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What Is New in the US DOD’s Report on China’s Military

May 20 , 2015
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

On May 8, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (DOD) released the Annual Report To Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015, the US DOD’s 15th report on China’s military, pushing China again into the rank of potential adversaries. Indeed, only the four militaries of the former Soviet Union, China, Iran, and North Korea have enjoyed the “privilege” of US DOD’s annual scrutiny. In addition to the monotonous description of the latest developments in Chinese armed forces, this year’s report has some new features.

First, there is a new judgment that China’s foreign policy is being shifted away from the traditional guideline to pursuing regional and global leadership. In Chapter 2 “Understanding China’s Strategy”, the report says that China has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character guideline that China should “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”, and turned to pursue regional and global leadership. The evidence provided in the report includes China’s establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and proposal of a “New Asian Security Concept”, as well as President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference held in November 2014.

Though the DOD’s annual report has mentioned China’s debate among academia on the 24-character guideline since 2005, it is the first time the report asserted that China has officially abandoned Deng’s guideline. The report ignores the fact that China is responding to the US’ exclusive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement and to its strategy of rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region, as well as a willingness by China to assume more international responsibilities. The report shows that the US becomes more and more concerned about the challenge and threat posed by China, worried that China will aspire to replace US leadership, undermine its alliances, and outshine its economic model, democracy and values. For the US, future policy towards China, whether it emphasizes hedging and containment, or engagement and accommodation, will depend on the nature of US-China interaction.

Second, there is a new definition of China’s approach to maritime and territorial disputes. By touching on the maritime issues in almost every chapter, this year’s report pays special attention to China’s settlement of maritime and territorial disputes. For the first time, it defines China’s approach as “low-intensity coercion” and concludes that China can “tolerate a higher level of regional tension” (p. i).

In line with its rebalance strategy, the US needs to consolidate its predominance in East Asia and the Western Pacific by making use of maritime disputes along China’s periphery. By defining China’s approach as coercion and forecasting its growing aggressiveness, the report provides a good excuse for the US to intervene in the disputes. Some people predict that those troubled waters will be the main battlefield for strategic competition between China and the US.

Third, there is a new focus on China’s military reform. In the first section of the first chapter “Annual Update”, the report describes the PLA’s ongoing and upcoming reforms. Contrary to the recent chorus depicting the PLA’s weaknesses by American academia, the report emphasizes China’s rapid military progress. Academic research reports point out the PLA’s weaknesses in term of human resources, organizational structure, training, logistics and intelligence support, while this official report pays more attention to the latest developments in China’s military reform to overcome these weaknesses..

Fourth, the report seems positive on Sino-US military exchanges. This year’s report further elevates the role of bilateral military relations and encourages the PLA, together with the US military, to deliver more international public security goods, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-piracy, search and rescue, and military medicine. It suggests that the US has recognized the positive contribution of the PLA to regional and global security. Besides, the report highlights two facts: One is the completion of two MOUs, respectively on the notification of major military events and on the rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters; the other is PLA’s participation in two multilateral exercises (COBRA GOLD and RIMPAC) and several US-China bilateral drills. These heartening trends indicate that though there are difficulties in bilateral relations, US still embraces the importance of military exchanges. In the future, there will be more areas of cooperation, especially at the global level, between the two militaries, and military relations will have more weight on the overall bilateral relationship.

In fact, when comparing this report with previous ones, one finds about 70% of the contents are repetitions. More importantly, this series of reports every year become negative and destructive elements in China-US military relations, as they more often than not hurt the goodwill and hope of the Chinese people and its army to improve China-US relations. Maybe it’s time for the US to stop publishing such biased and non-constructive reports.

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