The Pentagon released its annual report to the US Congress entitled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 on 6 June. The highlight of this report is that in the Pentagon’s view the People Liberation Army ( PLA ) is expanding its global footprint. China’s expanding global economic interests make this inevitable, and it will do so “in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries,” the report says. Indeed, Gwadar in Pakistan is touted by many as the likely location of a second Chinese base after one currently under construction in Djibouti, although the Pentagon report did not mention Gwadar by name at all. Certainly, the report underscores China’s movement towards, and beyond, the Indian Ocean. Work on China’sbase in the Horn of Africa commenced in February 2016 and should be finished “within the next year”. The report elaborated that Beijing may opt for “a mixture of military logistics models, including preferred access to overseas commercial ports and a limited number of exclusive PLA Navy [PLAN] logistic facilities – probably collocated with commercial ports…” The Department of Defense (DoD) document added, “A more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure would also be essential to enable China to project and sustain military power at greater distances.” However, China will face headwinds in creating a global network of bases for it “may be constrained by the willingness of countries to support a PLA presence in one of their ports”. While the report is a handy compilation serving as a good go-to guide on China’s military developments, it did not meet everyone’s expectations. Some thought it did not go far enough, while China bitterly complained it went too far.
Shephard Media, a United Kingdom-based defense publisher, was critical, saying it contributed “few points of importance or shock value”. An article summarizing the report said, “With its non-offensive pastel maps and cover pages, the overall feeling is that China is cozy like a teddy bear. Since the report’s creation by the US National Defense Authorization Act in 2000, it has become increasingly weak and soft, like the soft tissue of a leech.” While a couple of new items were added to this year’s edition, Shephard was critical because these issues have been widely reported on for years by academia, think tanks and media. One example was the first ever reference in the report to the China Maritime Militia (CMM), an armed reserve force that the military can mobilize for support and coercive duties, such as has occurred in the South China Sea to harass foreign vessels.
Highlighting the importance of this “state-organized, state-developed and state-controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command to conduct Chinese state-sponsored activities”, Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, wrote: “Together with the world’s largest coast guard, and with China’s navy backstopping in an ‘overwatch’ capacity, China’s maritime militia plays a central role in maritime activities designed to overwhelm or coerce an opponent through activities that cannot be easily countered without escalating to war.” Erickson continued, “Here’s why the Pentagon’s publicizing of China’s maritime militia matters: it is strongest – and most effective – when it can lurk in the shadows.” He added, however, “By revealing the maritime militia’s true nature and ‘calling it out’ in public, the US government can remove the force’s plausible deniability, reduce its room for maneuver and reduce the chances that China’s leaders will employ it dangerously in future encounters with American and allied vessels at sea.” The question is why has it taken so long for the Pentagon to highlight the role of the militia? This question is especially pertinent given the close link between the PLA and CMM. Another area where the report lags is in detailing the tremendous gains that China has made to retake Taiwan by force. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has already acknowledged that China has the ability to conquer offshore islands such as Matsu and Penghu. It has notedthat China will have the airlift and sealift capability to invade the island in 2020, and enjoy complete domination of the air and sea domains for both the east and west coasts by 2025.
Yet the US report only uttered bland generalities such as this: “A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, better-defended island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities.” While there was a whole chapter on Taiwan’s dilemma, far less attention was paid to India. One paragraph described China-India border tensions, including mention of a September 2016 incident when an “Indian patrol observed that more than 40 Chinese troops had set up a temporary shelter within Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh”.
Power projection is most definitely a focus for the PLA, with the Pentagon saying, “China’s leaders remain focused on developing the capabilities to deter or defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party intervention – including by the United States – during a crisis or conflict.” New warships for the PLAN continue to churn out at a prodigious pace, including Type 052D destroyers, Type 054A frigates and Type 056 corvettes. While the DoDmentioned the Type 055 cruiser, it failed to acknowledge that at least four of these 10,000-ton ships are already under construction at two shipyards.
The report summarized, “This modernization aligns with China’s ongoing shift from ‘near sea’ defense to a hybrid strategy of ‘near sea’ defense and ‘far seas’ protection, with the PLAN conducting operational tasks outside the so-called ‘first island chain’ with multi-mission, long-range, sustainable naval platforms that have robust self-defense capabilities.”
Indeed, Beijing “expects significant elements of a modern conflict to occur at sea”. A second aircraft carrier should be ready around 2020, and the current fleet of 63 submarines will grow to 69-78 by 2020. The PLAN will begin constructing the next-generation Type 096 ballistic-missile submarine by the early 2020s, and the new Type 093B nuclear-powered attack submarine will be armed with land attack cruise missiles “over the next decade”.
