After a year-long hiatus, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)’s annual report on Chinese military developments is back and better than ever. Its 43-page 2012 predecessor was widely criticized for arriving far later than Congress requested and containing little substance or new data. But this year’s expeditiously-issued 92-page document continues a tradition of detailed, sophisticated, publicly-available U.S. government analysis previously seen in the 2011 DoD report, the 2010 National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) report on China’s air force, and the 2009 and 2007 Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reports on China’s navy.
Like these other landmark reports, this year’s DoD iteration clearly and understandably comes from a U.S. military perspective, yet strives to provide a comprehensive picture of Chinese military developments and the strategic concerns that motivate them. This represents an admirable effort to offer a balanced assessment, as can be seen in remarks at the time of its release by David F. Helvey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia. Useful data are presented on everything from Chinese sea- and -land based energy access to apparent ambiguities in Beijing’s “no first use” nuclear doctrine to members of the Central Military Commission and their key professional relationships.
All this context matters deeply, and should be commended. But arguably the report’s greatest contribution lies in more specific areas: providing authoritative assessments of key People’s Liberation Army (PLA) developments that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve or confirm via other publicly-available sources, such as Beijing’s own recently-released 2013 Defense White Paper—which, like many Chinese public strategic documents, offers few specifics. Chinese government representatives are already out in force criticizing this year’s DoD report and claiming that its content is distorted or inaccurate, but as usual do not offer credible evidence to clarify or counter even the report’s most important assertions. Yet it is precisely in such areas—which include hard-to-attribute cyber activities and other types of espionage—that observers of China’s military development need the greatest governmental assistance. After all, as a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed argues cogently: “In the long run Beijing usually does what it says it is going to do, although the execution may be concealed with deception.”
With respect to obfuscation, the report documents that China has conducted multiple naval operations in the undisputed U.S. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of a nature that it would oppose a foreign military such as that of the U.S. conducting in its own claimed EEZ—which it is projected to fill with increasing numbers of maritime law enforcement vessels. While the report states that China is conducting such activities in the EEZs of multiple states, a reference that almost certainly includes Japan, it is worth noting the report’s exact wording with respect to the United States: “the United States has observed over the past year several instances of Chinese naval activities in the EEZ around Guam and Hawaii. One of those instances was during the execution of the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in July/August 2012. While the United States considers the PLA Navy activities in its EEZ to be lawful, the activity undercuts China’s decades-old position that similar foreign military activities in China’s EEZ are unlawful.” It will be particularly interesting to see how Beijing responds to such revelations, which further underscore the emerging contradictions between China’s promotion of restrictive approaches vis-à-vis foreign military and governmental activities in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas) even as it pursues increasing access to such other strategic seas as the Western Pacific and the Arctic. Given this complexity, perhaps Beijing’s approach for now will be to denounce the report generally while avoiding this specific issue.