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Don’t Believe Everything in the Pentagon Report on China’s Military

Zhao Weibin,Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science
June 3, 2013
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On May 6, the US Department of Defense released its Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013. It has been the thirteenth version since the first one appeared in 2000, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (NDAA 2000).

Essentially, it is a tool for the US to stage a political campaign both at home and abroad. Domestically, the report describes China as a potential threat and adversary, thus serving as a good excuse for the defense industry to go prosper and for the Navy and Air Force to gain a larger share of the defense budget, as they are endorsing the Air-Sea Battle Concept against China. In the international arena, the report has been a diplomatic instrument for the US to air the China threat alarm. The persistent theme is as follows:  the future of China is uncertain, the modernization of China’s military lacks transparency and goes beyond defensive necessity, and the rise of China breaks the Asia-Pacific balance. During the Cold War era, there were a series of such reports on USSR military development, now we see the same tactic used on China. Does it reflect the US strategic orientation towards China?

The Pentagon report also shows the priorities of US military preparations against China. For example, the military balance between the Mainland and Taiwan has been the focus of the report. With the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations in recent years, relevant data was removed from the main body to the appendix of the report. Then, the PLA’s so-called “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) capabilities has caught the report’s attention since 2000. In this year’s report, description about A2/AD takes at least four pages (pp.32-35), covering the domains of information, missile, counter-space, sea, air and air defense. Simultaneously, the Air-Sea Battle Concept is gaining momentum from a Navy-Air Force joint memo to the establishment of an Air-Sea Battle office, and to its appearance in DOD’s Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC).

Recently, cyberspace and outer space issues are in the spotlight. Under the subtitle of “Cyber Espionage and Cyberwarfare Capabilities” in 2012, the report began to allege that intrusions and data theft “originated within China”. This year, the situation is getting worse as there are sections on “Cyber Activities Directed Against the Department of Defense” and “Cyberwarfare in China’s Military” (pp.36-37). Not surprisingly, we heard the news that US Cyber Command is creating 27 teams for offensive cyber capabilities, the first offensive cyber force in the world.

In addition, the report reflects the US strategy of engagement towards China. Since 2010, there has been a chapter on dedicated to the US-China military-to-military relationship. On the one hand, the report emphasizes the China threat and guards against China’s military development; on the other hand, it encourages military exchanges. For the first time, this year’s report sets forth the principles of mililitary-to-military exchanges as “mutual respect, mutual trust, reciprocity, mutual interest, continuous dialogue, and mutual risk reduction” (p.61). As we can see, the US side has adopted some of China’s principles in enhancing military-to-military exchanges. For the first time again, the report lists some forthcoming exchanges in 2013, showing the importance the US has attached to Sino-US engagement.

In terms of writing style, the report appears to be an authoritative document. In fact, it is misleading. Taking this year’s report as an example, there is a lot of data, but not a single footnote that clarifies the origin of such data. The “Indicators of Decision and Intent” are “speeches in regional and multi-national organizations, commentary in official, domestic newspapers or prominent Chinese think tanks, adjustments to China’s Defense White Paper, changes in talking points with civilian and military interlocutors, disposition of forces, and changes in military diplomacy” (pp.22-23). In other words, the report makes judgments largely on speculations. As David Helvey, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, said in a press briefing on May 6, “we let the facts speak for themselves.” However, those facts are carefully selected in order to manifest China’s “assertiveness” and immorality, just as the examples of the collision between China’s fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessel in 2010, China’s position on the Cheonan incident, and maritime disputes between China and Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan (p.16); as well as the alleged cases of “espionage” and “theft” (pp.51-52).

In my view, the report is becoming a “chicken rib” (something of little value or interest, yet you hesitate to throw it away). After thirteen years of development, the report is still repeating many of the unproved conclusions.

As China grows more confident and transparent, there will be more opportunities for the international community to understand China and its military development. It is hoped that the US Department of Defense will give a more objective review of China’s military build-up and conduct more military-to-military exchanges with Chinese counterparts in the spirit of mutual respect and trust.

Zhao Weibin, Research Fellow for the Center on China-America Defense Relations at the PLA Academy of Military Science.

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