The Obama administration might be more willing to ruffle some feathers in Beijing these days, what with Hillary Clinton wading into the debate over the South China Sea and Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ forceful display at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June.
But the US is still interested in some subtle diplomacy, having renamed its annual report on China’s military released this week from the usual ‘Military Power of the People’s Republic of China’ to the slightly drier sounding ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.’
Any attempt to spare feelings, though, apparently has fallen on deaf ears, with the Chinese Defence Ministry complaining the report was ‘not beneficial to the improvement and development of Sino-US military ties.’
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted newly-appointed spokesman for the Chinese Defence Ministry, Geng Yansheng, as saying that the report ignored the facts while ‘criticizing China's normal national defense and military build-up, exaggerating the so-called Chinese mainland's “military threats” to Taiwan, and condemning China for suspending Sino-US military exchanges thus compromising the two countries’ military cooperation.’
The report certainly made some eye-catching headlines. Unsurprisingly, outlets like Fox News ran with headlines such as ‘Pentagon sounds alarm at China's military buildup,’ noting that the report argues that China is ‘expanding its advantage over Taiwan and investing heavily in ballistic and cruise missile capabilities that could one day pose a challenge to US dominance in the western Pacific’.
Is this a fair reflection of the report? To a certain extent, yes. The report leads off with a chapter on Taiwan and notes: ‘China’s long-term, comprehensive transformation of its military forces is improving its capacity for force projection and anti-access/area-denial.’
This in itself shouldn’t be a surprise. China is clearly a growing presence on the international stage with a rapidly growing economy. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s expanding its capabilities, in keeping with its means to do so, to defend what it sees as its interests, both near and far—just as the United States does. The problem comes, of course, when those claimed interests start to get a little unreasonable as the spat over the South China Sea demonstrates.
But what will be particularly troubling Washington is its finding that: ‘Consistent with a near-term focus on preparing for Taiwan Strait contingencies, China continues to deploy many of its most advanced systems to the military regions (MRs) opposite Taiwan.’
‘China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile programme in the world. It is developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading certain missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.’
This goes to the heart of the challenge that the United States faces if it is to continue to be willing to defend Taiwan. Some commentators sniff at China’s military build-up, noting that China is still quite some way off being able to rival the United States in technology terms, and they’re quick to point to the superiority of, for example, its F-22 stealth fighter.
What they forget is that China doesn’t need to be able to go toe-to-toe with the United States in any conflict—it just needs to sufficiently raise the prospect of being able to give it enough of a bloody nose that the US will think twice about intervening.
The threat highlighted by the Pentagon over China’s missile development underscores a point well made by our defence correspondent Toshi Yoshihara, who wrote last May:
‘Chinese planners have long assumed – correctly and realistically – that the PLA would fight from a position of weakness should it be pitted against the United States, a vastly superior military power. Missiles, however, being relatively cheap and easy to mass produce, offer an excellent chance of evening the odds.
‘A long-range cruise missile costs as little as $500,000 – a pittance for China – while a single US cruiser is worth around $1 billion. To put it another way, one US aircraft carrier would literally buy 10,000 missiles. Missiles are also tremendously difficult to defend against, as evidenced in the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the UK, when a single French-built Exocet missile sank the Royal Navy’s HMS Sheffield.’
Imagine the psychological damage to the United States of seeing one of its aircraft carriers in flames after a missile strike. Would China really escalate to this degree? Quite possibly not. But it’s an uncomfortable question that US policymakers will increasingly have to ponder.