Military Power,” produced in the 1980s by the Reagan Administration. That document, slickly produced, included intelligence photos and numerical analysis of nearly every aspect of the Soviet military enterprise.

However, the 2012 version of the China report, for example, publicly shrugs off China’s J-20 stealth concept fighter as simply an indication that China is “investing in stealth technology.” No specific role is suggested for the aircraft, nor potential weapons load or estimated range.

Though the report was similarly mum on the J-20’s in-service date, Helvey said it is expected to become an “effective operational capability no sooner than 2018.” This is two years earlier than former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates forecast three years ago.

Helvey said the estimate of the J-20’s schedule takes into account the need to have sufficient operational aircraft, integrated weapon systems, trained pilots, and further development. He described the aircraft as still in “prototype phase” and didn’t want to speculate on its potential mission.

Committee Editing

The document is a product of an all-of-government approach, Helvey said. It may therefore have fallen victim to committee editing.

The report goes through “a fairly extensive coordination process” giving not only the armed services but the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Commerce, Energy, and Treasury and “the Intelligence Community” a chance to tinker with it, Helvey pointed out.

He noted that President Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao agreed in January 2011 to work toward a “cooperative partnership based on mutual respect.” The Pentagon report assesses China’s direction, “strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities and potential challenges” in the 21st century.

Helvey also said that with China’s rising economic power and influence, the giant communist nation has greater “presence” around the world, “expanding economic and diplomatic interests,” and “new roles and responsibilities.” This has led China to focus on a military able to conduct “a wide range of missions, including those that are far from China.”

While China’s relations with Taiwan have warmed and “continue to improve” with the re-election of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, “China’s military shows no sign of slowing its efforts to prepare for Taiwan Strait contingencies,” Helvey said.

China has conducted a number of missions, “at great distance” from its shores, in counterpiracy, noncombatant evacuation, and peacekeeping, Helvey observed—underscoring the Administration’s wish to effect China’s emergence as a responsible and conscientious global power.

“So, there’s an opportunity here … for China to partner with us and with other countries to address the types of challenges that we all face” in this century, he asserted.

However, Helvey recited a long laundry list of Chinese efforts in areas that have little to do with peacekeeping missions. There is “sustained investment” in “nuclear forces, short- and medium-range conventional ballistic missiles, advanced aircraft and integrated air defenses, cruise missiles, submarines and surface combatants, and counterspace and cyber warfare strategies, which appear [to be] designed to enable what we call anti-access and area-denial missions, or what [People’s Liberation Army] strategists refer to as ‘counterintervention operations,’ ” he said.

The A2/AD threat is something the US has raised with China in a series of high-level discussions this year, Helvey said, though he didn’t mention that nation’s response. It is a topic “we’re paying very, very careful attention to” because it affects “the ability of our forces or other forces in the region to be able to operate in the Western Pacific.”

Money Talks

All this Chinese military modernization is sustained by “robust increases” in defense spending, and the country is now marking more than two decades of sustained military growth. Last year, the Pentagon noted that China’s officially announced military budget was $91.5 billion, but due to its “lack of accounting transparency,” the Defense Department’s analysis pegged the actual number at nearly twice that. This year’s official Chinese defense budget is $106 billion, but Helvey said the Pentagon has yet to calculate the likely real figure.

The unreported monies spent probably have to do with nuclear forces, research and development, and acquisition of foreign systems, much of which Helvey said the US thinks China keeps “off budget” or hides among other accounts.

The US is promoting the notion of military-to-military contacts, and Helvey mentioned several visits by Chinese officials to the US this year. Similarly, US Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III was to visit China this summer. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said recently he was anticipating a visit from his Chinese counterpart as early as this month.

Among areas of “concern” to the US, beyond the A2/AD investments, is China’s continued development of “technologies and capabilities to deny others access [to] and use of space.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Helvey said he “wouldn’t read too much” into slightly stronger wording in this report that states bluntly that China is initiating many cyber attacks, whereas in last year’s report, it was labeled as “likely” to have done so. He said the US has “greater confidence” in the statement that many such attacks originate from China, thanks to new forensic tools. He wouldn’t venture to say whether the US believes the attacks were authorized by the Chinese government, however.

