The progressive neutering of the annual Pentagon China military power reports is unfortunate, as the report has been among the most authoritative sources of information on specific Chinese military capabilities in recent years. Given the People’s Liberation Army’s unwillingness to reveal this information itself, the report has been one of the few reliable sources of transparency to inform foreign analysts, scholars, and citizens about important Chinese military developments that often have global repercussions. China has experienced important military and security changes over the past year, yet aside from its reformatted font and graphics, the 2012 report proves thin on new content.
While Chinese government spokespeople consistently criticize the Pentagon reports, they don’t provide specific evidence of inaccuracies. There’s no reason to water the report down in the face of criticism unsupported by factual counter-evidence, as doing so deprives citizens around the world of the opportunity to monitor the actions of governments – Chinese, U.S., or any other – and hold them accountable for their actions.
Moreover, like any other sovereign country, China is free to publish its own reports about the U.S. military, and already does so regarding its views on U.S. human rights. It would be very frustrating to think that certain officials in Washington were, at Beijing’s behest, effectively imposing self-censorship of useful and beneficial public discussions of China’s growing military capabilities.
In this spirit of transparency and government accountability, the analysis below looks at the 12 most critical shortcomings and omissions of the 2012 China Military Power Report.
1) The American taxpayer should have access to the highest quality source information on China’s military development given the implications for U.S. national interests. Shying away from critical analysis of important aspects of Chinese military development is a grave disservice to forward deployed U.S. forces in Asia. Our servicemen and women need American taxpayers to be kept well apprised of China’s rapidly growing military power so that voters will be ready to support measures to pay for equipment needed to adapt to the changing circumstances. The Office of Naval Intelligence’s detailed 2009 report on China’s naval development provides an excellent example of a report that provides the type of detail and insights that taxpayers deserve.
2) What factors could hinder or facilitate China’s military development in coming years? China’s rise as a key global economic and security player depends critically on its economy and the trajectory of its power moving forward is likely to hinge heavily on the country’s economic growth path. In the longer term, a variety of factors may limit PLA budget growth, at least to some extent. Various structural factors including higher health care and pension costs and rapidly rising wages that will erode the Chinese defense industry’s labor cost advantages could greatly restrict China’s ability to sustain rapid military spending growth, regardless of its leaders’ intentions. Personnel, equipment, and operational costs are all rising for the PLA, and there will be a limit to what can be afforded in the future. In coming years, China’s leaders are likely to face wrenching tradeoffs not seen since the post-1978 reforms as China’s population ages, develops increased lifestyle expectations, questions the wisdom of tolerating a growth-at-all-costs mentality, and yet is likely to remain strongly nationalistic. Yet, even at a lower level of defense spending, China could still increase its power and influence substantially in East Asia and even challenge U.S. and allied interests there substantially, but the nature of the challenge could be very different depending on how Beijing chose to allocate its resources between national defense and pressing domestic priorities such as education and healthcare.
3) Very little focus on China’s evolving defense industry, despite the Congressional mandate that the report “…shall address the current and probable future course of military-technological development of the People’s Liberation Army…over the next 20 years.” Beijing is aggressively investing in key defense sectors, such as design and mass production of high performance jet engines that would make its aircraft industry independent from foreign parts and assistance. China’s defense sector is working hard to make the leap from “R&C” (research and copy) to true R&D. Progress has come in fits and starts, but as the defense industrial complex builds up its human capital base and works to improve quality control and rectify other issues, substantial progress in aerospace equipment and other key sectors is likely during the next 5 years. As such, the China Military Power Report drafters would do well to anticipate likely outcomes and help avoid strategic surprises as China’s defense manufacturers make breakthroughs.
4) The watered down report may lead China to perceive a gap between rhetoric and action that it can exploit. If the Obama administration’s intent is to placate Beijing by moderating (i.e. gutting) the reports, it should consider the reality that its actions won’t build trust, but instead are likely to be taken as a sign of weakness. A key example of this risk is the soft stance the administration took on China during its first two years in office that fueled Chinese assertiveness. Conversely, consider the conciliatory shifts in Chinese diplomatic behavior toward the United States once Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her strong July 2010 Hanoi speech that directly refuted China’s insistence that China alone could resolve disputes in the South China Sea.
5) The strategically significant China military headline movers of the past year – such as the aircraft carrier maiden cruise and further development of the J-20 – received only a few sentences worth of discussion.A Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep after reading the 2011 report and woke up and read the 2012 version would have concluded that the state of China’s military development was the same as in 2011 – a conclusion that would be woefully incorrect.
