Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Emerging Competitive Edge: Pentagon Report Reveals Regionally-Potent Military with Growing Reach Beyond,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 9 May 2015.
It’s that time of year again. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has just released its annual report on Chinese military and security issues. It documents important trends in this area using information often publicly available nowhere else. Amid the usual dump of fascinating data, several broad themes stand out:
- The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues brisk, broad-based modernization.
- It has already achieved progress that the vast majority of militaries could only envy.
- In recent years, it has consolidated core capabilities.
- The PLA’s central focus remains two-fold:
- Safeguarding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s ruling position by guaranteeing domestic stability in conjunction with internal security forces as necessary
- Increasing ability to exert leverage over disputed border areas, Taiwan, and unresolved island and maritime claims in the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East, and South China Seas).
- But is also developing a new outer layer of power projection and influencing capability, becoming far broader-ranging in operational scope.
- Efforts are underway to make the PLA a great power military with global reach, even if it will not be globally present or capable to U.S. standards.
In what follows, I survey the report’s key findings before assessing its limitations, and its contributions writ large.
In the Near Seas, China is using low-intensity coercion to further its position in maritime and territorial disputes. Overall, DoD assesses, “PLA ground, air, naval, and missile forces are increasingly able to project power to assert regional dominance during peacetime and contest U.S. military superiority during a regional conflict.” Among the most sobering shifts is the erosion of many of Taiwan’s traditional defense factors by concerted PLA development and anofficial defense budget alone that is ten times greater than Taiwan’s. In a likely testament to identity factors that render cross-Strait issues complex, Taipei now spends only ~2% of GDP on defense, a target level for European members of NATO who face no such existential threat.
In peacetime, Beijing uses incremental salami-slicing tactics to assert effective control over contested areas and features. In this regard, DoD highlights Chinese efforts to prevent Philippine resupply of Second Thomas Shoal, and mentions Luconia Shoals and Reed Bank as potential future flash points. To facilitate such gains while avoiding escalation to military conflict and direct U.S. intervention, ships from the consolidating China Coast Guard (CCG) man the front line. The PLA Navy (PLAN) remains ready back stage in a monitoring and deterrent capacity. Rapid South China Sea island reclamation stands to facilitate even more continuous presence for all such forces.
China’s “whole-of-government” approach to sovereignty assertion, and the escalatory dangers therein, were underscored in 2014 when China National Offshore Oil Company began drilling with its HYSY-981 oil rig roughly 12 nautical miles (nm) from an island disputed with Vietnam and only 120 nm from Vietnam’s coast. There China announced a security radius six-times the 500 m safety zone allowed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It used “paramilitary ships” (CCG and fishing boats) to fend off Vietnamese vessels with water cannons and ramming, while PLAN ships conducted “overwatch” and PLA fighter and reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters patrolled above.
In the Far Seas, Beijing is gradually extending its reach and influence with growing power projection capabilities and soft power influence. “The PLA’s growing ability to project power,” DoD judges, “augments China’s globally-oriented objectives to be viewed as a stakeholder in ensuring stability.” In 2013-14, China sent its “first” submarines to the Indian Ocean. A Shang-class (Type 093) nuclear-powered attack submarine conducted a two-month deployment. ASong-class diesel-electric submarine made the first foreign port visit by a PLAN submarine, calling twice on Colombo, Sri Lanka. Far more than their ostensible contribution to PLAN counter-piracy escorts, these new steps offered valuable area familiarization and operational experiences to Chinese undersea forces, while producing a new symbol of Chinese power projection in service of sea lane security. Meanwhile, the PLA is increasing its soft power by training foreign military officers, including those from “virtually every Latin American and Caribbean country” at its Defense Studies Institute.
China’s defense industry has improved remarkably overall. “Over the past decade,” DoD judges, “China has made dramatic improvements in all defense industrial production sectors and is comparable to other major weapon system producers like Russia and the European Union in some areas.” Still, its capabilities remain uneven and patterns of disparity prevail.
The High Ground: Space, Missile, and Cyber Systems
Following a decades-long pattern, China’s space and ballistic and cruise missile sector remains firmly in the lead. There are many concrete manifestations of its superiority. China has deployed 1,200+ short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) opposite Taiwan. The CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) it has “fielded” in small numbers “gives the PLA the capability to attack ships in the western Pacific Ocean” “within 900 nm of the Chinese coastline.” Its ICBM units are benefitting from improved communications links. The DF-5 ICBM is equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), and the new-generation DF-41 under development is “possibly capable of carrying” them as well. China is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles, and tested one in 2014. It boasts the JF12 Mach 5-9 hypersonic wind tunnel, reportedly the world’s largest.
To support what has been “extraordinarily rapid” development of conventionally armed missiles and other long-range precision strike (LRPS) capabilities, as part of the “world’s most rapidly maturing space program” China is lofting surveillance satellites in rapid succession. Gaofen-2, launched in August 2014, became “China’s first satellite capable of sub-meter resolution imaging.” It plans to launch successively improved variants of this satellite in coming years. China gained the ability to send even greater payloads to even higher orbits with the completion of a fourth satellite launch facility, Wenchang on Hainan Island, in 2014. Launches of the Long March-5 and -7 heavy lift boosters are scheduled to commence there by 2016.
Even as it increases its own use of space assets for military purposes, China is strengthening its ability to hold those of potential opponents such as the United States at risk. It is developing a range of counter-space weapons. Unusual launch patterns and activities in space suggest efforts to test such capabilities. When queried by Washington about these actions, Beijing declines to disclose details. Meanwhile, the PLA emphasizes electronic warfare capabilities, and is deploying “jamming equipment against multiple communication and radar systems and GPS satellite systems” on sea- and air-based platforms.
