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Inside the China Military Power Report

Sep 24, 2020
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

On Sept.1, the U.S. Department of Defense submitted its annual report to Congress — the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 report.

Released every year since 2000, the report, relying on information scraped from the internet, is typically full of unfounded speculation and smears. Yet it has become an important basis for U.S. assessment of China’s military threat. The priorities and assessments contained in the reports over the past 20 years have, to a large extent, reflected the changes in the military power and relationship between China and the United States.

In the early years after the end of the Cold War, China’s military development was not an important element in U.S. policy considerations about China, and the China-U.S. military relationship was not a significant factor in the bilateral relationship.

The 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait, however, became a landmark event that triggered a change in China-U.S. military relations. Before the crisis, U.S. policymakers had paid little attention to the challenge that China would pose to U.S. military superiority in East Asia, and the crisis led the U.S. to pay attention to China’s military development and intentions.

The Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997 first focused on China’s development of “asymmetric anti-access capabilities,” and, starting in 2000, the U.S. Congress required the Department of Defense to conduct annual assessments of China’s military development. The U.S. military used the release of the first China Military Power Report to systematically exaggerate the so-called “China threat theory.”

Since then, an aircraft collision incident and an anti-satellite test further heightened U.S. concerns over China’s military development. With China’s push for military modernization, the China-U.S. military relationship has begun to change quantitatively.

With the Obama administration’s push for rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. began to focus on the regional security implications of China’s military development. In this context, the China Military Power Report was renamed the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China in 2010.

The U.S. assessment is not only that China has continued to promote military modernization but also that it now poses a real challenge to U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific. The security implications of China’s military modernization have begun to emerge and change the Asia-Pacific’s security and strategic environment, the report said.

In response, the United States has significantly strengthened its military layout in the Asia-Pacific, putting forward the “two 60-percent” concept, that is, to deploy 60 percent of its naval forces and 60 percent of its overseas air forces to the Asia-Pacific this year. In addition, the U.S. will apply an engagement policy in relations between the two militaries. Military exchanges have become an important part of U.S. policy toward China.

While the recent report continues to exaggerate the “threat” of China’s military power, it added a large number of Sino-U.S. military exchanges. China has put forward an initiative to build a new type of military relationship with the United States and has worked to promote military exchanges. As a result, dialogue mechanisms and mutual trust measures were established, making the military relationship the main highlight of bilateral relations.

Since the Trump administration took office, it has broadly adjusted its strategy toward China, taking a view of China as a “strategic competitor” and significantly increasing competition and confrontation.

The 2018 military power report increased to more than 130 pages, arguing that “China’s military development has reached a point where it is almost rivaling that of the U.S.,” and the 2019 report focused on China’s “influence operations.”

The recently release 2020 report has been expanded to 200 pages and declares that “China has the world’s largest Navy,” that it “will double its nuclear warheads in the next 10 years,” and that its military reform poses a threat to the overall military superiority of the United States.

From the U.S. military’s perspective, there is no longer any guarantee that the U.S. will win a potential war with China because of China’s all-encompassing development of military power.

Changes in the U.S. assessment over the past 20 years not only reflect the objective pressure of China’s military development on the U.S. military advantage but also reflect the subjective judgments the U.S. has made based on the “enemy image” and “crisis awareness.” The two together form the basis of U.S. perceptions of the China-U.S. military relationship.

At present, changes in the China-U.S. military balance have not yet reached a tipping point, but the U.S. perception of the military balance is posing new risks. The marked cooling of China-U.S. military exchanges in recent years is a manifestation of this risk.

In addition, the U.S. hype about a Chinese “military threat” and its continued military pressure on China, driven by its competitive strategy, could trigger an arms race or result in a shoot-out.

The relationship between the two militaries will be the key to determining whether there is peace between China and the United States.

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