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Wishful Thinking in Our Time

From the August 8, 2005 issue: The Pentagon looks at China, and blinks.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL and GARY SCHMITT
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MONTHS OVERDUE, THE PENTAGON'S annual report to Congress on China's military power is a mix of happy talk, flabby strategic musings, and sobering facts. No doubt this analytic confusion explains the quite divergent news accounts of the report when it was released on July 19. The New York Times, for example, reported that the Defense Department had concluded that "China has not yet built the military power to have full confidence it can achieve its political objectives regarding Taiwan." Similarly, the Financial Times's headline read simply: "Pentagon report stresses limits of China's military threat." In contrast, the Washington Post led with "Chinese Buildup Seen as Threat to Region," and focused on China's expanded ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons. Likewise, the Wall Street Journal read the report as warning that China's military buildup "could pose a threat to U.S. allies in Asia and upset the regional balance of power."

The one thing that is clear is that publication of this year's Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China was delayed while its initial and more alarming conclusions about China's strategic intent were toned down. Senior administration officials overruled the report's authors, professional analysts, and policy advisers at the Pentagon intent on providing an unvarnished account of China's military. And, contrary to conventional Washington wisdom, this was done not over the heads of the most senior ranks in the Pentagon but with their agreement.

The resulting muddle is captured in the report's first substantive section ("Understanding China's Strategy"), which begins: "The EP-3 incident in April 2001 damaged U.S.-China relations. Thereafter, the United States developed a cooperative and constructive relationship with China in which the United States has stressed the values of candor and transparency." The report goes on to note China's role in the Six-Party talks with North Korea, its participation in talks to deal with its WTO compliance problems, the soon-to-begin, new "senior dialogue" between Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and China's vice foreign minister Dai Bingguo, and expanded military-to-military exchanges.

Putting aside for a moment the strangely myopic choice to begin a discussion of China's larger strategic intentions with the forced downing of an American spy plane more than four years ago, the list of supposedly constructive developments is itself revealing. It shows how hard the administration has to search for good news, and even then, the list it comes up with is virtually all talk and no substance.

A more accurate picture would take note of China's noncompliance with its pledges to the World Trade Organization; its failure to use its leverage with North Korea to end Pyongyang's game of nuclear Russian roulette; its continuing refusal to abide by human rights and refugee conventions it has signed; its less-than-stellar nonproliferation record; its use of Chinese nationalism to browbeat Japan; its refusal to cooperate with the other great powers in the Proliferation Security Initiative; its obstructionist policies on Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma; and of course its repeated threats to use military force to unify Taiwan with the mainland--and, if need be, engage in nuclear brinkmanship to prevent the United States from intervening to stop a forcible reunification. It is this fuller--but unstated--account of Chinese behavior that fits with the substantive heart of the report, documenting China's rapid and dramatic improvements in military capabilities.

WHAT'S NEW IN THIS YEAR'S REPORT is the finding that China's military buildup has begun to have serious implications not only for the cross-strait balance of power but also for the region as a whole.

The People's Liberation Army possesses a growing fleet of nuclear and diesel submarines, has 650-730 mobile ballistic missiles, and is working on aerial refueling for a significant percentage of its 2,600 combat aircraft. Toss in new and improved command, control, and communication systems and over-the-horizon targeting capabilities, and the picture that emerges is a China with military capabilities that are not just Taiwan-centric. While the report suggests that these capabilities "could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region . . . over the long term, if current trends persist," most regional militaries are already worried. When Chinese ships and subs begin making clandestine trips into Japanese home waters--as they have--the signal being sent to Japan and the region is clear enough.