While all eyes are focused on enemies who present clear and present dangers, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea, another country whose military was a chief concern during the '90s has faded to the background.
A recently released Pentagon report provides a stark reminder that America needs to keep an eye on developments in the far east. Though few in the news media paid heed to the 2004 report on Chinese military power, it offers an enlightening glimpse into Asia's fast growing economic and military powerhouse and a vivid, although highly interpretive, look into how China sees the conduct of America's wars.
In the 2000 National Defense bill, Congress required the Pentagon to report annually its assessment of China's military strength, development, and strategic focus. That requirement came not without controversy, since these reports could be construed as hindrances to Sino-U.S. détente. After all, throughout the Cold War, the Pentagon printed a voluminous yearly report titled Soviet Military Power.
The first report on China, which was reluctantly released in June of 2000, stressed China's overwhelming focus on a potential conflict erupting across the Taiwan Strait. China reacted to the victory over Iraqi forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War by stressing the modernization of its forces and the development--or purchase--of precision-guided munitions, including cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs, and short-range ballistic missiles. The Chinese also learned from Operation Allied Force in 1999, which stressed the need for a capability to strike targets at long range using air power and to leverage space for greater battlefield information and intelligence.
Allied Force also offered lessons to the Chinese in the need to counter U.S. space systems, prompting increased development of anti-satellite weaponry and computer hacking attacks, previous reports state. And China recognized the importance of denial and deception, placing a greater emphasis on the ability to camouflage equipment, mask transmissions, and fortify complexes below ground.
This year's report, which was released May 28, builds on previous ones, emphasizing the Chinese military's interpretation of the global war on terrorism and the lessons drawn from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. According to the report, the Chinese military high command recognized the speed and shock of the American assault on Saddam's forces and its ability to maintain lines of supply and logistics within a non-linear battlefield. Gone was the idea that one nation need only long-range precision airpower to dominate another.
The Chinese military also sees the global war on terrorism in a larger context, with some reading American victories in the Middle East and Central Asia not as steps toward a lasting security, but rather as further solidifying a U.S. global hegemony.
"While seeing opportunities for cooperation with the United States emerging from the [global war on terrorism], China's leaders appear to have concluded that the net effect of the U.S.-led campaign has been further encirclement of China, specifically by placing U.S. military forces in Central Asia, strengthening U.S. defense relations with Pakistan, India, and Japan, and returning the U.S. military to Southeast Asia," the 2004 report states. "Although most Chinese observers believe the U.S. force posture post-September 11 is based on a legitimate need to prosecute the GWOT, many remain suspicious and have implied that the 'real' U.S. intentions behind the realignment will not be known until the GWOT is more or less over."
China has increased defense spending over the last several years, more than 11 percent in 2004 to $25 billion--though the report admits the exact amount of Chinese defense expenditures remains a close-held state secret. Increased resources have gone toward the purchase of advanced Russian attack aircraft, accelerated space programs (including manned flight and intelligence satellites), and the deployment of ballistic and cruise missiles. Additionally, China has put an increased emphasis on coordinated command and control between the People's Liberation Army, People's Liberation Army Navy and People's Liberation Army Air Force, due in large part to lessons learned from the U.S.-British assault on Iraq last year.
"PLA theorists and planners believe that future campaigns will be conducted simultaneously on land, at sea, and in the air, space, and the electronic sphere," the report states. "As more advanced weapons, sensors, and platforms enter the inventory and training begins to reflect multi-service operations, further development of a joint operations capability may provide the PLA with significant enhancements to its overall military capabilities."
Further, China continues to leverage the military technological advancements of former Soviet bloc nations by purchasing or bartering significant defense systems, such as the Russian Su-30 strike fighter, advanced Russian Sovremennyy destroyers, and Belarusian intelligence systems.
As America focuses increasingly on the Middle East and Central Asia and fights a tough war on terror, it is important to remember that China's military modernization continues apace. The potential for superpower competition in East Asia has not diminished, as these yearly reports show, nor has America's need to keep abreast of the military progress of the communist nation in order to guard against any surprises.
As the report's authors note, "China's aspirations and efforts to achieve great power status have accelerated in recent years, especially the past two, as China's leaders have evinced a greater sense of confidence in the international arena," the report states. "Various Chinese observers have noted, for example, that U.S. focus on counterterrorism has reduced perceived U.S. 'pressure' on and 'containment' of China, opening opportunities to strengthen internal security and create a more favorable situation along the periphery."