In one of its few blunt cautions, the report notes China’s continuing development of the ship-killing DF-21D retargetable conventional ballistic missile.

“It’s got a limited operational capability,” Helvey said, “and I think that’s reflected in the report. They continue to work on that and develop that and deploy that.” The DF-21D, with an expected range in excess of 1,000 miles, is considered a severe challenge to Navy carrier operations, since it can fly to the target area and find a carrier that has moved since launch, attacking the carrier with such speed that defenses would be hard-pressed to stop it.

Helvey acknowledged that China has “developed weapons systems and capabilities that appeared either earlier than we expected or that we were surprised [by] when we saw it. Several years ago, we were surprised by the appearance of a new class of submarine that we hadn’t seen before.” He said, “That is something we have to anticipate and expect.” However, “we’ve been surprised in the past, and we may very well be surprised … in the future.”

Pacific Pivot Defined

Shortly after the unveiling of the Pentagon’s low-key assessment of China’s growing military capabilities, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced the US is putting its hardware where its mouth is and shifting a majority of its extant military forces to the Pacific, in recognition of the increasing economic and political importance of that theater.

The US, Panetta said, “in a steady, deliberate, and sustainable way” is “bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region.”

He also said the major developmental weapon systems in the US pipeline or on the drawing boards—the F-35 fighter, KC-46 tanker, and new long-range strike bomber—are driven by the demands of the Pacific.

In a June speech at the “Shangri-La” conference in Singapore, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Panetta announced that by 2020, the US Navy will focus its deployments on the Pacific, shifting its distribution of vessels from the current Pacific-Atlantic split of 50-50 to 60-40.

He also forecast a sharp increase in the number of bilateral and multilateral military exercises in the region, an uptick in port visits—including “in the Indian Ocean”—and affirmed a long-term plan to maintain Marine air and ground units on a rotating basis in Australia, “capable of rapidly deploying across the … region” for both military and humanitarian missions. The first unit deployed in April.

“All of the US military services are focused on implementing the President’s guidance to make the Asia-Pacific a top priority,” Panetta said.

The “rebalancing,” as Panetta called it, will involve maintaining “six aircraft carriers in this region,” as well as “a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, and submarines.”

The core commitment of the US to the Pacific will be in its forward deployed forces, Panetta said, and the US will “sharpen the technological edge” of its military powers.

In an apparent dig at China’s burgeoning anti-access and air defense systems, though, Panetta said, “We are investing specifically in those kinds of capabilities—such as an advanced, fifth generation fighter, an enhanced Virginia-class submarine, new electronic warfare and communications capabilities, and improved precision weapons—that will provide our forces with freedom of maneuver in areas in which our access and freedom of action may be threatened.” He later reiterated the point, also mentioning “an advanced maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft,” the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon.

The Pacific shift, and increased operating tempo there, will happen despite substantial cuts in the expected defense budget, he asserted.

“We have made choices and we have set priorities, and we have rightly chosen to make this region a priority,” he said.

Panetta said the new focus is not meant as a challenge to China.

“The relationship between the United States and China is one of the most important in the world,” he said. “We in the United States are clear-eyed about the challenges, make no mistake about it, but we also seek to grasp the opportunities that can come from closer cooperation and a closer relationship.”

The US won’t take sides in the ongoing tensions between various countries over disputed islands in the Asia-Pacific region, Panetta said, urging all involved to exercise “restraint” and seek a diplomatic solution.

He said the US seeks closer military ties with China, noting the two countries can cooperate on anti-piracy missions, anti-drug trafficking, and humanitarian relief—operations that can benefit both countries and the region.

“We’re not naïve about the relationship and neither is China,” which has taken umbrage at US moves to provide arms to the Philippines and Taiwan. “I don’t think we should take the attitude that just because we improve their capabilities that we’re asking for more trouble,” Panetta insisted, adding that no harm will come from countries having an ability to defend and promote their own security.

“What both of us have to recognize is that we are powers in this region. We have common interests,” he said. “We have common obligations to try to promote peace and prosperity and security in this region.”