Will China Be Rome or Greece?


On Wednesday afternoon, in post-earthquake Washington, the US Defence Department released the latest edition of its annual report to the US Congress on China’s military power. Since the Chinese military remains opaque about its defence plans and programmes, many international security experts rely heavily on the report’s judgments, notwithstanding its frequent caveats about their limited information concerning these issues – or the objections of Chinese officials that the reporting is misleading.

The latest report offers the balanced assessment that China will need several decades to develop the capacity to project and sustain large high-intensity military operations far from Chinese territory, but it still expects the Chinese armed forces to acquire considerable regionally focused capabilities by 2020. It also estimates that China spent more than $160 billion for its military in 2010, well above China’s official figure, which sounds about right since the Chinese government excludes several categories from the official defence budget.

True to form, on Friday, China’s Defence Ministry, in the first official Chinese response to the report, accused the United States of exaggerating China’s military power. In its faxed comments to Reuters, the Ministry said that: ‘It is very normal for the Chinese military to develop and upgrade some weapons and armaments.’ Chinese officials have repeatedly denounced the annual reporting process as inherently divisive and hypocritical in light of the enormous US defence budget, which is several times greater than even the highest estimate of Chinese military spending.

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Even so, the US Congress, building on the precedent set by an earlier Soviet military power report, has directed the Pentagon since 2002 to submit an annual report, with both a public and a classified version, on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The report assesses the PLA’s current and likely future capabilities, doctrine, strategies, technologies, force structure, organization, and operational concepts. The FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act mandated more detailed coverage of military contacts between China and the United States. It also renamed what previously had been known as ‘Military Power of the People’s Republic of China’ as ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.’

The report offers considerable evidence that Chinese strategists and political leaders have assigned an increasing range of missions and tasks to the Chinese armed forces, from winning wars to maintaining stability at home to defending the China’s commercial and economic interests overseas. According to the Pentagon, the Chinese military has been receiving additional resources, altering its doctrine, and restructuring its organization to accomplish these missions better.

The authors document the progress made by each branch of the Chinese military in improving its capabilities and expanding its range of operations since the first report on China’s military power appeared in 2000. The PLA, which previously concentrated on winning a lengthy war of attrition against any possible foreign invader, is now developing the capacity to win short, high-intensity conflicts around China. The PLA Navy (PLAN) is transforming from a primarily coastal defence force into one that could operate outside China’s territorial waters in defence of China’s maritime interests. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has transitioned from a service focused almost exclusively on territorial defence to one that could conduct diverse offensive and defensive missions outside China’s borders.

In terms of aggregate operational capabilities, not only have the Chinese armed forces increased the quantity of many of its major weapons systems, but the PLA is acquiring more advanced systems and improving its capacity to integrate the key elements of Chinese military power. The Chinese military has been strengthening its logistics and other support networks for all its individual services. Chinese strategists have placed special importance on making their C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) systems more reliable, survivable, interoperable, and integrated.

Despite its coming out in late August, this year’s report attracted more interest than usual in Washington. Not only is the US Defense Department fighting to defend its budget during a time of major cutbacks, but the PLA has demonstrated a series of new military capabilities, including the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier and the PLAAF’s first stealth fighter. ‘Militarily, China’s sustained modernization programme is paying visible dividends,’ the report states. ‘During 2010, China made strides toward fielding an operational anti-ship ballistic missile, continued work on its aircraft carrier program, and finalized the prototype of its first stealth aircraft.’

But the report shares the ambiguous judgment of many foreign analysts over whether the PLAN really does possess a stealth aircraft. It states that the J-20 ‘highlights China’s ambition to produce a fighter aircraft that incorporates stealth attributes, advanced avionics, and super-cruise capable engines over the next several years.’

The report also concurs with most experts that the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier, launched earlier this month without combat aircraft, ‘will likely serve initially as a training-and-evaluation platform.’ But the Pentagon also agrees that China is unlikely to simply stop with one obsolescent training carrier, and will instead soon start building a fleet of its own. ‘China could begin construction of a fully indigenous carrier in 2011, which could achieve operational capability after 2015,’ it concludes. ‘China likely will build multiple aircraft carriers with support ships over the next decade.’

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