China Report Notes Military Modernization

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2011 — China’s mil­i­tary is mod­ern­iz­ing, but the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment needs to be more forth­com­ing on why it needs these new capa­bil­i­ties, accord­ing to a Defense Depart­ment report deliv­ered to Con­gress today.

Michael Schif­fer, deputy assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for East Asia, briefed Pen­ta­gon reporters on the report. “The Unit­ed States wel­comes a strong, pros­per­ous and suc­cess­ful Chi­na that con­tributes to inter­na­tion­al rules and norms and enhances secu­ri­ty and peace both in the Asia-Pacif­ic region and around the globe,” Schif­fer said.

The Unit­ed States is work­ing to engage Chi­na in eco­nom­ic, peace­keep­ing and human­i­tar­i­an areas, among oth­ers, Schif­fer said. A good mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship is one part of that engage­ment, he added, not­ing that Chi­na is work­ing with the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, for exam­ple, to counter pira­cy off the coast of Soma­lia and in the Gulf of Aden. The Chi­nese mil­i­tary also has con­tributed to earth­quake relief in Pak­istan and played a role in deliv­er­ing human­i­tar­i­an aid to Haiti, he said.

“How­ev­er,” he added, “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.”

The capa­bil­i­ties could pose a temp­ta­tion for the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to use mil­i­tary force “to gain diplo­mat­ic advan­tage, advance its inter­ests, or resolve … dis­putes in its favor,” Schif­fer said. This dan­ger, he told reporters, re-empha­sizes the need for a sus­tained and reli­able mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary dia­logue between the Unit­ed States and Chi­na.

China’s army is on track to real­ize its goal of build­ing a mod­ern, region­al­ly focused mil­i­tary by 2020, the report says. But China’s abil­i­ty to sus­tain mil­i­tary pow­er at a dis­tance today remains lim­it­ed.

This may change short­ly, Schif­fer said. This month, Chi­na has con­duct­ed sea tri­als of a Kuznetsov-class air­craft car­ri­er it pur­chased from Ukraine and refur­bished.

“The air­craft car­ri­er could become oper­a­tional­ly avail­able to China’s navy by the end of 2012, we assess, but with­out air­craft,” Schif­fer said. “It will take a num­ber of addi­tion­al years for an air group to achieve the sort of min­i­mal lev­el of com­bat capa­bil­i­ty aboard the car­ri­er that will be nec­es­sary for them to start to oper­ate from the car­ri­er itself.”

The Chi­nese con­tin­ue to invest in sub­marines, and China’s navy is invest­ing in new sur­face com­bat­ants designed for anti-sur­face and anti-air war­fare, Schif­fer said, and con­struc­tion of a major naval base on Hainan Island is com­plete. “And this base, we assess, is large enough to accom­mo­date a mix of bal­lis­tic mis­siles, sub­marines and large sur­face com­bat­ants, includ­ing air­craft car­ri­ers,” he added.

Chi­na is also invest­ing in air­craft and mis­siles. In Jan­u­ary, the Chi­nese air force flight-test­ed its next-gen­er­a­tion fight­er pro­to­type. The air­craft includes stealth attrib­ut­es, advanced avion­ics and super­cruise-capa­ble engines, Schif­fer said.

Space also is a focus of China’s mil­i­tary mod­ern­iza­tion, with a record 15 launch­es in 2010.

While rela­tions with Tai­wan and Chi­na have improved marked­ly in most areas, Schif­fer said, the Chi­nese mil­i­tary still focus­es on a cross-strait con­tin­gency. Chi­na also seems to be stress­ing mar­itime ter­ri­to­r­i­al claims in the South Chi­na Sea � an area where rough­ly 50 per­cent of the world’s trade trav­els.

The Chi­nese mil­i­tary also has demon­strat­ed in recent years the capa­bil­i­ty to con­duct lim­it­ed peace­time deploy­ments of mod­ern forces out­side Asia.

“This includes mul­ti­ple coun­ter­pira­cy deploy­ments to the Gulf of Aden and increas­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an and dis­as­ter … relief efforts,” Schif­fer said. “Invest­ments in large amphibi­ous ships, a new hos­pi­tal ship, long-range trans­port air­craft and improved logis­tics have made these sorts of mis­sions a prac­ti­cal real­i­ty.” These peace­time oper­a­tions pro­vide China’s mil­i­tary with a valu­able oper­a­tional expe­ri­ence and also serve the government’s diplo­mat­ic objec­tives, he added.

The mod­ern­iza­tion shows no sign of slow­ing, the report says, as the Chi­nese mil­i­tary received a 12.7 per­cent bud­get increase this year. The report acknowl­edges the dif­fi­cul­ty in fig­ur­ing how much Chi­na spends on its mil­i­tary, but esti­mates it at around $165 bil­lion. “That con­tin­ues more than two decades of sus­tained bud­getary growth,” Schif­fer told reporters.

The Chi­nese have made some incre­men­tal improve­ments in trans­paren­cy in recent years, he said, but a num­ber of uncer­tain­ties remain.

“We will con­tin­ue, and we do con­tin­ue, to encour­age Chi­na to improve trans­paren­cy and open­ness, to act in ways that sup­port and strength­en com­mon polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and diplo­mat­ic inter­ests of the region and of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty,” Schif­fer said.

In the past, the Chi­nese have object­ed to the release of the report. Schif­fer said he hopes the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary will look at it dif­fer­ent­ly this year.

“The report can best be read not sim­ply as a piece of analy­sis, but real­ly as the sets of ques­tions and issues that we would like to be able to engage in dia­logue and dis­cus­sion with our Chi­nese coun­ter­parts about,” he said. “These are the ques­tions and the issues that we think that it’s impor­tant for us to be able to under­stand.

“We know our Chi­nese friends have ques­tions for and about us,” he con­tin­ued, “and that’s the sort of dia­logue and dis­cus­sion that we wel­come and that we think con­tributes to region­al and glob­al secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)