Will China Be Rome or Greece?

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Will China Be Rome or Greece?

The Pentagon’s new report on China’s military underscores the rapid progress it is making. But what exactly is this build-up for?

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.

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.’

The report still doesn't rank the PLA as a global military superpower. In fact, it argues that China will require several more decades to achieve this status. It notes the large quantity of ‘antiquated hardware’ in the PLA’s inventory as well as ‘gaps in some key areas’ in addition to continued ‘deficiencies in inter-service cooperation and actual experience in joint exercises and combat operations.’ According to the authors, the PLA is only ‘steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces’ through lavish spending.

Still, in his Pentagon briefing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Michael Schiffer said that US officials weren’t concerned about any single weapon system China is developing. Rather, they are alarmed by the comprehensive and sustained nature of China’s military build-up, which the Pentagon fears could be a ‘destabilizing’ force in the Asia-Pacific region.

‘The pace and scope of China’s sustained military investment have allowed China to pursue capabilities we believe are potentially destabilizing to regional military balances, increase the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation and may contribute to regional tensions and anxieties,’ Schiffer said. ‘Such capabilities could increase Beijing’s options to use military force to gain diplomatic advantage, advance its interests or resolve military disputes in its favour.’

Schiffer differed in tone from the report in arguing that, over the next decade, the PLA will field a number of combat systems ‘on par with’ or exceeding global standards, saying China is ‘on track’ to become a regional military power by 2020.

Writing in The Diplomat yesterday, David Cohen nicely captured the balanced gist of the report: ‘While decades away from being able to think about fighting wars far overseas, China may soon be able to plausibly demand the United States get out of its back yard.’

Like previous reports, the latest report stresses that the PLA is seeking to overcome it weaknesses through ‘asymmetric strategies to leverage China’s advantages while exploiting the perceived vulnerabilities of potential opponents.’ Pentagon analysts conclude that the PLA is pursuing ‘disruptive military technologies’ to overcome China’s continuing weaknesses in the more traditional dimensions of military power and to exploit the vulnerabilities of China’s most likely adversaries. In particular, Chinese military leaders are seeking to take advantage of the US reliance on global communications and information support networks through such asymmetric strategies and tactics, hoping if necessary to impose a temporary information blockade on American military forces and otherwise degrade their ability to fight China.

The report documents China’s growing strengths in the unconventional domains of warfare—nuclear, outer space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. These capabilities include China’s improving strategic missile fleet as well as its anti-satellite, cyber warfare, and other programmes designed to neutralize an adversary’s technological advantages. Elements of China’s conventional forces (such as missiles, mines, submarines and other anti-access/area-denial weapons) also help Beijing deny foreign militaries access to areas around China or at least prevent them from operating effectively there.

This year’s report also notes China’s interest in developing cyber warfare capabilities. ‘In 2010, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the US government, were the target of intrusions, some of which appear to have originated within (China),’ the report found. ‘These intrusions were focused on exfiltrating information. Although this alone is a serious concern, the accesses and skills required for these intrusions are similar to those necessary to conduct computer network attacks.’

In the eyes of Defence Department analysts, ‘Cyber warfare capabilities could serve (Chinese) military operations in three key areas.’ They note that, ‘First and foremost, they allow data collection through exfiltration. Second, they can be employed to constrain an adversary’s actions or slow response time by targeting network-based logistics, communications, and commercial activities. Third, they can serve as a force multiplier when coupled with kinetic attacks during times of crisis or conflict.’

The report was due in March, but was delivered to Congress 170 days late. The months-long delay was presumably due to government agencies’ fighting over changes when reviewing the document.

The main initial impact of the report will be to reinforce the campaign of congressional hawks to shield the US military budgets from major cutbacks. Representative Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, highlighted two concerns in a statement issued following the report’s release: ‘First, Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and military capabilities, particularly China’s ability to deny access to the western Pacific, is of growing concern not only to the United States but to China’s neighbours, leading to changes in the military posture of regional actors.’

