On Friday, May 8, the United States Department of Defense released its annual report to Congress on China’s military and security developments. The full report is available in PDF form here. The report offers helpful insight into the U.S. government’s threat perception of China’s military and the issues that are primarily shaping U.S. strategic thinking. After reading the report, the one major takeaway is that the United States is primarily concerned with China’s naval modernization. In fact, such is the emphasis on China’s navy, its maritime activities, and modernization, the People’s Liberation Army’s ground forces receive little mention, relegated to a few scattered paragraphs here and there. In this sense, the Pentagon’s 2015 report appears to be heavily influenced by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence’s earlier report from this year (released for the first time in six years) which outlined China’s naval modernization in considerable detail.
The report is a sobering reminder that, despite China’s headline-grabbing land reclamation activities in the South China Sea and its ongoing dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea, the primary driver of China’s military modernization continues to be “potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait.” To this end, the Pentagon’s report outlines the situation in the Taiwan Strait, including the military balance across the strait (spoiler: it heavily favors China). China’s defense budget is roughly ten times that of Taiwan’s, and continues to grow.
At the same time, the report does not sideline or underemphasize the seriousness of China’s activities in the East and South China Seas. The report contains a helpful update on China’s “use of low-intensity coercion” (what some have euphemistically called “salami slicing”) in the South China Sea. The Pentagon notes China’s use of white-hulled Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels to advance its interests without escalating disputes to a military level. The report’s release, incidentally, coincides with the one-year anniversary of China’s decision to move an oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) last year, an event that sparked a major row between the two countries and presaged China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.
In hardware terms, the report offers updates on China’s military modernization and updates on the scope of its activities. It notes that China is broadening the geographic reach of its military activities, particularly in the Indian Ocean Region. It confirms that China’s nuclear powered Shang-class and Song-class submarines have deployed in the Indian Ocean (the latter drew attention in late 2014 when it was spotted at a dock in Colombo, Sri Lanka). It further confirms China’s continued positioning of artillery and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) opposite Taiwan. Beijing possess 1,200 SRBMs, including the 800-1,000 km range DF-16. Its medium-range ballistic missile (MRBMs) continue to grow as well, including the DF-21D “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).
As a final note, the report notes that as a consequence of China’s speedy and broad naval modernization, its indigenous naval and shipbuilding industry is improving both its capacity and capability. This suggests that China could begin exporting more surface ships than ever before in the coming years. As I noted last week, China may be looking to sell Russia its Jiangkai-II-class frigates; by some measures, Chinese shipyards are able to produce frigates up to seven times faster than their Russian counterparts. China exported $14 billion in conventional arms from 2009 to 2013, and this is expected to grow. Pakistan’s is China’s primary customer for its conventional arms, and Sub-Saharan Africa is where China dominates as the top arms supplier.