What does China want? Why are they growing their military reach and capability, and is China the next big threat and the world’s new “superpower?”
For answers to those questions, analysts eagerly awaited the Pentagon’s report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, which was released in August. So did Congress, which has required the Department of Defense to submit the report each year.
“While the Pentagon has skipped a generation of modernization, repeatedly failed to meet its own goals from shipbuilding to bolstering the aircraft carrier fleet, and is currently facing the masthead of a trillion dollars in defense cuts, the Chinese have met the goals of their sustained modernization program and are steadily increasing their own military budget,” said Congressman J. Randy Forbes (VA-04), Chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and co-Chairman of the Congressional China Caucus.
“The recently released China military power report acknowledges China’s insatiable desire to become a ‘world class economic and military power‘ as it advances toward transforming its military into a dominant regional force by 2020 and an unrivaled international power by 2050. There is no question that China is rapidly closing the technology gap and striving to challenge the United States’ military prowess – there is a question, though, of whether the United States will simply cede its global and military leadership role to a nation with uncertain intentions, but known disregard for human rights, basic freedoms, and democratic institutions,” he said.
“The evolution of China’s economic and geostrategic interests has fundamentally altered Beijing’s view of maritime power,” the report stated.
China’s economy and world trade has grown exponentially in the past two decades, so many feel the nation has a right and a responsibility to expand and enhance its naval capability. China has embarked on a broad naval modernization effort, ranging from new submarines, surface ships and even aircraft carriers to the development of modern weapon systems such as anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles, and stealth technology.
While the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is conducting systematic improvements to logistics, personnel, training and education, it is also participating in out-of-area deployments, such as anti-piracy patrols off Somalis. The nation is also establishing port facilities and visitation rights in a number of countries. India sees such agreements with Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan as a “string of pearls” that surrounds them, designed to reduce India’s influence in the Indian Ocean.
While China Focuses Upon Taiwan, the Rest of the World is Focusing on China
“Observers believe that the near-term focus of China’s military modernization effort has been to develop military options for addressing the situation with Taiwan,” commented Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service in China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress, issued in July 2011. “Consistent with this goal, observers believe that China wants its military to be capable of acting as a so-called anti-access force – a force that can deter U.S. intervention in a conflict involving Taiwan, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. naval and air forces. Observers believe that China’s military modernization effort, including its naval modernization effort, is increasingly oriented toward pursuing additional goals, such as asserting or defending China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea; enforcing China’s view – a minority view among world nations – that it has the right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ); protecting China’s sea lines of communications; protecting and evacuating Chinese nationals living and working in foreign countries; displacing U.S. influence in the Pacific; and asserting China’s status as a major world power.”
The DoD report agrees. “Although the PLA is contending with a growing array of missions, Taiwan remains its main strategic direction. China continued modernizing its military in 2010, with a focus on Taiwan contingencies, even as cross-Strait relations improved. The PLA seeks the capability to deter Taiwan independence and influence Taiwan to settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms. In pursuit of this objective, Beijing is developing capabilities intended to deter, delay, or deny possible U.S. support for the island in the event of conflict. The balance of cross-Strait military forces and capabilities continues to shift in the mainland’s favor,” the report said.
Over the past decade, China’s military has benefitted from robust investment in modern hardware and technology. Many modern systems have reached maturity and others will become operational in the next few years. Following this period of ambitious acquisition, the decade from 2011 through 2020 will prove critical to the PLA as it attempts to integrate many new and complex platforms, and to adopt modern operational concepts, including joint operations and network-centric warfare.
But, there remains uncertainty about how China will use its growing capabilities, the report cautioned.
“The PLA is acquiring large numbers of highly accurate cruise missiles, many of which have ranges in excess of 185 km. This includes the domestically-produced, ground-launched DH-10 land-attack cruise missile (LACM); the domestically produced ground- and ship-launched YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM); the Russian SS-N-22/Sunburn supersonic ASCM, which is fitted on China’s Sovremenny-class DDGs acquired from Russia; and, the Russian SS-N-27B/Sizzler supersonic ASCM on China’s Russian-built, Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines,” the report stated.
Some analysts see those anti-ship missiles as “carrier killers.” For its part, Taiwan is developing its own Hsiung Feng III (HF-3) anti-ship missile, which could be used against the PLAN’s high value targets, such as a carrier.
The report notes that the U.S. “recognizes and welcomes PRC contributions that support a safe and secure global environment. China’s steady integration into the global economy creates new incentives for partnership and cooperation, particularly in the maritime domain. Although China’s expanding military capabilities can facilitate cooperation in pursuit of shared objectives, they can also increase the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.”
To both nations’ credit, Beijing and Taipei have established and improved economic and cultural ties, which lessen tensions and promotes a positive cross-Strait atmosphere.
But, the report states that “China continues to base many of its most advanced systems in the military regions (MRs) opposite Taiwan.”
In introducing the report at a pentagon press conference, Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, noted that “the pace and scope of China’s sustained military investment have allowed China to pursue capabilities that we believe are potentially destabilizing to regional military balances, increase the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation, and may contribute to regional tensions and anxieties.”
This, Schiffer said, could encourage China to use military force “to gain diplomatic advantage, advance its interests, or resolve … disputes in its favor.”
“China’s ambitious naval modernization remains a great source of pride for the PRC public and leadership,” the DoD report stated. “China has deployed its most modern ships to engage in naval diplomacy and counter-piracy in a coalition environment. Many in China see naval power as a prerequisite for great power status.”
Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, speaking at Renmin University in China in July 2011, acknowledged China’s growing economy, and referred to China as a “world power.”
“Historically, as nations develop they often invest in their armed forces, and this region is no exception,” he said. “But with greater military power must come greater responsibility, greater cooperation, and just as important, greater transparency. Without these things the expansion of military power in your region, rather than making it more secure and stable, could have the opposite effect.”
Mullen said that the “world will need a China that sees itself as a responsible major power which plays an active and central role in ensuring the prosperity and security of both the Asia Pacific and the entire international community – a world power that exercises global leadership and engenders strategic trust.”
“China today is a different country than it was ten years ago and it certainly will continue to change over the next ten years,” Mullen said. “It is no longer a rising power. It has in fact arrived as a world power.”
“Cross-strait military games will go on as before, but with a new twist,” said an editorial in the Taipei Times. “Deep in everybody’s minds will be the knowledge that China’s offensive power is growing, while Taiwan is racing to keep up. Ten years from now, this will make a much bigger difference than it does today.”
In responding to the DoD report, China’s Xinhua news agency said, “China has repeatedly stated the defensive nature of the country’s national defense policy, issuing a white paper on national defense in March to enhance its military’s transparency and boost the world’s trust in its commitment to peaceful development.”
Regarding the DoD report’s comments on China’s refurbishment of an aircraft carrier obtained from the Ukraine, Xinhua noted that “China is the last to possess an aircraft carrier platform among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.”
China has an active export program of naval ships and weapons. The Sept. 23, 2011, press release from the Pakistan Defense Force announced the launch of a new missile-armed fast attack craft built in China.