From “Curious” to “Concerned”

Nov. 1, 2010

The Pentagon says China’s military power is growing far beyond that necessary for self-defense, and that its new capabilities are aimed squarely at blunting or defeating the strengths of the United States in the Pacific. However, a new Pentagon report offers little comment about what the United States should do in response.

The annual report on China’s military is required by law and was released in August. It catalogs the “long-term, comprehensive transformation” of China’s military into a first-rate power, detailing advances in everything from cruise and ballistic missiles to submarines and fighter aircraft.

Collectively, China is building a strong hand for power projection well outside its immediate area, plus “anti-access/area denial” capabilities that could limit US military options in a Pacific conflict. China is modernizing its martial culture from one of conscriptive forces to a professional military.

Previously called “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China”—and patterned after the Cold War-era “Soviet Military Power”—the document this year was presented as “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.”

Chinese J-11 fighters—which are improved versions of license-built Russian Su-27s—participate in live ammunition training over Tibet in July. (AP photo by Liu Yinghua)

The report follows two significant warnings about China. In July, a bipartisan commission offering an alternative assessment of the Quadrennial Defense Review said the US must build up its forces in the Pacific region, particularly to counter a rising Chinese threat. In the spring, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments also proposed stronger forces to counter China’s growing military power. It offered a strategy called AirSea Battle as the framework for preparing for a potential armed conflict with China that emphasized ships and long-range aircraft.

Both the independent QDR panel and CSBA indicated the US would take a beating in the opening rounds of an armed clash with China, given existing forces and those forecast over the next 20 years. They urged the Pentagon take steps now to mitigate that situation.

The Pentagon report itself echoes an assessment offered by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen, who said recently his attitude toward China’s military buildup has shifted from “being curious to being genuinely concerned.”

China has been extremely vague about its long-term military ambitions, Mullen said, and this lack of transparency could result in misinterpretation or “miscalculation” between the two countries.

Despite clashing interests, the Pentagon report said war with China is not inevitable, provided that China shows more “transparency” about the military it is building and what it means to do with it. However, the Defense Department admitted in the report that, so far, China remains coy about its intentions.

Other key points in the Pentagon analysis:

Much of China’s military power continues to be focused opposite Taiwan, and China is positioning itself to be able to seize that island as it holds US reinforcements at bay.

China openly seeks to neutralize American military power, pursuing asymmetric strategies where it cannot challenge the US directly, while broadly emulating the design and capability of US armed forces in its long-term development.

A senior defense official, in a background briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, said the report was a whole-of-government assessment of China’s military capability, potential, and strategy, not just a simple military size-up.

It’s an analysis “that we view as being very factual in nature,” the official asserted. “It’s not intended to get into a deep and serious discussion of policy per se.” However, utmost effort was made to “be very, very straightforward, factual, descriptive, and analytical and … to let the facts speak for themselves.”

Those facts paint a picture of a Chinese military continuing to improve at a rapid rate. China has “the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world,” and is developing or building a dizzying array of missiles for every application. It is fielding new and improved nuclear ballistic missiles now comfortably able to reach most targets in the continental US, exploring a road-mobile ICBM, and developing defenses against ballistic missile attack.

“Peaceful Co-Prosperity”

By the end of 2009, China had deployed up to 1,150 short-range ballistic missiles “opposite Taiwan.” Although that number hasn’t grown as fast as it had in recent years, the defense official said the quality and capability of the missiles has improved. Those missiles now or soon will have the ability to find US aircraft carriers at long range—some 900 miles from China’s borders—and inflict crippling damage on them.

Communist China considers democratic Taiwan to be a breakaway province, and has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate a declaration of that island’s independence. China is rapidly expanding its inventory of amphibious assault vessels, and its surface-to-air missile systems, called “the best in the world,” were bought or copied from Russian systems. They now have the range to target aircraft over Taiwan itself.

China has blown hot and cold about military-to-military exchanges with the US meant to build a relationship and reduce mutual suspicion. In the last few months, China has canceled high-level visits by American military officials after taking advantage of opportunities to visit American facilities.

In an Aug. 18 statement issued through its Xinhua news service, China criticized the Pentagon report as exaggerating its military strength, which it claimed is entirely defensive, and said its goal remains “peaceful development” aimed at a stable, cooperative, and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.

The Pentagon estimates that China spent about $150 billion on its military in 2009, an increase of 7.5 percent over the previous year. That growth rate was slightly less than in recent years, but for nearly two decades, China’s real growth in defense spending rose by double digit percentages.

The Pentagon report said China’s military development is predictable and natural given its growing economic importance, and China’s likely concern is that it may have to guarantee access to oil, coal, and other imported raw materials through military coercion. A strong military gives China “options for using military force to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor.”

While the US “welcomes” China acquiring the means to help out with international peacekeeping duties and responding to humanitarian crises, the Pentagon noted that China’s weapons program and stated strategy are aimed “beyond China’s immediate territorial interests.”

In aircraft, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is swiftly transitioning from an inventory of obsolete Cold War designs to modernized aircraft with the latest avionics and weaponry. It is fielding its own, indigenously produced F-16-comparable fighter, the J-10, and is making its own improvements to license-built Russian Su-27-style fighters, which China calls the J-11. Beijing is also upgrading older fighters with new gear, extending their useful lives.

