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Foreign Policy

Pentagon Report Offers Balanced Assessment of Chinese Military Power

Jun 25 , 2014

As the Chinese Navy heads towards this week’s Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), the largest international maritime exercise, it is important to dispel misperceptions in China regarding the Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power. 

Richard Weitz

The most recent report does not highlight any radical changes or breakthroughs in Chinese military capabilities during the past year and does not foresee any revolutionary developments this year. In the Pentagon’s view, despite the rise to power a new generation of Chinese leaders during the past few years, and their more assertive policy regarding regional disputes and other issues, Chinese defense policy continues to follow trends established during the previous decade of broad and gradual military modernization and a strategy of avoiding foreign wars in order to focus on domestic national socioeconomic development. 

Whether China will use its growing military capabilities to become a better global stakeholder remains unpredictable since it depends on many variables and conditions. To better understand this issue, Congress has directed the Pentagon, since 2002, to submit an annual report, with both a public and a classified version, on the PLA’s current and likely future capabilities, doctrine, strategies, technologies, force structure, organization, and operational concepts. The FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act renamed what previously had been known as “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” as “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” 

Some Chinese criticism of the report seems misplaced. The text is not intended to sound the tocsin about a “China threat” as part of a U.S.-led containment strategy. Instead, the reports offer a balanced review of Chinese capabilities and intentions, and combine deterrence threats with reassuring opportunities for further China-U.S. defense cooperation. 

In the latest report, the Pentagon acknowledges that China’s defense spending is naturally rising due to the expanding size of the county’s economy. Its authors also note that China has not engaged in a foreign war since the 1970s and that China has not sought foreign defense allies or overseas military bases, which the PLA would need to sustain a major global presence. 

Instead, the report points out that China’s main foreign military operations thus far have focused on supporting international peacekeeping efforts or countering transnational threats to all countries, such as sea piracy and humanitarian emergencies. For example, the PLA Navy continues to rotate a few ships to the Gulf of Aden to fight the sea pirates that operate from bases in Somalia. The report relates how China remains the leading contributor of the five permanent Security Council members to UN peacekeeping missions. At the end of 2013, almost 2,000 Chinese military personnel were serving in ten UN operations. 

Much of the report describes the PLA’s foreign military engagement activities, which include reciprocal leadership visits and joint exercises. The text notes how Chinese and U.S. military exchanges have increased in frequency and extended to encompass new activities. It also relates the PLA’s recent engagement activities with other countries. 

In this regard, the Pentagon cites a number of convincing reasons why the PLA engages with foreign militaries. Such engagement can strengthen China’s international status, highlight the value of having the PLA as a security partner rather than an adversary, dispel misperceptions about China’s military intentions or capabilities, communicate Beijing’s views to influential foreign defense audiences, provide the PLA with operational experience, and help China gain access to foreign defense technology as well as insights into foreign military systems, equipment, doctrine, tactics, and training (which may offer examples and lessons for the PLA). Similarly, China gains goodwill by helping other countries respond to emergencies or by engaging in UN peacekeeping missions. Providing weapons and military training to foreign partners can also enhance China’s international influence and foreign economic opportunities. 

The authors realistically note that Chinese military modernization can have benign as well as malign effects. On the one hand, the PLA has greater potential to contribute to international peace and security missions such as counter-piracy and peacekeeping. But the PLA is also increasing its capacity to employ force to secure access to natural resources outside China or to use coercion to resolve territorial disputes. The buildup across from Taiwan is especially disturbing given that cross-strait relations have improved in recent years. 

These annual Pentagon reports on Chinese military power help the U.S. Congress decide what U.S. defense policies and programs to authorize in coming legislation. Another purpose is to discourage Chinese leaders from misusing their growing military capabilities. For this reason, the text points out to readers (which presumably include PRC policy makers) that PLA still lacks the means to sustain major operations far beyond China’s periphery and that United States still has a more powerful military than China. They further emphasize non-military factors that could weaken China’s national security, including a further slowdown in China’s growth rate due to demographic or other considerations, domestic unrest due to environmental degradation or elite corruption, or the formation of a regional coalition to balance China’s growing military power and assertive foreign policy. 

The report contains explicit language to remind Chinese policy makers of the lesson of the collapse of the Soviet military. (The Soviet military buildup led Congress to demand these military power reports in the first place). Despite its massive military-industrial complex, the USSR’s excessive defense overspending and geopolitical overextension at a time of ethnic strife and other domestic strains eventually led to its collapse. Chinese leaders, to everyone’s benefit, are presumably keeping these lessons in mind. 

Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.

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