11 May 2015

Interviewed by Michael Forsythe in New York Times Sinosphere: Dispatches from China on “China’s Military Goals and Capabilities”

Michael Forsythe, “Q. and A.: Andrew S. Erickson on China’s Military Goals and Capabilities,” Sinosphere: Dispatches from China, New York Times, 11 May 2015.

Every year, the United States Department of Defense must submit a report to Congress — a classified version and an unclassified one — on “military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China.” This year’s 89-page unclassified report, released last week, analyzes China’s evolving military goals and strategies and new developments in its naval, air and ground capabilities.

The report regularly draws an official rebuke from China, and this year was no exception. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, said on Sunday that the United States should “abandon its Cold War mind-set, take off its colored glasses and have an objective and rational understanding of China’s military development.”

In an interview, Andrew S. Erickson, an associate professor at the United States Naval War College and a scholar affiliated with Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, discussed the report, Beijing’s ambitions and the chances that China will close the military power gap with the United States:

Q.     The report seems very cautious and balanced, and far from alarmist. Was there anything that particularly stood out to you, especially in relation to past reports?

A.     I fully concur. The report indeed represents, in Chinese parlance, an effort to “seek truth from facts.” In an annual political ritual, Chinese state mouthpieces denounce the report — yet rarely address its substance at all, let alone disprove any specifics.

A particular evolution from previous iterations was the Defense Department’s emphasis on the extent to which the People’s Liberation Army is beginning to operate beyond East Asia. The report reveals that China first sent submarines to the Indian Ocean in 2013-14, ostensibly to assist with Gulf of Aden antipiracy efforts, but more usefully to gain irreplaceable operational experience. The report boldly predicts that within a decade Beijing will “establish several access points” in the Indian Ocean to support refueling and replenishment, low-level maintenance and crew rest. Now Djibouti’s president has been quoted in media reports as stating that his nation is holding discussions with China over the establishment of such an access point. That said, Beijing’s greatest military priorities remain closer to home. …