In addition, McKeon fears that the Chinese are seeking to exploit the global financial crisis to sow doubts about US staying power in the Asia-Pacific. He warned that ‘security in the Pacific could be further jeopardized if our regional allies also come to believe that the United States will sacrifice the presence and capability of the US military in an attempt to control spending. This is an unacceptable outcome in such a vital region of the globe.’

Chinese analysts often complain that China is held to an exceptionally high standard regarding its military activities, and that much of the foreign concerns about China’s growing military power are hypocritical since other countries have carriers and engage in ambitious military activities without evoking international alarm. The reason why China is often treated differently is that many people see in China the world’s next superpower. People naturally ask themselves—will the newly empowered China act like Greece or Rome, like Imperial Germany or England, like Imperial Japan or Soviet Russia. The answer to this question will go far toward defining the state of belligerence in the world during this century.

An effective US grand strategy today requires managing the rising power of China. Like earlier rising great powers, China might use its growing economic and military power to uphold common interests, such as freedom of the seas against pirates, political reconciliation and economic development in the Afghan-Pak region, or nuclear non-proliferation in Iran and the Koreas. But such a benign power transition is rare and certainly can’t be presumed.

Across any number of indicators, China’s economic success has been staggering. Since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the late 1970’s, China has averaged more than nine percent annual GDP growth. China has attracted hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment and its population hasn’t yet peaked. The PLA has increased its capabilities dramatically in many areas, acquiring more powerful warships, warplanes, and unconventional space and cyber capabilities. These new capabilities generally aim to disrupt US military operations in times of conflict.

Power transitions are primed for problems. Historians and other scholars have noted how, at the level of the international system, the rise and fall of great powers typically entails major tensions and often major wars. Ascending powers seek to alter international institutions and the rules to their advantage as well as pursue territorial and other concrete goals. These rising states generally convert some of their growing wealth into power projection and other military capabilities—which they can in turn employ to pursue their foreign commercial goals. Declining great powers will resist these predations on their overseas economic interests and the existing world order of institutions and norms from which they benefit. Unresolved border disputes, competition for scarce resources, and status and prestige considerations can precipitate an armed conflict.

Rising powers also tend to apply their growing strength to resolve territorial conflicts in their favour. Beijing’s case is more menacing because so many of its land and sea borders are contested with other states. China’s excessive claims to sovereignty over neighbouring waters are worrying given the conflicting claims and the vital importance for maritime navigation of these sea lanes. US forces provide strategic deterrence and military security for many East Asian states, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, among others. Many Asian leaders privately, and some openly, look to Washington to balance a more assertive Chinese foreign policy in the region.

US defence analysts in the Pentagon and elsewhere, meanwhile, have stressed the need to maintain US command of the ‘global commons,’ i.e., the maritime, air, outer space, and the cyber domain. This primacy gives the United States the ability to strike anywhere very quickly, and very hard, while at the same time allowing allies to benefit from US extended security guarantees. As long as the United States acts to keep the commons open to all legitimate users, other countries will support this US hegemony because it directly benefits them—they are able to enjoy free use of the commons without having to pay the full burden of upholding it.

Unfortunately, China’s development of ballistic missiles and other anti-access, area denial, and asymmetric capabilities is challenging US primacy in the sea and air near China, as well as the cyber and outer space domains more broadly. The Chinese apparently aim to disrupt US space satellites, computer systems, and use other vital Defence Department information and communication networks in an attempt to degrade US military capabilities while the PLA uses the opportunity to establish a fait accompli, such as the occupation of Taiwan.

The fundamental question is whether this Chinese-driven power transition will engender major wars, as has often occurred in the past, or whether the transition can be managed in a way that avoids unnecessary loss of life, time, and resources. When confronted by rising powers, the established state can respond in many ways, from graceful retrenchment as occurred during the transition from British to US leadership, to pre-emptive war, as several powers responded to the growing power of Germany. As China’s economic and military power increases relative to the other great powers, Chinese leaders are likely to demand more influence over the world’s key international institutions and norms. In some cases, these demands should be embraced. But not all of them.