Underestimating China

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Underestimating China

US analysts and policymakers have been slow to appreciate the pace of China’s military progress. Is this changing?

Denigrating Chinese maritime prowess is a longstanding habit in the US naval establishment. Officers and analysts reared during the Cold War found it hard to shed the image of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as a backward force composed of patrol boats, short-range fighters, and small submarines that hugged the coast.

Perception chronically lagged reality even after the turn of the century, when the PLAN started introducing a panoply of high-tech warships, aircraft, and antiship missiles. Senior US Defence Department officials admitted as much as Secretary of Defence Robert Gates departed on a week-long trip to Beijing last Sunday, declaring that the Pentagon has been ‘pretty consistent in underestimating’ the capacity of Chinese industry to develop and manufacture advanced weaponry. In a similar vein, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Command, confessed that ‘China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year.’

For his part, Vice Adm. Jack Dorsett, the director of naval intelligence, insisted that the US Navy has been mainly on target with its appraisals of Chinese military progress, while conceding that ‘there has been a handful of things we have underestimated.’ Perhaps, but think about what that handful holds: groundbreaking developments in Chinese naval technology. While US analysts shouldn’t lash themselves for their failures, nor should they take solace in their successes.

When we first started studying Chinese sea power in earnest, during the 2003-2004 timeframe, the buzz was about ‘China Aegis,’ a guided-missile destroyer (DDG) billed by the PLAN leadership as equivalent to frontline US Navy Arleigh Burke destroyers. China Aegis morphed into the Type 052C Luyang II-class DDGs. The PLA built and bought diesel submarines while improving its naval nuclear propulsion programme. Russian-built Kilo diesel boats joined the fleet, along with Type 093 Shang-class nuclear attack submarines and Type 039 Song­-class diesel submarines. The latter now form the backbone of the conventional undersea force.

Speculation among US analysts that technical difficulties would force Beijing to abandon the Song came to an abrupt end when the PLAN began serial production of these boats—bringing to fruition China’s first indigenous submarine programme. In 2004, the Chinese navy debuted yet another class of subs, the Type 041 Yuan, to the apparent consternation of the US intelligence community. The Chinese navy now boast more classes of submarine than any other navy. The mass production of small craft like the stealthy, missile-armed Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft—vessels suitable for swarm attacks in China’s ‘near seas’—likewise took Washington by surprise.

Just last month, Adm. Willard announced that the PLA Second Artillery Corps, or missile force, has reached ‘initial operating capability’ with the world’s first antiship ballistic missile, or ASBM. The Second Artillery has yet to conduct realistic testing over water. But if the ASBM lives up to its hype, forces ashore will soon be able to strike at moving ships hundreds of miles distant. Even a crude ASBM will compel US defenders to look skyward, expending precious defensive missiles lest PLA ‘birds’ strike home. During Secretary Gates’ Beijing trip the Chinese apparently tested what is believed to be its own stealth fighter. (Secretary Gates is on record forecasting that no such fighter will be operational before 2020.) Photos of new submarine and DDG designs taking shape at Chinese shipyards imply that further surprises lie in store.

In short, China has established an impressive track record of confounding Western expectations. That says something about China, and it says something about China watchers. China has studied its own past, along with the rise of past great powers, and has carefully learned the lessons from these experiences. It has marshalled the impressive resources made available by economic development, harnessed equally impressive political resolve, and striven to manage foreign fears of its growing naval might. Such steadfastness has allowed the PLAN to make a leap in combat power in short order.

Why is this so difficult for outsiders to grasp? There’s one straightforward reason. If China’s new weaponry works as advertised, the PLAN will have achieved certain technical breakthroughs—phased-array radar and stealth technology, to name two—faster than the United States did, with its scientific and technical mastery. (Admittedly, China is a beneficiary of technological progress since the 1980s, when the US military fielded these systems.) It’s tough to believe China’s defence-industrial sector has overcome its backwardness that swiftly. Furthermore, some of these new systems, most notably the ASBM, represent genuinely new innovations that not even vaunted US firms have managed. Again, evidence that Chinese engineers have surpassed the US military in certain niche areas so quickly is hard to internalize.

Writing in the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, scholar Elizabeth Economy pronounced China a ‘revolutionary’ power. In A World Restored, Henry Kissinger postulates that an intellectual block inhibits status quo powers like the United States, long Asia’s foremost sea power, from accepting that they confront rising revolutionary powers—powers intent on modifying the existing order to their advantage or replacing it altogether. Kissinger maintains that the hegemonic power, lulled by the seeming permanence of the system over which it presides, finds it hard to fathom that a revolutionary power really means to ‘smash the existing framework.’

In effect the status quo power can’t bring itself to believe that a rising challenger truly wants to demolish an international order that works to the benefit of all. If Kissinger is right, downplaying Chinese naval advances—advances seemingly intended to upset the US-led order in Asia—represents a natural reaction from American officials and analysts.

There’s also a certain amount of historical determinism to US analyses of Chinese maritime capability. Commentary on Chinese naval development is rife with casual references to the past. If China hasn’t fielded a viable navy since the Ming Dynasty, it can’t do so now. Land powers can’t go to sea because of the exigencies of land defence, which divert resources from maritime endeavours. The Qing Dynasty sought to construct a great fleet by building and importing the necessary components, only to see that fleet smashed by the Imperial Japanese Navy in the 1890s. Mao Zedong established the PLAN as a coastal defence force, and thus it will remain. The PLA was a protégé of the Soviet armed forces and will meet the same fate. The catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution wrecked the nation’s scientific and engineering communities, shackling the remains of China’s military-industrial complex.

Yet today’s China is far different from Maoist China, let alone from dynastic China. The past doesn’t preordain the future. Our advice? Analysts must avoid applying casual historical analogies to a rising power as dynamic as China. In so doing they’ll reduce the chances of future surprises and furnish sounder estimates to the policymakers they advise.

More importantly, Washington must take China and its military seriously. Analysts must avoid drawing facile historical analogies, and they must treat this new challenger as a ‘peer competitor’—a power worthy of the wary respect once afforded the Soviet Union. The People’s Liberation Army is by no means ten feet tall. But it’s a force to be reckoned with. Whether the technical surprises that China has sprung portend a more systematic reassessment of the PLA among China-watchers remains to be seen. We take comfort that senior leaders of the US defence establishment have begun to take notice. This is a start.


James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are theirs alone.