China’s Enigmatic Military
Image Credit: Colin J / Flickr

China’s Enigmatic Military


Last month, the US Department of Defense released the latest version of its annual publication on the Chinese military. Previously known as ‘Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,’ the US Congress has decided to rename the document, ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.’

But while the title may have changed, the language in the report hasn’t. China is not only increasing the size of its military, but also the quality—with significant implications for the Asia-Pacific region and the United States.

The US Congress has since 2002 directed the Pentagon to submit an annual report (with both a public and a classified version), on the PLA, assessing its current and likely future capabilities, doctrine, strategies, technologies, force structure, organization and operational concepts.

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This year’s report notes as usual that ‘the pace and scope of China’s military modernization have increased over the past decade.’ But this time, it also makes clear that it isn’t just in terms of hardware that the PLA has been pressing forward—it’s also becoming more effective at integrating these capabilities through improvements in its Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, as well as by developing the capacity for integrated joint operations involving more than one service branch.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be bad news for the United States and its allies. In fact, the authors of the report make a point of welcoming the fact that the PLA’s growing capabilities could enable China to make a greater contribution to managing international security challenges. For example, China can now allocate more military resources to supporting international peacekeeping operations, foreign disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions as well as countering maritime piracy.

The problem is that these same augmented capabilities can also be used for coercive diplomacy and to contest territorial disputes by force.Indeed, Defense Department analysts believe that the main purpose of the PLA’s current modernization programme is to give the Chinese government the military capacity, if necessary, to win battles around the country’s maritime periphery.

Of course there’s one consideration above all others that the Chinese have in mind in developing their maritime capabilities. That is deterring and, if necessary, defeating any effort by Taiwan to claim formal independence from Beijing—even if the US military intervenes on Taipei’s behalf.

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