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A Watcher with Mixed Feelings: Comments on 2016 China Military Power Report

Jun 01 , 2016
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

The U.S. Department of Defense has released the ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (hereinafter referred to as “the Report”), the 16th and longest one in recent years. It has 156 pages and is comprised of the same six chapters as the previous versions, but adds a new special topic, Political Work in the People’s Liberation Army, and two confidence-building measures concerning the rules of behaviour for safety of air and maritime encounters as well as notification of major military activities.

It is well-known that the series of China military power reports are originated from the Taiwan Straits crises and Cold-War mentality, and other countries whose military strength was or is being assessed include the former Soviet Union, Iran and North Korea. Internationally, the reports have become a diplomatic instrument to exaggerate a “China Threat”; domestically, they have helped forge a potential enemy for the military establishments and industries to obtain more budgets and contracts. The military function of these reports cannot be underestimated: They are important references for the U.S. military to adjust military deployments and develop military capabilities against China. It is not hard to find some correlation between the U.S. strategy of rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region and the reports’ assessment of China’s national and military strategies, between the Air-Sea Battle concept and Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons and the reports’ concerns about China’s “anti-access/area denial” capabilities, between U.S. accelerated development of cyber forces and the reports’ sensationalization of China’s cyber attacks, and between U.S. vigorous development of missile-defense systems and the reports’ exaggeration of China’s “missile threats” to U.S. allies. The influence of the reports is so negative that they have not only tarnished China’s international image, but also interfered in its internal affairs.

In addition to a large quantity of repetitions, this year’s report pays special attention to China’s military reforms, maritime disputes, the PLA’s “going out” activities and crisis management between the two militaries.

At the very beginning, the report points out the significance of China’s national defense and military reforms, which signify a new phase in the PLA’s comprehensive modernization. It believes the reform aims are to strengthen the CPC’s control of the military and enhance the PLA’s capabilities for joint operations. Previous reports show that U.S. feelings about the PLA’s modernization have undergone from care to worry and to anxiety, fearing that the objective of PLA modernization is to offset U.S. military advantages. The Report’s attention on China’s military reforms demonstrates U.S. concerns that China’s military systems, structures and capabilities will become more scientific, streamlined and elevated.

Accompanied by maps and pictures, China’s disputes with neighboring countries over maritime sovereignty, rights and interests are fully described in the report. It claims that China can use artificial islands as “persistent civil-military bases to enhance its long-term presence in the South China Sea significantly”, and reiterates that China now can tolerate higher levels of tension in the pursuit of its interests. The report continues to use the label of “low-intensity coercion” to depict China’s mode of handling maritime disputes, which is characterized by usage of law-enforcement ships and aircraft to regularly patrol disputed sea areas, punitive trade policies, shaping the image as a victim of outside provocations, incremental steps to increase effective control over disputed areas, and avoidance of conflict escalation. Turning a blind eye to other claimants’ construction activities and unilateral exploitation, the report points an accusing finger at China’s normal and rightful maintenance of its own rights and interests. Obviously, the U.S. is taking advantage of the quarrels between neighbors as a strategic opportunity to increase its military deployments and consolidate its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.

With mixed feelings, the report keeps a watchful eye on the PLA’s “going out” process. On one hand, the report expresses U.S. Defense Department willingness to cooperate with the PLA to delivery international public goods, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), counter-piracy, peacekeeping operations (PKO), search and rescue (SAR), and military medicine. On the other hand, the Report notices that with the expansion of China’s national interests, the PLA’s footprint goes global, gaining the benefits of “improving China’s international image, obtaining operational experience for the PLA, and providing opportunities to gather intelligence”. Since the beginning of 2016, the U.S. Congress has held several hearings evaluating China’s expeditionary and power projection capabilities. They have found that building aircraft carriers, developing overseas replenishment capabilities, and strengthening the development and application of space assets are laying a foundation for the PLA to go out to the world. There are concerns that with the upgrade of the PLA’s power projection capabilities, China will tend to solve disputes by use of force, and competition between China and the U.S. will become fiercer. As a result, there are more chances for the two militaries to encounter each other in the Asia-Pacific, and thus higher probabilities for frictions.

Therefore, the report emphasizes crisis management and confidence-building measures. For the first time, the China military power report carries the full text of official documents as its appendixes. The memoranda of understanding regarding the rules of behaviour for safety of air and maritime encounters as well as on notification of major military activities are also listed as the brightest highlight in China-U.S. military-to-military contacts since 2015. The report maintains the two confidence-building measures can help manage risk, improve transparency, and invigorate bilateral engagement mechanisms. Indeed, at present and in the foreseeable future, as China is getting closer to the U.S. in comprehensive national strength and as the U.S. is deepening its rebalance strategy, China-U.S. frictions and clashes will become more frequent. The flashpoints might grow from the Taiwan Straits, East China Sea, South China Sea, to the Korean Peninsula, and even to such emerging domains as cyber space and outer space. To predict, prevent and manage crises, especially those triggered by third-party factors, should become the top priority in China-U.S. strategic consultations, in order to establish higher levels and broader scopes of risk-prevention and control mechanisms.

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