15 May 2016

Pentagon Report Aims to Lay Out Chinese Military Goals

Andrew S. Erickson, “Pentagon Report Aims to Lay Out Chinese Military Goals,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 15 May 2016.

With things heating up in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait, Washington just attempted to shine some badly needed light on Beijing’s military efforts.

On Friday, the Pentagon released its 15th annual report to Congress on Chinese military and security development, its last under the Obama administration. “Despite China’s opacity…this report documents the kind of military that China is building,” Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, explained at the media rollout event. “We hope it contributes to the public’s understanding of the PLA.”

Indeed it does. China characteristically dismissed the report, without seeking to disprove any of its assertions. As Mr. Denmark stressed, the Pentagon publication “lets the facts speak for themselves.” He highlighted three key areas of emphasis: military maritime activities, power projection and reforms.

First, Chinese maritime activities. In reviewing Chinese security efforts in 2015, Mr. Denmark underscored a key challenge that Beijing is posing to the region and U.S. efforts to keep it peaceful and open: “China’s leadership demonstrated a willingness to tolerate higher levels of tension in pursuit of its maritime sovereignty claims.” The report offers ample evidence of this, from rapid naval and coast-guard development and assertive activities to artificial feature construction and fortification: “China will be able to use” 3,200 acres of new ‘islands’ with advanced radars, harbors, and airstrips “as persistent civil-military bases to enhance its long-term presence in the South China Sea significantly and enhance China’s ability to control the features and nearby maritime space.”

The Pentagon rightly emphasizes that Beijing works to keep such action below the threshold of U.S. military intervention. What it fails to mention is that a third sea force, China’s Maritime Militia of “Little Blue Men,” represents a key source of these “coercive tactics short of armed conflict.”

Second, China’s growing global military presence. While not nearly as intense as higher-priority efforts to uphold and further sovereignty claims closer to home, China’s power and influence projection activities are expanding with its diversifying overseas interests. Mr. Denmark recognized Beijing’s November 2015 announcement that it was establishing a navy support point in Djibouti as “a big step forward for the PLA, which has never had an overseas facility before.”

The report notes other milestones. In 2015, China began building its first domestically produced aircraft carrier. Beijing is sending submarines to project power into the Indian Ocean. The Pentagon anticipates that Chinese warships and submarines will be outfitted with long-range land-attack cruise missiles, eventually affording China some of the ability to impact events ashore that the U.S. has long demonstrated with ship-launched Tomahawks.

On the cooperative side of the global security ledger, the Pentagon emphasizes China’s current deployment of over 3,000 personnel in United Nations peacekeeping operations and emergence as the sixth-largest funder of such operations. It takes pains to enumerate the many exchanges and cooperative activities that it continues to engage in with China, despite some clear challenges in the bilateral military relationship.

Third, ambitious reforms. “President Xi Jinping unveiled sweeping plans that are intended to enhance the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations, by replacing the [seven] old military regions with [five] new [more-externally-oriented] geographic [theater] commands,” Mr. Denmark stated. Lines of authority are being clarified to place command of operations under the respective headquarters of these five new theaters and “force management” issues under China’s military services. Additionally, as the report explains, new oversight bodies including a Political Work Department seek to strengthen Communist Party control and discipline over the military, new strategy and doctrine informs its preparations, and enhanced exercises are strengthening its ability to fight and win modern high-tech wars. A 300,000-person downsizing by the end of 2017 will literally leave the PLA leaner and meaner while rebalancing service rosters away from an overwhelming proportion of ground forces.

Major organizational developments afoot would challenge any military. The establishment of a PLA army headquarters beginning in late 2015 entails further erosion of previous ground service dominance over China’s military; the other services (including the navy and air force) are rising accordingly in importance, influence, and resources. Among them, the former Second Artillery “branch” has been renamed the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and elevated to a full-fledged “service.” Its inventory of ICBMs has increased to roughly 75-100. Also within PLARF purview, “The development of China’s conventionally armed missile capability has been extraordinarily rapid,” underwritten by new missiles with improved features and performance parameters as well as upgrades to older ones. Both sorts were on prominent display in China’s greatest military parade ever, held in September 2015. Additionally, a new Strategic Support Force oversees space and cyber capabilities, both already formidable and growing rapidly.

All this costs money, a lot of it: The Pentagon estimates that China logged more than $180 billion on military-related spending in 2015, roughly $40 billion more than its official PLA budget figure, even as its economic growth slowed. But, as this latest report shows, Beijing is getting considerable bang for its bucks. By the time the next report to Congress is released early in the administration of the next U.S. president, Beijing will have registered further, China-sized progress. There remain many complex details and dynamics for PLA watchers to monitor and interpret, but this year’s report has already pointed the way.