‘Realistic Appraisal’ of Threat to Others
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Even before the Pentagon released its annual China report on May 25, U.S. and Chinese officials and media outlets were sparring over it.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters the previous day that the report “paints a picture of a country that is devoting substantial resources to the military” and urged Beijing to show greater transparency and “talk more about what their intentions are, what their strategies are.”
Beijing’s retort: “The report of the U.S. Department of Defense continues to spread the myth of the ‘China Threat’ by exaggerating China’s military strength and expenses out of ulterior motives,” said Jiang Yu, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Each sovereign state has the right and obligation to develop necessary national defense strength to safeguard its national security and territorial integrity. It is totally erroneous and invalid for the U.S. report to play up the so-called ‘China threat.’”
If the report played up the threat, so did U.S. newspapers, which said the report, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” would feature some of the strongest language yet on China’s “threat” to the United States.
But once the report came out, little was actually different from last year’s edition. The report used the word “threat” 18 times, just as often as the 2002 version did, and three times fewer than last year’s edition.
Thomas Kane, author of the book “Chinese Grand Strategy and Maritime Power,” believes that the media unnecessarily hyped the report.
“The reporters who play up the threat aspect are just looking for a good story,” he said. “This report says that China is developing toward the point at which it will pose a ‘credible threat’ to ‘modern militaries.’ This implies that China will eventually develop the ability to challenge the United States, at least in some circumstances. That is something that U.S. policymakers should work to counter, but it is not something that U.S. citizens need to worry about. ... The report updates our knowledge of the balance of power in East Asia. Equally significantly, it updates our knowledge of how the American DoD [Department of Defense] is choosing to present the balance of power in East Asia. ... The report does not, however, appear to contain anything revolutionary.”
But others see cause for concern. Larry Wortzel, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, believes that ignoring China’s military modernization is too dangerous.
“Even if China is not a peer competitor, it presents a clear and credible strategic threat with its intercontinental ballistic missiles,” he said. “The Pentagon continues to present realistic appraisals of the threat posed” by the PLA.
Wortzel says those who dismiss the report ignore China’s potential to threaten and impede U.S. military operations in limited areas for extended periods of time.
The new wrinkles in this year’s report are China’s efforts to develop anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, and the note that a Chinese submarine surfaced near a U.S. aircraft carrier. The report gives only four mentions to the new Dong Feng 31A intercontinental ballistic missile, which allows China for the first time to strike any target on the continental United States.
In August 2006, China blinded a U.S. spy satellite with a laser, and in January 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites with a missile. This development was mentioned eight times. However, warnings that China was developing an ASAT capability was mentioned 12 times in the first report in 2002 and 13 times in 2003. Ironically, it was only mentioned once in the 2006 report issued roughly two months before the first ASAT test in August.
“The ASAT is not a new issue,” Kane said. “Yes, in my opinion, the test does change the nature of the ‘threat.’ Now we know that China actually has an ASAT that works. I’m no astrospace engineer, but I would also suspect that the Chinese learned a great deal that they will be able to apply the next time they want to disable a satellite. Having said that, I would add that U.S. defense planners should have been preparing for this for at least three or four years. I would describe the test as an interesting development, not a cause for panic.”
The report says China has no land-attack cruise missiles (LACM), “an interesting concession, since many China-threat people have claimed that a first-generation LACM has already been deployed,” said Richard Bitzinger, a China specialist with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
Bitzinger said the report gives little detail on China’s amphibious forces and none about new vessels that could be used to invade Taiwan, while “discussions of Chinese efforts to ‘informatize’ its armed forces are so thin as to be useless,” he said,
Bitzinger also hits the report for citing the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s estimate that China could be spending as much as $125 billion on defense without giving a methodology for the estimate.
The Pentagon has produced annual reports on China’s military capabilities and goals since 1996, and Congress mandated an annual review in 2000.
“Gernerally, the Secretary of Defense staff takes the language in the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act], and then gives guidance to the intelligence community to draft the report,” said a former contributor to the report, who was once assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense [OSD], Asia and Pacific Affairs. “OSD Net Assessment also has an input. A draft, in both classified and unclassified forms, are coordinated in the intelligence community. Then it’s sent to the Secretary of Defense staff. The unclassified report is then coordinated with the State Department and National Security Council staffs. Then it’s sent up to Secretary of Defense to be reviewed and signed out for release. It’s almost always released on a Friday, since Saturday media doesn’t get much attention.”
The former contributor said each new version generally contains only a few politically noteworthy changes — for example, the number of missiles in the Chinese arsenal, or new sentences describing China’s intentions and capabilities.