Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 11

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

A long awaited report assessing the real extent, plus the potential for danger to the United States from China’s ongoing military modernization has been released by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). While this report makes useful contributions to an ongoing debate about China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it is also necessary to examine some of its conclusions which do not hold up on closer examination.

First, it is necessary to credit the CFR for a comprehensive examination of the PLA by a stellar task group chaired by Harold Brown, former secretary of defense under President Jimmy Carter. Joseph Prueher, a former ambassador to the People’s Republic of China and, under President Bill Clinton, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, served as vice-chair. The task group’s fifty-nine members and observers include some of the best China and China-military watchers in the United States. Although this group is weighted toward liberals, it also included some conservatives. Both sides added individual dissenting views at the end of the report.


The most fundamental question addressed by the report is that of the current and future strength of the PLA, especially in comparison to that of the U.S. armed forces. The central conclusion of the CFR report on this point is that “the Chinese military is at least two decades behind the United States in terms of military technology and capability.” And provided the United States invests appropriately in its military, the advantage will “remain decisively in America’s favor beyond the next twenty years.” [1] The report later acknowledges the risks of predicting future PLA strength, but this was the key conclusion offered to the media. [2] While the CFR report is careful to describe the U.S. lead as one based on indigenous technology, and helpfully suggests that the offensive military technologies not be sold to the PLA, the report can be challenged for not giving enough credit to the manner in which foreign technology is helping to speed the PLA’s efforts to catch up to the United States.

With regard to the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), for example, the report notes that this service has acquired “100-plus” [3] Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighters and Su-30 fighter bombers. According to numerous Russian sources, however, the current number actually delivered is about 200. And if the ambitions of Sukhoi and its partner, Shenyang, are realized, this number could approach 300 well before the end of the decade. On two occasions in the early 1990s Russian Su-27s outperformed current U.S. top-of-the-line Boeing F-15 fighters in friendly exercises. And while the United States has traditionally had a real lead in radar, avionics and armaments, this is now changing as the PLAAF’s Su-30MKKs acquire radar and missiles–like the active-guided R-77–that compare far better to U.S. systems.

To keep its lead, the U.S. plans to build only 339 of its next generation Lockheed-Martin F/A-22 fighters, provided critics in the U.S. Congress do not succeed in reducing this number. The CFR report, however, fails to mention that the PLAAF is now considering two indigenous next-generation fighter programs. Shenyang’s proposal, revealed at the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow, uses stealth shaping, internal weapons carriage, and thrust-vectored engines, just like the F/A-22. While this program was the first reported by the U.S. Navy in 1997, the 2002 revelations have altered previous doubts about its survival. Consequently, when comparing air superiority fighters, the U.S. lead does not look as decisive as the CFR report might have us believe.

Another area in which the CFR does not give full weight to the capability-accelerating potential of foreign technology is in PLA space warfare plans. It is this analyst’s contention that three new mobile, solid-fueled space launch vehicles (SLVs), which were revealed at the last Zhuhai show, are intended to form the basis for a direct-assent anti-satellite (ASAT) warfare capability. According to Chinese officials at the show, two SLVs are based on the DF-21 medium range ballistic missile and the DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile. The third is based on the yet-to-enter service DF-31A. The ability of these SLVs to launch ASAT interceptors was accelerated by a 1998 contract to develop a new generation of micro-satellites signed by China’s Tsinghua University and Britain’s Surrey Space Systems. This technology will accelerate the PLA’s ability to develop satellite interceptors. The report notes that China has been “cut off” [4] from European military suppliers. But this does not account for ongoing transfers of “dual use” technologies. These SLVs have the potential to target satellites in low-earth, geosynchronous, and polar orbits, which is where most U.S. communication and surveillance satellites reside. If the PLA is able to disable or destroy enough critical U.S. military satellites, a twenty-year technical advantage would be rapidly diminished.


Although the CFR report contains many other factual errors, it does make useful contributions to the ongoing debate over the PLA. The report devises a useful set of criteria on which to judge the pace and degree of future PLA modernization. Furthermore, the report usefully differentiates between its descriptions of current capabilities and those that the PLA is seeking to develop. Its discussion on the weaknesses of China’s indigenous technology sector is also useful.

The CFR also makes a contribution in differentiating between what it perceives as a current and ongoing U.S. military superiority, and in assessing the potential for the PLA to be effective in future military operations against Taiwan–and even to cause damage to U.S. forces trying to aid Taiwan. The CFR report’s assertion that China has a “preference for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan situation” is dubious in light of both its ongoing United Front political warfare against Taiwan’s democracy and its military build-up directed against Taiwan. However, the report is correct in noting that the proximity of PLA forces to Taiwan, together with the forces that are being gathered, pose a challenge to the United States.

It is necessary in conclusion to take issue with what appears to be the underlying reasons for the CFR report. The report seeks to avoid both and an “overreaction” and an “underreaction” to the PLA’s ongoing modernization. The most likely reason for such moderation is stated in the forward by Council President Leslie Gelb. It notes that during the Cold War “inflated assessments of Soviet power and excessive pessimism about U.S. strength undercut efforts to improve ties between the two countries.” He adds that: “Strong feelings on all sides of the discussion politicized the domestic debate, with ill effect for U.S. policymaking.”

This is an unfortunate liberal illusion that is contradicted by the strengths of the CFR’s report. America’s ultimate victory in the Cold War, confirmed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, was an historic blessing for humanity. This victory happened largely because, in the 1970s, conservatives in and outside government challenged prevailing assessments of Soviet power and, subsequently, Ronald Reagan’s active defense of freedom accelerated Soviet Communism’s already heavy contradictions. In fact, this American-led victory might not have happened without a vigorous debate–“ill effect” and all. As U.S. interests are increasingly challenged by a rising China, it is necessary to carry on an equally vigorous debate over the extent and direction of China’s growing military power. Fortunately, the CFR makes a contribution to this end, and in the hope that it does better next time, this analyst gives the CFR’s PLA report two cheers.

1. Harold Brown, Chair, Joseph W. Prueher, Vice Chair, Adam Segal, Project Director, “Chinese Military Power, Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations,” released on May 22, 2003, pp. iv-v.

2. David Barboza, “Study Says China Is Decades Behind U.S. in Military Power,” The New York Times, May 23, 2003., p. A5.

3. Brown, et al., p. 25.

4. Ibid., p. 57.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is the managing editor of China Brief.