For a China hawk’s take on this year’s report, check out this article by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times. Gertz manages to spin a relatively tame report, the product of a committee and thus including something for everyone (a more accurate way of describing what Gertz calls the “subject of political fighting every year as part of pro-China officials’ efforts to promote the Bush administration’s pro-business agenda with Beijing”) into a report of a more alarmist sort.
There is actually very little new in this report. There rarely is. The Pentagon’s annual reports on China are useful compilations of information on the progress of China’s military modernization, but they seem to do little more than provide journalists with a way to fill space.
As in previous reports, the Pentagon notes that preparations for conflict in the Taiwan Straits remains the primary focus of China’s military activities, although as in earlier reports this year’s edition suggests that there are signs that China is looking beyond Taiwan as it considers longer term defense acquisition plans. As before, the Pentagon reports that Chinese military doctrine emphasizes asymmetrical warfare and the development of capabilities that will enable the PLA to neutralize American advantages in the event of war.
One element that seems to have been given special emphasis this year is China’s nuclear arsenal. As I noted yesterday, China is developing a new generation SSBN that will greatly enhance its nuclear deterrent. The Pentagon notes, “The addition of the DF-31 family of missiles and the JL-2 and JIN-class SSBNs will give China a more survivable and flexible nuclear force. New air- and ground-launched cruise missiles that could perform nuclear missions will similarly improve the survivability and flexibility of China’s nuclear forces.” The report goes on to note that there is some ambiguity surrounding China’s “first use” policy, particularly in the event of conflict in the Taiwan Straits.
But all in all, this report is pretty meager, in part because of the PLA’s lack of transparency. While it is the job of Pentagon planners to consider that the lack of transparency is a cloak for a range of worst case scenarios, it is also the job of the media and opinion makers to question the plausibility of the Pentagon’s worst-case scenarios.
One snippet that must be questioned is this: “Given the apparent absence of direct threats from other nations, the purposes to which China’s current and future military power will be applied remain unknown. It is certain, however, that these capabilities will increase Beijing’s options for military coercion to press diplomatic advantage, advance interests, or resolve disputes.”
In other words, as China becomes more wealthy, it is directing its wealth to its military, which will enable it to secure “press diplomatic advantage, advance interests, or resolve disputes.” Does anyone expect it to be otherwise? Even if China was a mature democracy, would it be any different? Once again, the comparison to the rise of the US is telling. As discussed in considerable detail by Robert Kagan in his Dangerous Nation, as the US grew wealthier over the course of the nineteenth century (with foreign trade no small part of US economic success), US interests abroad grew accordingly, and as interests grew, demands that the US have the military means to secure them grew accordingly (which led, of course, to a further expansion of US interests). China is not altogether different. Its interests are growing rapidly, and globally, leading it to desire a military to will be able to secure those growing interests.
But what does that mean in practical terms? China still does not possess a force capable of significant power projection, even in its near abroad, and the PLA is a long time away from being able to project power globally on the order of the US Military, if it will ever be capable of that. Is it not too early to be alarmed, particularly since there seems to be little the US can do to curtail China’s military modernization?
Another question is, if China is starting to think in global terms, why should that alarm the US? A China interested in global order could just as well be a partner of the US as a rival. China’s future is far from ordained, and much will depend on the decisions the US makes. As Joseph Nye and others have been saying for a long while, if the US acts rashly in the face of China’s military modernization, it may well make fears of a hostile China a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And finally, I fail to see why the US should be surprised that China is seeking to strengthen its military despite “the apparent absence of direct threats from other nations.” Again, going back to Kagan, what direct threats did the US face in 1889-1890, when it began a major naval modernization program? China’s military thinking is consistent with every rising great power in history: even today, only military powers are taken seriously as great powers. Perhaps Beijing has looked at Brussels and Tokyo and concluded that to be a “civilian superpower” is to not be a superpower at all. After all, Russia was, by virtue of its nuclear arsenal, able to force its way into the elite chambers of the G7 despite being an economic basket case.
So while the US should continue to track China’s progress closely, it should also not be particularly surprised by China’s decision to develop an advanced military capable of power projection.