One can read the Pentagon’s
latest report on Chinese military power
, released last Thursday, in many ways, but two interpretations come to mind most easily. On one hand, one sees clear continuities with previous versions of this congressionally mandated annual assessment. This year’s report does not highlight any radical changes or breakthroughs in Chinese military capabilities during the past year and does not foresee any revolutionary developments over the coming one. On the other hand, the document depicts a comprehensive and unrelenting Chinese military buildup whose sheer size and persistence should, if trends continue, propel China to superpower status in a few decades.
Despite the rise to power of a new generation of Chinese leaders during the past few years, and their more assertive policy regarding regional disputes and other issues, Chinese defense policy continues to follow trends established during the previous decade.
The Chinese armed forces, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), continue to operate at ever-greater distances from Chinese territory, including for supporting global peace and security missions as well as for more unilateral coercive activities. China remains the leading contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. In addition, the Chinese navy continues to assign a few ships to the Gulf of Aden to counter pirates that operate from bases in Somalia. Meanwhile, Chinese warships can increasingly be found patrolling in the disputed waters of the East and South China Seas. The Chinese armed forces are also engaging in larger and more complex exercises.
In coming years, the Pentagon expects the PLA to field long-range surveillance drones and to keep at least one nuclear missile-launching submarine on permanent patrol. The Pentagon report echoes a recent U.S. National Defense University book
in noting that China is expanding the number and capabilities of its cruise missiles at a time when the Pentagon is focusing on augmenting its defenses against ballistic missiles.
Yet, one must not neglect that the PLA has been using drones for target practice for years and that China already has a sufficiently secure nuclear deterrent in the form of its mobile land-based missiles that can hide under a maze of tunnels. China continues to develop its space warfare capabilities, but Beijing learned from the globally negative reaction to its first anti-satellite test in 2007 and has not officially conducted another, although some observers suspect it has tested relevant capabilities covertly
. Among the great powers, China remains unique in its lack of overseas military bases, which would be needed to establish a major global military presence. For all its expanding training routines, the PLA still lacks the ability to wage genuinely joint warfare, depriving it of the ability to pursue an air-sea battle doctrine or other strategy requiring close cooperation between different service branches.
In line with President Xi Jinping’s declared intent to establish a new type of great power relationship with the United States, the Chinese military has been expanding its engagement activities with the Pentagon, as well as with other foreign militaries. High-level Chinese and U.S. military exchanges have grown in frequency and extended to encompass new activities. Just yesterday Beijing reaffirmed its intent to participate
for the first time in the U.S.-led RIMPAC exercise, despite bilateral tensions over cyber-espionage, U.S. military support for Japan and the Philippines, and other security issues.
With each edition of its white paper on defense, moreover, the Chinese government has also become more transparent about its military policies and programs. The Chinese media provides considerably more details about Chinese weapons and units than it did even a few years ago. This year’s Pentagon report can therefore use Chinese sources to provide more details about various Chinese systems and projects than earlier versions.
But China still provides much less data about its military spending and development plans than the United States, where anyone can acquire much information just by perusing the Pentagon website and the Defense Department’s regular submissions and testimony to Congress. Furthermore, the Pentagon-PLA relationship remains fundamentally tense and transactional, with the Chinese haggling over each concession toward openness. For example, after having allowed U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to become the first senior foreign dignitary to visit its only aircraft carrier earlier this year, Beijing has been pressing the United States to reciprocate in some way.
China’s preferred exercise partner remains Russia. Just last month, the two countries conducted their third annual bilateral naval exercise in the East China Sea. Its symbolic importance was recognized by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi, who both attended the exercise’s official opening on May 21 and praised the drills for enhancing mutual cooperation and security. The 2014 exercises consisted of a wider range of missions than seen in U.S. exercises with either country. The Chinese and Russian forces split into two teams that simulated combat against one another, as they have in previous years, but this time they also formed mixed groups—commanded by both Russian and Chinese officers in either language—that engaged one another. The drills also deepened media speculation about further Russian arms sales to China, to include advanced submarines, warplanes and air defense systems.
Nonetheless, Russia has already been selling arms to China for several decades, and the Russians still decline to sell China breakthrough technologies, even at the cost of losing market share to Chinese domestic producers. Despite their shared aversion to U.S. missiles defenses, the two countries have not pooled their R&D efforts or engaged in other joint activities to overcome these systems.
U.S. officials are not concerned about any single Chinese weapon system or exercise, but rather by the comprehensive and sustained nature of China’s military buildup, which creates “friction” in the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, the sheer magnitude of China’s missile buildup is remarkable, especially its concentration near Taiwan at a time when cross-strait tensions remain low. The military balance between the two sides continues its inexorable shift against Taipei, with little prospect of any development that might reverse this trend given China’s advantages in size and proximity. Although the U.S. military is prepared to defend Taiwan if ordered to do so by the White House, the PLA’s ballistic missiles, cyber-capabilities and other instruments of deterrence and disruption are giving the PLA formidable anti-access, area-denial capabilities against the Pentagon.
As long as the Chinese economy continues to grow much more rapidly than that of the United States, China will likely continue to reduce the gap in military power between the two countries. The current U.S. military drawdown is reinforcing this trend. Overall, one recalls the lament of former U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown about the Soviet Union: “When we build, they build; when we cut, they build.”
Nonetheless, Chinese policymakers have presumably not forgotten another Cold War lesson: defense overspending and geopolitical overextension at a time of ethnic strife and other domestic strains can disrupt even the most determined military buildup.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.