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Lingering Legacy, Repetitive Report

Jun 20 , 2017
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science


On June 7, the U.S. Department of Defense released the Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 (hereinafter referred to as “the Report”). It is the 17th one of its kind, and there is a prominent feature of inheriting the Obama administration’s legacy and repeating what has been written in previous years’ reports.

First, it inherits the old framework of writing with the same six chapters arranged in the same order. Nevertheless, the usually appended graphics (such as the deployment diagrams of PLA units and the charts displaying missile ranges) and tables (like the “Selected Bilateral and Multilateral Exercises in 2016”) are now inserted in the text. More illustrations might appeal to President Trump, who prefers visualsto long texts.

Second, it continues to focus on China’s military reform, with more attention to new capabilities. The Report fully recognizes the significance of the PLA’s structural reform, carefully records every major step, and pays special attention to those asymmetric and information-warfare capabilities by establishing a new section of “Building an Informatized Military”. It promises to “continue to monitor China’s military modernization”, and then “adapt its forces, posture, investments, and operational concepts” accordingly. Indeed, after more than 10 years of war on terror, the U.S. has suddenly realized that big-power challenges and high-end threats are looming large. To some extent, the Report has become an important reference for the U.S. military to adjust deployment, build up strength and enhance combat readiness.

Third, it continues to hype “China military threat”, highlighting territorial and maritime disputes between China and its neighbors, growth in military expenditure, “theft” of technologies, and the PLA’s “outward expansion”. The worst thing is, despite the farce and page of the arbitral tribunal was turned over, despite positive progresses on the South China Sea issue, the Report still endorses the illegal rulings one by one and claims they are “binding on China and the Philippines”. Then, in addition to illustrating the growth of China’s defense spending through charts and statistics, the Report indicates that there are hidden expenditures in R&D and the procurement of foreign weapons and equipment. Also, the Report remarks irresponsibly that China’s military modernization is being achieved by cyber theft, targeted foreign direct investment, and exploitation of Chinese nationals abroad. It cites three cases of indictments and investigations, going back as far as 2010. Further, the Report distorts China’s military contacts with other countries as expansions of military presence and sphere of influence. Such good-will activities of providing public security goods as peace-keeping, escort missions, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) are described as facilitating the acquisition of advanced weapon systems and technologies, increasing operational experience, and giving the PLA access to foreign military practices, operational doctrine and training methods. Normal visits and exchanges are also depicted as enabling PLA officers to observe and study foreign military command structures, unit formations, and operational training.

Fourth, it reiterates the three lines of effort in China-U.S. military-to-military contacts; flaunts the DoD’s proposals to advance practical cooperation; lists selected high-level visits, defense security dialogues, functional exchanges, academic exchanges, ship visits, and exercises in 2016; and at the same time cautiously emphasizes that all these activities “are conducted in accordance with the statutory limitations of the National Defense Authorization Act Fiscal Year 2000”. On one hand, it shows that despite various difficulties, resilience has become a “new normal” in China-U.S. military relations. On the other hand, it reflects some strong domestic resistance against military exchanges between the two countries.

Generally speaking, in the Report, there are more inheritances than breakthroughs, and more legacies of the Obama administration than new moves by the Trump administration. It might be noticed that within 10 days after President Trump took office, he signed two Presidential Memorandums which requested the Secretary of Defense to conduct a Readiness Review, amend the FY 2017 budget, develop the FY 2018 budget request, produce a National Defense Strategy, initiate a new Nuclear Posture Review and a new Ballistic Missile Defense Review, and draft a new plan to defeat ISIS. Bombarded by so many new assignments, the DoD has just managed to work out a preliminary “whole-of-government” plan against ISIS and prepare the defense budget request. Thus, it can be understood that the regular job of drafting the Report has been postponed and its release date goes far beyond the deadline (January 31) stipulated by the National Defense Authorization Act Fiscal Year 2017. Against the background that the new administration’s Asia-Pacific policy has not taken shape, it can also be understood that the Report is mostly a repetition of previous years’ contents, with a lack of fresh ideas. Whether the Congress will buy it remains uncertain.

Last but not the least, this year, no press briefing was held for the release of the Report, which just quietly appeared on the DoD’s website. There might be two reasons: President Trump has not yet appointed an appropriate official to deliver the briefing, and the DoD might feel awkward and embarrassed, since the report harps on the same string again and again.

China US Focus
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