Commentary

China Threat: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

It’s that time of year again; the time when the Pentagon rolls out its annual threat assessment on China. The Pentagon has been issuing these reports since 2000, pursuant to US law. This year the 74-page “2010 Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” will undoubtedly be a disappointment to those conservatives who are looking to depict China as a menacing strategic competitor to the United States.

While the executive summary includes the usual warnings about China’s pursuit of new military capabilities, it also pointedly notes that “[E]arlier this decade, China began a new phase of military development by articulating roles and missions for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that go beyond China’s immediate territorial interests.

“Some of these missions and associated capabilities have allowed the PLA to contribute to international peacekeeping efforts, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and counter-piracy operations. The United States recognizes and welcomes these contributions,” the report notes.

Even after listing the usual warnings about improved capabilities in anti-access, area-denial strategies, and extended-range power projection, the report says, “China’s ability to sustain military power at a distance, today, remains limited.”

The document had been due to be read at congress on March 1 but was held up by the Barack Obama administration due to an internal dispute over whether the report’s listing of China’s military establishment, which is carried out annually, would anger Beijing.

This year the report addresses for the first time the on-again, off-again military exchanges between China and the Pentagon. China’s military twice since October 2008 has cut off exchanges to protest US arms sales to Taiwan. The new section lists scores of past military exchanges between the Pentagon and China’s military and a long list of exchanges planned for 2010 that were put on hold by the Chinese suspension of the exchange program.

As one might expect, the report confirmed what is obvious to all analysts; China is developing into an economic superpower, and that growth is allowing the Chinese government to invest more in its military. Thus China is continuing a massive effort to modernize its military and transform its structure, doctrine and strategy. In fact, much the same thing was said in June when the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute published a study “The PLA at Home and Abroad: Assessing the Operational Capabilities of China’s Military.” That report was issued on July 6, a day after China’s economy was recognized as the world’s second biggest, eclipsing Japan’s in size during the second quarter of this year.

The report noted that China is changing the way it thinks about its military. In the past, its forces concentrated on guarding China’s sovereignty, which implied that China’s fighting men would not stray far from the country’s borders. Now that thinking has evolved to a strategy designed to protect China’s interests, including economic ones, that span the globe.

One might say the report was rather conciliatory in tone. That would explain why US House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton released a statement which concluded:

“I continue to believe that China is not necessarily destined to be a threat to the United States and that China doesn’t need to view the United States as a threat to its interests. Yet, conflict between our nations remains a possibility, and we must remain prepared for whatever the future holds in the US-China security relationship. At the same time, we must each be mindful that our actions can produce unintended consequences, and although cooperation is a difficult path, it is ultimately the path that is in both nations’ best interest.”

Skelton is usually seen as being in agreement with the Pentagon on most issues.

China’s overall military spending for 2009 was estimated at $150 billion, an increase of 7.5% to 532.11 billion yuan ($78.4 billion). This was only about one-fifth of what the Pentagon spent last year on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As one would expect a primary potential flashpoint is Taiwan. China froze military-to-military relations with the Defense Department earlier this year after an announcement that the United States was selling more than $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan.

Among the specific military developments the report focused on was the fact that China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world. It is also developing an anti-ship ballistic missile with a range of more than 1,500 kilometers that is capable of attacking aircraft carriers in the western Pacific. There was also a first mention of a new multiple-warhead, long-range road-mobile missile, and details on China’s plan to field aircraft carriers.

The report noted that analysts believe China will not have a domestically produced aircraft carrier and associated ships for another five years, although foreign assistance could speed up that process. It also predicts: “It is unlikely … that China will be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China until well into the following decade.”

The goal of these forces is to have forces that can attack US ships should conflict erupt over Taiwan.

Other anti-access weapons are China’s medium-range missiles “designed to target forces at sea, combined with overhead and over-the-horizon targeting systems to locate and track moving ships.” Other weapons include Luyang 1- and 2-class guided-missile ships and Russian-made Sovremenny-class missile ships. The ships are equipped with advanced long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

China also has six nuclear-powered attack submarines and 54 diesel-electric powered submarines, many of them outfitted with advanced anti-ship cruise missiles.

For anti-access air strikes, the Chinese have indigenous FB-7 and FB-7A jets, and Russian SU-30s. All the jets are armed with anti-ship cruise missiles.

The report noted increased participation in peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Since 2002, China’s contributions to United Nations (UN)-sponsored peace operations have increased. More than 2,100 on-duty Chinese personnel are at present serving in UN missions, with a total contribution of more than 12,000 personnel deployed to 22 missions. China is now the leading contributor of peacekeeping personnel among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

David Isenberg is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a US Navy veteran, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.