Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Enigmatic Military

The Pentagon’s report on the PLA suggests China is getting closer to nixing the US military’s ability to intervene in Asia.

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.

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.

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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.

But recent claims by China over the South China Sea and much of the East China Sea underscore the fact that it’s also seeking to develop a Navy and Air Force that can secure Beijing’s sovereignty claims over these mineral-rich bodies of water.

Meanwhile, China also wants to maintain a nuclear deterrent sufficient to survive a first strike by the United States or other nuclear power and still have sufficient forces to overcome any defences and retaliate effectively. For this reason, the PLA has been investing in mobile land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines, both of which are harder to locate and destroy than fixed land-based missiles in silos.

But it’s the non-nuclear objectives that have garnered most attention. While the PLA has been trying to develop conventional forces capable of defeating Taiwan’s and other Asian countries’ militaries, it has also sought the capacity to deny the US military access to contested areas (at least long enough for it to defeat its local adversary). Although the PLA could arguably prevail in a straight-up fight with another Asian country, doing so would be much harder if the Pentagon decided to actively assist China’s opponent.

Yet while the US can complicate matters for China in the event of conflict, one thing remains clear—the PLA’s sustained modernization is shifting the military balance between China and many of its potential adversaries in Asia further in China’s favour.

This trend is especially noticeable in the cross-Strait balance. Although tensions between Beijing and Taipei have decreased since the March 2008 election in Taiwan of the more China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou, the PLA is still seeking to deter Taiwan from declaring independence and looking to acquire the means to coerce Taipei into accepting Beijing’s terms for the resolution of any dispute.

So is China simply embarked on a regional strategy, concerned mostly with securing its declared interests in its own backyard? Not necessarily.

Beyond trying to secure control over adjacent regions, by force if necessary, the Defense Department report concludes that some PLA investments are aimed at enhancing its ability to project military power at considerable distances from the Chinese mainland. The PLA’s recently augmented capabilities for extended-range power projection include its longer-range ballistic and cruise missiles, its growing fleet of nuclear- and diesel-power attack submarines, its long-range air combat and air defence systems and its unconventional assets in such areas as electronic warfare, cyber strikes and space weapons. Indeed, US analysts believe that the PLA’s modernization drive, if sustained, will ‘lay the foundation for a force able to accomplish (these) broader regional and global objectives’ within the next decade.

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The proof is in the procurement. Assessing the PLA’s current acquisition efforts, the report’s authors note China has ‘the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world.’ This expanding number of conventionally armed offensive missiles helps China compensate for the still limited ability of the warplanes of the PLA Air Force and the PLA Navy (PLAN) to conduct long-range precision strike operations.

Although the report expects that the PLAN might acquire one or more aircraft carriers later this decade, it notes that the Chinese Navy already has the largest number of submarines and principal surface combatants in Asia. The PLA is also seeking to develop a new anti-ship ballistic missile capable of hitting moving warships at a distance of 1,500 kilometres. Such a missile could destroy US aircraft carriers before they could move sufficiently close to attack the Chinese mainland with their planes.

But the growing Chinese behemoth is not without its weaknesses. The Defense Department notes, for example, the PLA’s still limited ability to project military power and sustain operations far beyond its periphery due to China’s lack of oversee bases or aircraft carriers. In addition, the PLA is also still struggling to conduct genuinely joint military operations in which forces from multiple services fight in an integrated rather than merely parallel fashion.

Most importantly, though, the PLA hasn’t engaged in a major combat operation since China’s 1979 war with Vietnam—and that was not a particularly successful campaign. In contrast, the US military has been tested regularly in combat, allowing American commanders and US forces to become very effective war fighters.

Predictably, the Chinese government denounced the US assessment, while Chinese analysts argued that the report exaggerated the PLA’s capabilities and misread China’s peaceful intentions.

Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng, for example, argued: ‘Issuing this report is not beneficial for the improvement and development of Sino-US military ties.’ He also called on the US government ‘to stop remarks and behavior that are not beneficial for mutual trust between the two militaries and Sino-US relations.’

In contrast, perhaps also predictably, the government of Taiwan cited the report to support its request that the United States agree to sell it more advanced weapons, especially the F-16 C/D variant and diesel submarines. More surprisingly, though, the Japanese Defence Ministry backed the report’s publication when its spokeswoman said that Tokyo would also ‘keep paying attention to China’s military’ build-up because the PLA’s modernization ‘will have a significant impact on security in the region, including Japan, and on the international community.’

One of the reasons the annual Defense Department report was created in the first place was to deter China from actually using its new capabilities against the United States and its allies. For this reason, its authors caution readers (including presumably those in Beijing) that any attempt to launch a military invasion of Taiwan could have extremely negative repercussions for China. They also note that conducting an amphibious invasion ‘is one of the most complicated and difficult military manoeuvres’ and would certainly be a challenge for ‘China’s untested armed forces.’

But whatever the intentions behind the report, there were some parts of the public version of it that were either incomplete or even misleading (although the classified version may provide greater details that are excluded from the public edition to avoid revealing US intelligence sources and methods.)

For example, while the report provides a lengthy discussion of all the means that China uses ‘to develop, acquire, or gain access to advanced technologies that could enhance its military capabilities,’ there simply isn’t enough discussion of the difficulties China has encountered in combining all these diverse technologies into fully integrated weapons systems.

In addition, there’s less detail here than in previous years on the implications of the PLA’s development of an increasing range of sophisticated ‘disruptive’ military technologies that Beijing could use asymmetrically to negate US military strengths. These capabilities include China’s improving anti-satellite, electronic warfare and cyber strike technologies, sometimes referred to as the PLA’s ‘Assassin’s Mace.’

These programmes aim to exploit possible adversary vulnerabilities, such as the Pentagon’s dependence on space-based information technologies, through asymmetric tactics designed to disrupt enemy military operations long enough to allow the PLA to seize Taiwan, the islands of the South China Sea, or any other objects in dispute.

And there’s one final issue that this year’s report does less than usual to try and clear up—how much does China actually spend on its defence? Although the latest report estimates that China’s actual military-related spending is double that of the officially disclosed figure (an estimated $150 billion rather than the stated $78.6 billion), it fails to explain that China’s official total excludes spending on nuclear weapons, purchases of foreign weapons and military research and development.

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As usual, the reality behind the question of how much China is really spending on its increasingly sophisticated military remains something of a mystery.