6) The report doesn’t provide any significant updates regarding China’s missiles, one of the most potent types of weapons, and a major area of development and deployment. This omission comes despite the statement in the 2010 report that “China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world.” The 2012 report also fails to elaborate on the 2011 report’s mention of “a new road-mobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV)” or underground nuclear facilities. Unfortunately, there are no significant details about China’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) in the 2012 report, despite the fact that the system now has some degree of operational capability. This omission is highly significant given that Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (East Asia) David Helvey told reporters separately that: “We highlight continued development of the anti-ship ballistic missile or the DF-21D. It’s got a limited operational capability, and I think that’s reflected in the report. They continue to work on that and develop that and deploy that.”
7) What are future contingencies the PLA may need to deal with?The report is supposed to have a 20-year forward looking time horizon. Yet the 2012 report narrowly focuses on Taiwan, which is strategically misleading given the ramp up in tensions in the South China Sea since the 2011 report was published.
8) The 2012 report fails to examine Chinese maritime strategies. Discussions of Chinese military strategy must look at Chinese thinking on maritime issues, because the friction points most likely to spark conflict in the near-term and most likely to shape military development and diplomatic strategy in the longer-term are nearly all fundamentally maritime in character. The 2011 report contains strong and detailed discussion of China’s maritime strategic thinking and potential drivers of naval modernization moving forward and the 2012 report should also have included and updated this useful and relevant section.
9) The report doesn’t mention the Near Seas and there’s very little discussion about China’s increasingly heavy-handed approach to dealing with its South China Sea neighbors, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. Regional maritime disputes deserve very substantial focus given their potential to be near-term flashpoints for armed conflict in Asia between China, some of its neighbors, and possibly even the United States, which considers freedom of navigation a vital national interest. The issue also deserves discussion because China’s behavior toward its maritime neighbors suggests that with each incremental gain in Chinese military power, its foreign policy will acquire a correspondingly sharper edge.
10) The report has also become less user-friendly. In prior years, the report featured a first chapter that focused on what had changed since the previous report. The specific highlighting of what was new regarding China’s military and security situation was very helpful to consumers such as busy legislative staffers and omitting it makes the report onerous and less practically useful. The omission also suggests the report’s drafters feared calling attention to the fact that they didn’t materially cover new ground with the 2012 edition.
11) The report largely overlooks China’s burgeoning and highly strategic space program. China launched 19 satellites in 2011 – more than the U.S. – and has also tested the Shenlong vehicle, a possible precursor to an X-37B-style space plane that the PLA could use. U.S. military operations as well as civilian economic activities depend on proper functioning of satellites for communication and other functions could all be vulnerable if China chose to further militarize its space program. The public deserves a more detailed accounting of these national-level risks than the 2012 report provides.
12) The 2012 report has too much focus on military-to-military contacts, which exacts an opportunity cost in terms of discussion of other, more important issues. Actions speak loudly, and the PLA’s consistent rejections of overtures from DoD clearly communicate that Beijing has little desire for a meaningful military-to-military relationship with the U.S. It is a grave strategic mistake for the U.S. to be too much of an ardent suitor in its pursuit of a relationship with the PLA. Relationships can’t succeed without mutual commitment. Interactions where the U.S. military welcomes Chinese visitors to view modern equipment and the Chinese respond by letting U.S. personnel visit their older, second line bases and platforms do not qualify as a “relationship.” Rather, they are simply cagey Chinese moves designed to capitalize on Washington’s presently intense desire for military to military relations at almost any cost. So far, the military-to-military interactions between China and the U.S. have yielded negligible benefits for Washington and simply demonstrate that powerful interests in China do not want closer military ties.
China’s military is developing rapidly and the writers of the China Military Power Report had ample material for crafting a 2012 report that truly fulfilled the Congressional mandate to provide a forward looking assessment of China’s military development. As China’s military capabilities grow and the U.S. maneuvers in response, DoD must use the China military power reports to help keep taxpayers abreast of events and help the White House harmonize its rhetoric and actions (such as the nature of the report). Doing so will ensure that China, as well as U.S. partners in Asia, assign the highest credibility to the United States’ East Asia policy.
Gabe Collins is the co-founder of China SignPost and a former commodity investment analyst and research fellow in the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.