No Surprises on China Military

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No Surprises on China Military

The Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military had few surprises. But it still had some useful insights.

This week, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) released its annual report concerning China’s military. The report, Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China, highlights many of the main components of China’s military modernization and expansion, including technological achievements, areas of cooperation with the United States,  force structure, and long term trends.

The report says China “is pursuing a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program designed to improve the capacity of China’s armed forces to fight and win ‘local wars under conditions of informatization,’ or high-intensity, information-centric regional military operations of short duration.”  The text also interestingly notes that “(T)he character used for ‘local war’ can also be translated as ‘regional war.’ There is a debate over which translation is more accurate.”

During a press conference introducing the report, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (East Asia) David Helvey was specifically asked about the term ‘informatization.’ Helvey pointed out that “they (China) watched very carefully U.S. and coalition military forces, beginning from the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, up until our current operations today.” He added: “And one of the things that the PLA has consistently highlighted is the role of advanced information technology not only for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but also enabling precision fires.  And when they talk about fighting and winning local wars under conditions of informatization, that’s the type of war- fighting environment that they’re – that they’re talking about.”

There’s also an attempt to paint an historical perspective on China’s efforts to grow its influence. The document details China’s leadership viewing “the first two decades of the 21st century as a ‘period of strategic opportunity’ for China’s growth and development. They assess that this period will include a generally favorable external environment, characterized by interdependence, cooperation, and a low threat of major power war.”

One could assume China’s leaders had concluded as the United States fought a “global war on terror” combined with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first 20 years of this century would be a time where China could develop its overall capabilities without pressing competition in the Asia-Pacific. The report does note that “China’s leaders do not expect this period to be free of tension or competition (as evidenced by periodic flare-ups with neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China Sea) or to last indefinitely.”

One clear theme was that even as China’s armed forces are developing a wide range of capabilities, including the development of stealth aircraft prototypes, aircraft carrier technology and cyber weapons, the PLA still regards “preparing for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait remains the principal focus and driver of much of China’s military investment.”

Indeed, although the report mentions that relations between China and Taiwan have improved, “the PLA (has) continued to build the capabilities and develop the doctrine it considers necessary to deter Taiwan from declaring independence; to deter, delay, and deny effective U.S. intervention in a potential cross-Strait conflict; and to defeat Taiwan forces in the event of hostilities.”

The report also covers the many weapons systems, strategies and tactics Chinese military planners have been perfecting over the last several years. Anti-access/area-denial are discussed, termed by PLA strategists as “counter intervention operations,” a possible veiled reference to a Taiwan conflict scenario.

China’s nuclear forces, an area of some controversy recently, were also examined. The report notes China “developing a near continuous at-sea strategic deterrent with the JIN-class SSBN (submarine) program.”  There are also details of China’s land based nuclear forces. The document suggests that by 2015, “China will also field additional road-mobile DF-31A (CSS-10 Mod 2) intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and enhanced, silo-based DF-5 (CSS-4) ICBMs.”

Mention is made of China’s growing space program and launch capability. While Western media largely reports on China’s successes, the report points out some recent problems. It notes that: “The recent surge in the number of China’s space launches also may be taking a toll. In August 2011, in the third satellite launch in seven days for China, a Long March 2C rocket (carrying an experimental Shijian 11 satellite), malfunctioned after liftoff and failed to deliver the satellite into orbit.”

There’s also a whole chapter dedicated to “military-to-military” contacts.  Such contacts hope to promote stronger and stable relations between both militaries and “consist of clear lines of communication for senior military and defense leaders and allow for substantive exchanges on a range of defense and security issues, particularly during times of turbulence and friction.”

Some media outlets noted an expedited timetable for the operational usage of China’s J-20 stealth fighter  aircraft.  Secretary Helvey commented: “We expect the J-20 to achieve an effective operational capability no sooner than 2018.”This is in contrast to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ earlier comments the plane would be ready no earlier than 2020. While the updated timetable is certainly possible, China has well documented issues in domestic production of jet engines in powering advanced fighter aircraft that could alter any timeline considerably. A number of media outlets have reported Russian engines powering China’s J-20. There are also wide-ranging views on the possible effectiveness of the plane in actual combat operations.

China’s media have responded to the report in customary fashion, with the official Xinhua News Agency claiming: “The Pentagon on Friday falsely accused China's military expenditure of being non-transparent and said the country was responsible for cyberspace intrusions against U.S. computers.”  The piece also argued the report is “a Cold War-style practice that the United States once adopted toward the former Soviet Union in an attempt to put pressure on its archrival.”

While there may not be any urgent new information in this week’s release, the U.S. military’s latest assessment of China’s military capabilities is important for obvious reasons. With a long list of tensions between the two, any window the outside world can gain into the complex strategic nexus of U.S.-China military strategy, weapons and tactics is an important one.