However, the report contained outdated information. It failed to confirm that the J-20 stealth fighter is already in low-rate initial production for the PLA Air Force (PLAAF).It pointed out that a new-generation bomber will debut around 2025, and “will have additional capabilities with full-spectrum upgrades over the current bomber fleet, and will employ many fifth-generation technologies in their design.”
In summary, Asia’s largest air force with more than 2,700 aircraft “continues to modernize and is closing the gap rapidly with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities. This development is gradually eroding the significant technical advantage held by the United States”.For example, improved early-warning aircraft and fighters are strengthening an air defense system offering “credible” coverage more than 500km from China’s shores.
Missile development shows no sign of diminishing pace either. The PLA Rocket Force began fielding the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile last year, apparently. Alatent ballistic missile defense system will include both ground- and sea-based assets, including a midcourse interceptor identified as the HQ-19. The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, meanwhile, “gives the PLA the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean”.
This year more information was included about the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, whose function and structure remain rather shadowy. In 2016 the report allocated just 30 words to this force encompassing space, cyber and electronic warfare (EW) realms. This time it stated, “China believes its cyber capabilities and personnel lag behind the United States. To deal with these perceived deficiencies, China is improving training and domestic innovation to achieve its cyber capability development goals.”
It added, “PLA writings suggest EW, cyberspace, deception, counter-space and other operations during wartime could deny an adversary’s use of information.” Indeed, the PLA would seek to use cyberwarfare to collect data for intelligence and cyberattack purposes. This would “constrain an adversary’s actions by targeting network-based logistics, communications and commercial activities” and “serve as a force-multiplier when coupled with kinetic attacks during times of crisis or conflict”.
The DoD noted that US government computer systems worldwide continued to be targeted by China-based intrusions in 2016. China is also pursuing quantum communications satellites, with the world’s first example launched last August, which will afford cryptographic and secure communication capabilities.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon report failed to include many of the space and counter-space specifics revealed by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 23 May 2017. China’s civil space program, for instance, is solidly intertwined with and even subservient to the PLA’s space program. Instead, the DoD just skimmed the surface. It did not go into any detail about soft-kill and hard-kill anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, for instance.
If people want to learn more about space capabilities, the recently released Senate Armed Services Committee statement for the record entitled ‘Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community’ is a better bet.
It revealed that, due for development completion in “the next several years” are Russian and Chinese ASAT weapons. Also, “Ten years after China intercepted one of its own satellites in low-earth orbit, its ground-launched ASAT missiles might be nearing operational service within the PLA. Both countries are advancing directed-energy weapons technologies for the purpose of fielding ASAT systems that could blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors.”
Furthermore, China continues to conduct sophisticated on-orbit satellite activities, such as rendezvous and proximity operations. This poses a threat, for, “Such missions will pose a particular challenge in the future, complicating the US ability to characterize the space environment, decipher intent of space activity and provide advance threat warning,” warned US intelligence agencies.
Interestingly, returning to the Pentagon report, it calculated that China’s 2016 defense budget exceeded USD180 billion, as opposed to Beijing’s announced figure of USD144.3 billion. However, the department offered no methodology on how it reached this figure.
The DoD document addressed defense exports too, with China emerging as the world’s fourth largest defense equipment supplier in 2011-15 with sales of about USD20 billion. It assessed, “From the perspective of China’s arms customers, most of which are developing countries, Chinese arms are less expensive than those offered by the top international arms suppliers. They are also of lower quality and reliability, but they still have advanced capabilities.”
Sadly, some information in the Pentagon dossier was out ofdate even before publication. Cuts and changes in the PLA’s group armies, for example, were totally ignored.There are errors in it too, with Defense News noting “two of the navy’s key air bases on the island of Hainan [were] omitted while another navy air base for special missionaircraft in China’s Northern Theater Command was wrongly identified as an air force bomber base”.
For all its softness, China responded angrily to the report’s release. Zhao Weibin from the PLA Academy of Military Sciences complained it was “full of cliches in exaggeration and criticism about China’s normal military development”.
Zhao specifically complained about the USA hyping territorial and maritime rights disputes; subjectively assuming invisible military spending; slandering China by accusing it of stealing foreign technologies; and distorting normal foreign military exchanges into an opportunity for expansion.
China’s MND also accused the report of being speculative. MND spokesman Wu Qian said, “China is committed to peaceful development and defense-oriented security policies” and that it “neither seeks military expansion nor a sphere of influence, and [it] will always be a firm force in maintaining world peace”.
“We hope the US will view China’s defense construction and military development in a rational and objective manner,” Wu pointedly concluded.
Like it or not, however, the report warned, “Over the last decade, China has increased its capability to address regional and global security objectives beyond its continued main emphasis on Taiwan contingencies. PLA ground, naval, air and missile forces are increasingly able to project power through peacetime operations and are expanding capacity to contest US military superiority in the event of a regional conflict.”The report makes this clear, even if some hawks believe the Pentagon did not go nearly far enough.