Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 16

A new Department of Defense report, issued on July 12, on the growing power of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) signals a key shift in Washington’s willingness to identify China as a future threat to the United States and its security interests. Russia’s arms sales to China are specifically identified as such a threat. The paper also seeks to change the debate over the nature of China’s threat to Taiwan.

Mandated by the U.S. Congress in 1998 as a result of its anger with the Clinton administration’s refusal to address the issue of China’s growing military power, the Clinton Pentagon issued two reports identifying disturbing trends in China’s military build-up and threats to Taiwan. These were generally sparing in details. The parallel Bush administration report is twice as long and far more detailed. Six new elements include:

  • 1. Defense Spending. For the first time, the Pentagon provides an “official” estimate of China’s annual real military spending, at US$65 billion, the world’s second largest. This compares to China’s official figure of US$20 billion, a number that undermines Chinese credibility, as it has long been known that much of their defense spending is spread over other state budgets. But as it conveys so much about China’s intent, debate over its actual defense spending has raged on for years, with some estimates exceeding US$100 billion a year. If China’s 2000 defense white paper is correct in noting that procurement constitutes one-third of its defense spending, then PLA research, development and production of weapons might reach US$20 billion a year–a very hefty sum for Asia.
  • 2. High Tech Competition. Some of this money is funding what the Pentagon calls “New Concept” weapons–including those based on laser and high-power microwave technologies, and antisatellite devices such as interceptors and ground-based lasers. These are being developed in part to address U.S. military vulnerabilities, dependence on satellites among them. Developing PLA doctrine is described as emphasizing deception and surprise in military operations as a way to defeat a superior opponent.
  • 3. New Long-Range Missiles. Some twenty liquid-fueled CSS-4 Mod 1 (DF-5) intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) will be replaced with a similar number of CSS-4 Mod 2 ICBMs. These could, in the future, be armed with multiple nuclear warheads. China is also developing its solid-fueled mobile 8,000-kilometer-range DF-31 ICBM and two longer-range versions: the new nuclear submarine launched JL-2 that boasts a range of at least 8,000 kilometers, and according to other reports, a 12,000-kilometer range DF-31A. The Pentagon also says the PLA may deploy as many as sixty ICBMs by 2010. If given multiple warheads, the DF-5 Mod 2 missiles could carry at least five warheads, so then by 2010 the PLA could have as many as 140 warheads aimed at the United States. The PLA may judge that these are needed to overcome future U.S. missile defenses.
  • 4. “Coercing” Taiwan. China’s long-range missiles are intended mainly to prevent America from coming to the aid of democratic Taiwan. But the Pentagon concludes that “[p]reparing for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait is the primary driver for China’s military modernization.” China is “integrating political, economic, cultural and military strategies” that seek to “coerce” Taiwan’s leaders to capitulate politically to Beijing’s unification terms. The critical distinction is that the Pentagon says China may employ military means other than an all-out invasion, such as naval blockades or massive surprise attacks against Taiwan’s military forces. Many previous assessments judged the PLA incapable of an all-out invasion, and thus, not a credible threat to Taiwan.
  • To coerce Taiwan’s leaders, the Pentagon details how the PLA is rapidly building or purchasing new weapon systems designed to attack Taiwan and U.S. forces that could come to Taiwan’s assistance. The report identifies the already large military imbalance in missiles–300 missiles aimed at Taiwan are growing at 50 per year–and the naval is shifting to China’s favor. The previous Pentagon report noted the air balance could begin to shift by 2005, a claim not repeated in this report. In debunking the invasion scenario, the Pentagon concludes that “Taiwan could become increasingly vulnerable to PRC strategic and operational-level surprise.”
  • 5. Russian Arms Sales. A critical U.S. assessment of the importance of Russian and other former Soviet states weapons and military technology sales to the PLA. Russian weapon sales amount to about US$1 billion per year and technology exports are increasing–some 1,500 Russian scientists are in China for long-term military contracts. Conclusion: “Russian arms sales to China increase regional anxiety about emerging PRC power.”
  • 6. Threat to Asia. Forces being assembled to coerce Taiwan can, the report notes, also be used against other Asian states like Japan and the Philippines. The importance of this observation is that any successful U.S. attempt to military aid Taiwan will require the cooperation of Tokyo and Manila, which Beijing will seek to thwart by political and military means.

The report is in and of itself a challenge to Beijing in that, by default, it is allowing the Pentagon, with its superior information, to define China’s power and intentions. For centuries, Chinese strategists have prized strict military secrecy. Today, the PLA publishes little information about its doctrine, strategies and weapons. In the former Soviet Union, the Reagan administration’s Soviet Military Power reports had the effect of causing Soviets to question their military policies. Beijing may be aware of these dangers: Recent Hong Kong reports have noted that a new PRC defense white paper to be issued later this year may provide more significant details about the PLA.

While unstated in the text of the report, by describing China’s growing threat to Taiwan the Pentagon is calling into question a fundamental pillar of U.S.-China relations: the expectation that China will seek a “peaceful resolution” of its disputes with Taiwan. This is not a minor issue, as it is part of the 1972 and 1978 U.S.-China Communiques, and is enshrined as policy in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which says, “the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

It is not clear, however, that there is a consensus within the Bush administration that China is an emerging threat. Such a change would have enormous implications for commercial and other aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, not to mention its impact on the rest of Asia and Taiwan. By sustaining U.S. military superiority in Asia and providing adequate U.S. military and political support to Taipei, it is possible to continue to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan. But the Pentagon is now warning that doing so is going to get more and more difficult.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and the managing editor of China Brief.