The Magazine

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.

What's not new in the report is China's increasing military capacity to bring Taiwan to its knees. Last year's report judged that China could force Taiwan to accept unification with the mainland under certain conditions: "The campaign could succeed--barring third-party intervention--if Beijing were willing to accept the political, economic, diplomatic, and military costs that an invasion would produce." The point here is that Beijing does not believe a full-fledged invasion would be necessary to accomplish its goal. Rather, the PLA leadership, according to its own doctrinal papers, thinks a combination of ballistic-missile, special-operation, and aerial strikes could be sufficient to shock Taiwan's population and leadership into accepting Beijing's version of "one China."

For similar reasons, China is working hard to develop the capacity to blockade Taiwan. The submarine modernization program that the report details is extensive. Eight new quiet KILO-class diesels will soon be added to the four already in the arsenal; China's indigenous SONG diesel is now in serial production; and a new diesel submarine, the YUAN class, was launched last year. Chinese naval journals indicate a deep interest in blockading operations, and pay close attention to the vulnerabilities of Taiwan's island economy.

Such scenarios, of course, raise the question of what role the United States would or would not want to play in turning back Chinese aggression. Here, too, the answer is clear as day: China's military knows that it must be able to prevent, or, at least severely complicate, the American Navy's use of its aircraft carriers. To this end, as the new report spells out, China's antiship cruise missile force is growing by leaps and bounds. It has begun to field high-end, supersonic and subsonic cruise missiles on its new destroyers, attack boats, and submarines. It has even experimented with use of maneuverable, multiple-entry MRBMs and SRBMs to hit carrier battle groups. Once China solves the problem of longer-range detection and targeting, it will pose the most serious threat to American carriers in the world. And, in truth, when it comes to China's close-in waters, no serious American naval planner believes it would be safe sailing for American surface combatants, even as things stand today. As one PLA general remarked: "We have the ability to deal with an aircraft carrier that dares to get into our range of fire."

The report also details China's programs to upgrade its intercontinental ballistic missile force with new solid-fuel, road-mobile missiles and new sea-based, submarine-launched systems. The net effect will be a more survivable, more accurate, and more lethal nuclear strategic capability--aimed primarily at the United States. As General Zhu Chenghu, dean of China's National Defense University, not so subtly reminded American visitors recently: Should the United States intervene in a conflict between China and Taiwan, "the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds . . . of [their] cities will be destroyed by the Chinese" nuclear weapons.

Combine the PLA's fascination with "carrier killing," its ability to degrade severely the operational utility of U.S. air bases in Japan through missile strikes, its aggressive pursuit of space and counterspace capabilities, and its upgraded nuclear arsenal, and you have a military that believes it has or is close to having the means to make any American president think twice before going to Taiwan's rescue.

LAZILY, the U.S. government has accepted the Chinese propaganda line that these trends in Chinese military modernization are first designed to deter Taiwan "from moving toward de jure 'independence.'" Never mind that only a small minority in Taiwan supports taking that step (so even the most pro-independence politician in Taiwan would probably be unsuccessful in pushing the idea), China almost certainly would not be seeking these military capabilities to support a policy of mere deterrence. A few hundred missiles aimed at Taiwan could do that.

Obviously, China is interested in deterring Taiwan from declaring independence, but, more significantly, it is interested in pursuing its stated goal of "reuniting" Taiwan with the motherland--and it is in relation to this goal that the PLA's actions and plans make sense.

The Chinese Communist leadership has made clear time and again that it will not tolerate a prolonged separation of Taiwan from the mainland, and it has tasked the PLA, as earlier Pentagon reports indicated, with providing real military options. As this year's report notes (and as China's recent adoption of the Anti-Secession law essentially codifies): "The Chinese Communist Party came to power on its credentials as a defender of Chinese sovereignty; its leaders appear to see progress--or perhaps, the absence of failure--on the Taiwan issue as affecting the legitimacy of their rule."

But rather than face the facts presented in the report about the character and scope of China's military buildup, the tendency in the senior ranks of the administration is to wash over them with sound bites about our relationship with China being "good but complex." Or worse.

The day after the report was issued, in response to a question about the cross-strait military balance, Marine general Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said, "There's lots of countries in the world that have the capacity to wage war," but "very few have the intent to do so. . . . There's absolutely no reason for us to believe there is any intent on [China's] part." Absolutely?

For one thing, as these annual Pentagon reports have repeatedly pointed out, China shrouds its military plans and senior decision-making in secrecy. But what we can observe could hardly lead anyone to think that we should be so confident about China's intentions. After all, this is the country that now ranks third in the world in overall defense spending, and the one that has increased its military budget fastest over the past decade, with growth in military expenditures outpacing even China's own remarkable growth in GDP. General Pace had better hope his statement doesn't go down in history alongside George Tenet's now infamous, "It's a slam dunk, Mr. President."

One theme that was added to this year's report is that China is at a "strategic crossroads." It faces one path leading to peaceful integration with its region and the world, the other to competition with the other significant powers in the region and with the United States. In one respect, this is a truism: Theoretically, any power, at any time, can choose to alter its relationships with the outside world. But the data at the heart of the Pentagon's report suggest that China is not at any crossroads; rather, it is already headed down a path previously taken by other autocratic, rapidly rising great powers. And until China undertakes major political reforms, it will probably stay on that path.

In reality, it is more accurate to say that the United States is at a strategic crossroads when it comes to China. With our plate full around the globe, we are understandably reluctant to raise publicly the prospect of a new great power competition. Nevertheless, the administration is doing quite a bit to contain Chinese military power--our upgraded relations with Japan, India, Vietnam, Singapore, and Australia are cases in point. But our reluctance to admit this publicly to ourselves or to our allies, and our rosy rhetoric about our "constructive" relationship with Beijing, leave us at a disadvantage as China ratchets up the competition. As a practical matter, this attitude often leaves us a day late and a dollar short when it comes to matching new Chinese initiatives.

Nor is our position sustainable. Beijing is not blind to our reaching out to the powers in the region. For it, the competition has already begun. The Pentagon's report provides ample evidence that this is the case, but then ducks the obvious conclusion. Preparing the Congress and the public for that competition should be a priority of the administration. Unfortunately, this year's report, for all its substantive merit, fails the test.

Gary Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century. Dan Blumenthal is resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.