Commentary

US Cries Chinese Wolf

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Asia Times on March 31, 2009.

On March 25, the United States Department of Defense released the 2009 unclassified edition of its annual report “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” to Congress.

As a description of the ongoing development of China’s military forces it is a reasonably informative document. But if it was supposed to be an alarm about the threat posed by Chinese military forces it failed badly. For this we should be grateful.

Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union many members of America’s politico-military-industrial sector have been looking for another country as a replacement, if only to justify the huge military and security expenditures the United States appropriates annually. And, by default, given its sheer size, population, and increasing economic importance, China is seen as the new threat standard. Indeed, China now provides the rationale for at least a quarter of the Pentagon’s budget.

Yet, unlike the waning years of the Cold War, when the Reagan-era Pentagon released its annual Soviet Military Power, giving an estimate of the Soviet Union’s military power and strategy, the 66-page Chinese version is more nuanced and far less alarmist. And even the passages warning of threatening Chinese military developments seem unconvincing.

Although the report’s release comes after heightened tensions between the US and China after Chinese vessels early this month harassed a US Navy surveillance ship, USNS Impeccable, in international waters in the South China Sea it is difficult to see it as anything other than a recitation of the sort of ongoing force modernization that any major power would undertake as a matter of course.

Indeed, in the Pentagon press briefing introducing the report a senior defense official said, “China appears to be pursuing a set of enduring strategic priorities which we identify in this report as, first, perpetuating the role of the Chinese Communist Party, continuing economic development, ensuring domestic stability, protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity and obtaining great-power status.”

With the exception of protecting the Chinese Communist Party there are the same goals the United States lists in its own annual strategy documents.

On Taiwan, the report notes that China continues to produce weapons that could threaten the island and increase the number of short-range missiles opposite the island, but it also notes that the overall security situation in the Taiwan Straits has improved in the last year.

While the report mentions China’s development of longer-range capabilities it acknowledges that some of these capabilities have allowed it to contribute cooperatively to the international community’s responsibilities in areas such as peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and counter-piracy.

On military spending the report says China’s official military budget grew nearly 18% in 2008 to US$60.1 billion, although that is not the total of its military expenditures. The Pentagon estimates military spending at $105 billion to $150 billion.

The report notes that China has resumed reporting its defense expenditure to the United Nations. But its decision to employ the simplified reporting form suggests that China’s leaders have not yet committed fully to the idea of military transparency as a confidence-building measure. Yet the data that is publicly available shows that overall China’s military expenditures are dwarfed by that of the United States.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2007, China’s estimated total military expenditure was 506 billion yuan, or $58.2 billion. China spent only 2.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its military in 2006 (the last year data was available).

For the United States that figure was $578 billion, or $546 billion in constant dollars. That would be 4% of its GDP. Of course, that does not include military spending on wars it is fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, or military spending for homeland security.

Also, during the press briefing the defense official noted that, “I think - yeah, there’s been a - there’s been an overall trend of incremental and modest improvements in transparency.”

Considering that at the press briefing the defense official said “China is now spending a lot more for its military than just about everybody else in the region,” it is worth noting that the share of GDP it spends on the military is only 0.1 percentage point more than that of Taiwan. And it is 0.6 percentage points less than India spends on its military.

What the report seems to find most threatening is China’s future ability to project power to ensure access to resources or enforce claims to disputed territories. The report noted, “In this regard, we see a continued emphasis on building capacity for sea- and land-based anti-access and aerial denial operations. And as an example, in the maritime domain, China’s maritime anti-access and aerial denial capabilities increasingly appear geared toward coordinated operations to interdict at long ranges aircraft carriers or expeditionary strike groups out into the Western Pacific.”

This is thinly veiled code for China’s growing ability to counter US military forces in a future crisis. But it takes more than weaponry to fight effectively. The American experience since 2001 shows that advanced weaponry, even against opponents with no navies, armies, air forces and air defenses, can have costly, unintended strategic consequences.

The organization and training of its forces is at least equally, if not more, important.

Yet, the response to a question at the press briefing indicates that China’s future military potential is not a burning concern at the Pentagon.

Question: Beyond the region, did you all look at, for example, how many years or decades China may be out from being able to challenge the US militarily?

Senior defense official: We didn’t actually conduct that assessment in this report. So we don’t make that judgment.

In fact, the report stated, “The Poeple’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) force projection capabilities will remain limited over the next decade as the PLA replaces outdated aircraft and maritime vessels and adjusts operational doctrine to encompass new capabilities. These changes will require tailored logistics equipment and training that that will take time and funding to develop. Although foreign-produced or civil sector equipment and maintenance parts may help to fill near-term gaps, continued reliance on non-organic assets will hinder PLA capabilities to sustain large-scale operations.”

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of the book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.