On August 16, the annual report to Congress on the Chinese military was released by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). There had been speculation that the White House wanted to hold the April Nuclear Security Summit and the May U.S.-China Security and Economic Dialogue before the report became public. President Barack Obama hoped to make diplomatic progress with Beijing before attention was drawn to China’s military buildup. The talks proved futile. And since May, there have been a series of competing naval maneuvers near the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea, which have highlighted the growing tensions between Beijing’s ambitions and the security interests of the United States and others along the Pacific Rim.
The 83-page Pentagon study looks at all aspects of the People’s Republic of China’s military strategy, but three areas warrant particular attention: missiles, naval capabilities, and the defense industry. According to the OSD analysis:
China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world. It is developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading certain missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.
China has a small but growing force of mobile ICBMs capable of hitting targets in most of the United States. Under the umbrella of this deterrent force, China is deploying a large number of short and medium range missiles that could devastate its neighbors with a mix of nuclear and conventional warheads. By the end of last year, over 1,000 short range ballistic missiles were deployed within range of Taiwan. And though the Taipei government has attempted to improve relations with the mainland through expanded trade and more open travel, Beijing has continued its military buildup aimed at coercing the island democracy to surrender to the Chinese dictatorship.
Capturing Taiwan would help China penetrate the “first island chain” that runs from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines and then to Indonesia. Beijing thinks of the waters between the mainland and the island nations to the east as being Chinese territorial seas. The OSD report notes that the PRC is developing its own legal doctrine which is “inconsistent with international law” in regard to control of the trade routes and seabed resources of the region. To put muscle behind its claims, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) held major air and naval exercises in the East China and South China seas in June and July. Beijing also loudly protested U.S. Navy deployments in the Sea of Japan and South China Sea, and the upcoming joint U.S.-South Korea exercise in the Yellow Sea.
The PLAN has been expanding, backed by the world’s second largest shipbuilding industry. The OSD report states, “The PLA Navy has the largest force of principal combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare ships in Asia. China’s naval forces include some 75 principal combatants, more than 60 submarines, 55 medium and large amphibious ships, and roughly 85 missile-equipped patrol craft.” A new naval base on Hainan Island is nearly complete, with underground facilities for submarines and advanced surface warships within easy striking range of the major trade routes of the South China Sea.
A priority is the construction of new nuclear powered and diesel-electric attack submarines armed with anti-ship cruise missiles. China is also developing an anti-ship ballistic missile with a range in excess of 1,000 miles, with a maneuverable warhead. It is designed to strike U.S. aircraft carriers before their fighters are within range of China, with a weapon that would be hard to dodge or intercept.
China has it own aircraft carrier development program. “The PRC shipbuilding industry could start construction of an indigenous platform by the end of this year. China is interested in building multiple operational aircraft carriers with support ships in the next decade,” says the report. A July 30 editorial in the Communist Party newspaper Global Times stated, “The public strongly desires an aircraft carrier because of the prestige associated with one, the power it projects to the rest of the world and the sense of defensive security it provides.”
The irony is that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, from whose office the China military report comes, has been downplaying the threat of a Great Power rivalry in Asia. Even while serving the Bush administration, Gates was promoting the idea that irregular warfare on the Afghan model would be the wave of the future. He set about cutting high-end defense programs such as shipbuilding, missile defense and advanced combat aircraft because they were not useful against insurgents. Such systems are, however, exactly what is needed to defeat a Chinese air-and naval threat.
Unfortunately, Gates’ horrifically wrong-headed view of the future security environment has already led Northrop Grumman to close Avondale Shipbuilding in New Orleans and announce that it wants to sell its other two naval shipyards in Mississippi and Virginia. There is not enough warship construction planned to make the industry profitable enough for the Navy’s top contractor. No wonder the report says Beijing believes “the initial decades of the 21st century as a ‘strategic window of opportunity,’ meaning that regional and international conditions will generally be conducive to China’s rise to regional preeminence and global influence.”
The PLAN does have vulnerability. Its shipbuilding industry, though large in capacity, is still dependent on foreign sources for many key naval weapon system components. According to the OSD report,
Key areas where China continues to rely most heavily on foreign technologies include: guidance and control systems, turbine engine technology, and enabling technologies such as precision machine tools, advanced diagnostic and forensic equipment, applications and processes essential to rapid prototyping, and computer assisted design/ manufacturing…. China often pursues these foreign technologies for the purpose of reverse engineering.”
The big China news item the day the OSD report came out was that China has become the world’s second largest economy, passing a Japan still recovering from recession. Yet, Chinese growth has been greatly aided by technology from the West, gained either by trade, foreign investment or espionage. The report details the many ways Chinese state enterprises and intelligence services acquire what Beijing’s industry and military need. Tightening security on such transfers in America would be far less expensive than naval battles in Asia. Restricting trade was one way President Ronald Reagan made sure that the U.S. stayed ahead of the Soviet Union in the arms race of his day.
PRC officials and the state-run media constantly warn against any return to a “Cold War Mentality” in America in reaction to Beijing’s provocations, yet that is exactly what is now needed to contain rising Chinese power.