The progressive neutering of the annual Pentagon China military power reports is unfortunate, as the report has been among the most authoritative sources of information on specific Chinese military capabilities in recent years. Given the People’s Liberation Army’s unwillingness to reveal this information itself, the report has been one of the few reliable sources of transparency to inform foreign analysts, scholars, and citizens about important Chinese military developments that often have global repercussions. China has experienced important military and security changes over the past year, yet aside from its reformatted font and graphics, the 2012 report proves thin on new content.
While Chinese government spokespeople consistently criticize the Pentagon reports, they don’t provide specific evidence of inaccuracies. There’s no reason to water the report down in the face of criticism unsupported by factual counter-evidence, as doing so deprives citizens around the world of the opportunity to monitor the actions of governments – Chinese, U.S., or any other – and hold them accountable for their actions.
Moreover, like any other sovereign country, China is free to publish its own reports about the U.S. military, and already does so regarding its views on U.S. human rights. It would be very frustrating to think that certain officials in Washington were, at Beijing’s behest, effectively imposing self-censorship of useful and beneficial public discussions of China’s growing military capabilities.
In this spirit of transparency and government accountability, the analysis below looks at the 12 most critical shortcomings and omissions of the 2012 China Military Power Report.
1) The American taxpayer should have access to the highest quality source information on China’s military development given the implications for U.S. national interests. Shying away from critical analysis of important aspects of Chinese military development is a grave disservice to forward deployed U.S. forces in Asia. Our servicemen and women need American taxpayers to be kept well apprised of China’s rapidly growing military power so that voters will be ready to support measures to pay for equipment needed to adapt to the changing circumstances. The Office of Naval Intelligence’s detailed 2009 report on China’s naval development provides an excellent example of a report that provides the type of detail and insights that taxpayers deserve.
2) What factors could hinder or facilitate China’s military development in coming years? China’s rise as a key global economic and security player depends critically on its economy and the trajectory of its power moving forward is likely to hinge heavily on the country’s economic growth path. In the longer term, a variety of factors may limit PLA budget growth, at least to some extent. Various structural factors including higher health care and pension costs and rapidly rising wages that will erode the Chinese defense industry’s labor cost advantages could greatly restrict China’s ability to sustain rapid military spending growth, regardless of its leaders’ intentions. Personnel, equipment, and operational costs are all rising for the PLA, and there will be a limit to what can be afforded in the future. In coming years, China’s leaders are likely to face wrenching tradeoffs not seen since the post-1978 reforms as China’s population ages, develops increased lifestyle expectations, questions the wisdom of tolerating a growth-at-all-costs mentality, and yet is likely to remain strongly nationalistic. Yet, even at a lower level of defense spending, China could still increase its power and influence substantially in East Asia and even challenge U.S. and allied interests there substantially, but the nature of the challenge could be very different depending on how Beijing chose to allocate its resources between national defense and pressing domestic priorities such as education and healthcare.
3) Very little focus on China’s evolving defense industry, despite the Congressional mandate that the report “…shall address the current and probable future course of military-technological development of the People’s Liberation Army…over the next 20 years.” Beijing is aggressively investing in key defense sectors, such as design and mass production of high performance jet engines that would make its aircraft industry independent from foreign parts and assistance. China’s defense sector is working hard to make the leap from “R&C” (research and copy) to true R&D. Progress has come in fits and starts, but as the defense industrial complex builds up its human capital base and works to improve quality control and rectify other issues, substantial progress in aerospace equipment and other key sectors is likely during the next 5 years. As such, the China Military Power Report drafters would do well to anticipate likely outcomes and help avoid strategic surprises as China’s defense manufacturers make breakthroughs.