“The PLAAF continues its conversion from a force for limited territorial defense to a more flexible and agile force able to operate offshore in both offensive and defensive roles, using the US and Russian Air Forces as models,” the Pentagon said.

A consensus has been built in China, the Pentagon said, that protecting its global interests will demand “an increase in the PLAAF’s long-range transportation and logistics capabilities,” such as long-range airlift. USAF leaders who dispatched C-17s full of relief aid to China in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake reported that PLAAF officers were studying those operations intently, and taking notes.

The Pentagon said China’s Air Force—for the near future—will probably not seek globe-girdling offensive aircraft capabilities. The PLAAF’s “primary focus for the coming decade” will continue to be building “a credible military threat to Taiwan and US forces in East Asia,” deterring Taiwanese independence, or influencing Taiwan to “settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms.”

The primary immediate handicap in China’s aviation industry is that it remains semidependent on foreign suppliers for engines and electronics, and would have a hard time surging aircraft production in wartime.

China has an aggressive shipbuilding program, bringing on a wide variety of both surface combatants and submarines, both diesel and nuclear. China is getting more “comfortable” operating farther from its littoral waters, said a senior DOD official, and has fitted its fleet with modern missiles.

China’s submarine fleet has advanced more rapidly than any other aspect of its armed forces, and by 2009, the Pentagon deemed fully half the submarine fleet as “modern.” China sees submarines and ballistic missiles as its best long-range means to prevent the US Navy from operating anywhere close to the Chinese sphere of influence.

Moreover, China continues to refit a secondhand Russian aircraft carrier for eventual service, has practiced carrier-like operations at land bases, and plans to build a handful of aircraft carriers in the next two decades or so.

Chinese strategists refer to information warfare—encompassing cyber attacks, psychological operations, media influence, electronic attacks, etc.—as “informatized” operations, a term that also includes the products of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems. Informatized operations are considered central to all Chinese military capabilities, and the People’s Liberation Army sees them as a great equalizer to the US and a means to asymmetrically offset US strengths.

The PLA sees space as “central to enabling modern … warfare,” the Pentagon report said. Like informatized operations, space is seen not as an isolated campaign but part of a larger whole, underlying everything else.

Chinese troops on parade. (AP photo by Zhou kun qd)

A Mutual Blinding Campaign

Because China knows the US is heavily dependent on space-based capabilities, it is “developing the ability to attack an adversary’s space assets, accelerating the militarization of space.” Strategy papers from the PLA emphasize the importance of “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance … and communications satellites,” according to the report.

When CSBA rolled out its AirSea Battle white paper, it postulated that any armed conflict between the US and China would begin with a mutual “blinding” campaign, in which both sides would seek to neutralize or destroy the other’s ISR capabilities. CSBA suggested the US should build heavy redundancy and self-healing qualities in its sensor platforms and networks, the better to absorb damage and get back up and running as quickly as possible.

China’s military is taking another page from the US playbook and is trying to develop better capability at joint operations among its forces, the Pentagon said. So far, the various branches of the PLA have worked in isolation, and joint exercises have tended to be simply simultaneous activities rather than genuinely integrated operations. However, China understands the need to gets its services to be more interdependent and has added more joint courses to its professional military syllabi—and is requiring more of its officers to do tours with different branches.

China is taking tentative steps to reach far beyond its borders in ways that are not threatening. There are some 12,000 Chinese troops engaged in various United Nations peacekeeping operations worldwide. China has been more active in rendering humanitarian assistance through military means, and China last year participated in multinational anti-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa near Somalia and Yemen. The Pentagon report said, however, that these long-distance deployments will be exceptional for the next few years at least, and China will likely continue to keep its military forces concentrated near to its coastlines.

Some Senators felt the report’s delay (it was delivered five months late) was a sign the Administration did not wish to upset China. In late July, shortly before the report was released, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kans.), and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, demanding the overdue report be issued at once.

“China’s extensive military buildup is alarming,” the Senators wrote, “as are its potential implications for US national security.” The PLA “has undertaken a military modernization program, supported by a military budget that has experienced double-digit-percentage annual increases for more than two decades.”

The Senators said they had been told the completed report was being withheld.

They asked Gates for his “assurance that White House political appointees at the National Security Council or other agencies have not been allowed to alter the substance of the report in an effort to avoid angering China. The annual report is designed to provide Congress with a candid, objective assessment of the facts. Anything less would risk undermining its very credibility.”

After the report’s release, the conservative Heritage Foundation released a paper that was complimentary of the report for its comprehensive account of China’s growing military strength.

Heritage said the report is “replete with information that should alarm anyone concerned about Taiwan’s diplomatic space and ability to defend itself if necessary. Yet the obvious strategic conclusions to be drawn from this information are left to the reader.”

House Armed Services Commitee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), in a statement regarding the Pentagon’s report, said China doesn’t need to view the US as a threat. However, “conflict between our nations remains a possibility, and we must remain prepared for whatever the future holds.”