Chinese cyber capabilities have recently joined the top tier as well, with DoD long subjected to numerous intrusions. Beijing is also attempting to use its position in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other international fora to promote conditions whereby sovereign states can wield greater control over cyberspace governance, both within their borders and even beyond.
Steaming Smartly Ahead: Maritime Systems
Maritime hardware comes next. Warship quantity is impressive: “The PLA Navy now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia.” But quality is emphasized even more; China is replacing older platforms with newer, more capable ones. China’s shipbuilding industry has finally begun series production of multiple vessel classes. The Luyang-III-class (Type 052D) destroyer, which first entered service in 2014, has a vertical launch system capable of firing anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and “antisubmarine missiles.” The Type 055 guided-missile cruiser slated to begin construction in 2015 will wield similar armaments. These include the submarine- and ship-launched YJ-18 ASCM, which DoD terms a “dramatic improvement” over the already-potent SS-N-27 that China previously purchased from Russia with eight of twelve Kilo-class submarines. This will greatly strengthen area air defense capabilities: Chinese naval task forces will increasingly be able to take a protective “umbrella” with them to distant seas far removed from the 300 nm-from-shore envelope of China’s extensive land-based Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). In addition, DoD judges that such warships may be close to fielding LACMs, which would give the PLAN its first capability to strike shore targets Tomahawk missile-style.
While civil maritime vessels are far less sophisticated than their naval counterparts, and typically lack major armaments, within this lower-intensity context the CCG is enjoying a buildup far more quantitatively impressive than that of the PLAN. It is already the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet, with more hulls than all its neighboring counterparts combined—and that includes the rightly-respected Japan Coast Guard. From 2004-08, it added nearly twenty ocean-going patrol ships; by the end of 2015, it is projected to have added another 30+ new vessels of this type. Together with the construction of “more than 100 new patrol craft and smaller units,” this will produce a total force level increase of 25%—growth simply unparalleled anywhere else on the world’s oceans. And that is even as many older platforms are replaced by new, improved ones; with many more having helicopter embarking capability than previously.
Gaining Altitude: Aviation Systems
Lower in achievement thus far but improving rapidly is Chinese military aviation. Quantitatively, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is Asia’s largest, and the world’s third largest. The PLAN has an aviation force of its own, which is growing to provide air wings for the “multiple” carriers DoD believes China may build over the next fifteen years. Limitations persist: Beijing’s first carrier,Liaoning, is not expected to embark an air wing “until 2015 or later.” China remains weak in aeroengines, and may soon import perhaps two dozen Russian Su-35S fighters in part for their advanced engines and radars. Yet the PLAAF “is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities.”
China “is the only country in the world other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs.” DoD anticipates the maiden flight of the fifth J-20 low-observable fighter prototype in 2015, while the J-31 fighter may be offered for export. Variants of the Y-20 transport—which may be commissioned in 2016—could provide badly needed troop movement, refueling, and airborne early warning and control (AWACs) capabilities. New variants of the venerable H-6 bomber have been exquisitely retrofitted to serve as tankers and to carry significant weapons load outs, including the YJ-12 supersonic ASCM and the CJ-20 LACM.
Meanwhile, China is placing major emphasis on UAVs. DoD cites a 2013 report by the Defense Science Board, which judges that “China’s move into unmanned systems is ‘alarming’ and combines unlimited resources with technological awareness that might allow China to match or even outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems in the future.” No fewer than three long-range precision-strike variants under development. The BZK-005 UAV has already been observed conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) over the East China Sea. Without elaboration, DoD notes: “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023.”
Finally, as part of China’s IADS, the PLAAF also maintains one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range SAMs. China is not as strong in SAMs as it is in other ballistic (and cruise) missiles, but is acquiring the long-range S-400 system from Russia, even as it continues to develop long-range indigenous systems such as the CSA-9 for IAD and ballistic missile defense (BMD).
Ground force materiel is typically last in sophistication, although the report offers few specifics. It does draw attention to China’s prioritization and rapid deployment of internal security forces. This pattern has only intensified in response to dozens of deaths from domestic unrest and terrorism in recent years, particularly in conjunction with Xinjiang.
Weaknesses and Attempts to Rectify Them
On the hardware side, China is still missing some critical technologies, industrial processes, and related knowhow. It “continues to lack either a robust coastal or deep water anti-submarine warfare capability,” and its ability to collect and disseminate targeting information in real time under wartime conditions remains uncertain.
Through determined multi-pronged effort, however, Beijing is progressively closing many of the remaining gaps. It continues to obtain significant technologies, components, and systems from abroad. As in the 1990s (albeit to a less extreme degree today), Russian and Ukrainian economic woes facilitate Chinese access to advanced expertise and systems (including S-400 SAMs, Su-35 fighters, and the Petersburg/Lada-class submarine production program from the former; assault hovercraft and aeroengines from the latter). Much technology acquired for commercial aircraft and other civilian programs has military applications. Along the way, DoD documents multiple cases of Chinese nationals seeking to transfer foreign technology illegally. Finally, China is consolidating its own state S&T research funding. Having bet big on nanotechnology, for instance, it now trails only the United States in research funding for that field.
Amelioration of software weaknesses requires laborious human capital investment and wrenching organizational reforms, but the PLA and its civilian masters are clearly determined to prevail even here. As part of enhancement of training realism emphasized by Xi, the PLA is increasing “joint” pan-Military Region exercises. Further reforms likely under consideration include reducing non-combat forces and the relative proportion of ground forces; elevating the proportion and roles of enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers vis-à-vis commissioned officers; bolstering “new-type combat forces” for naval aviation, cyber, and special operations; establishing a theater joint command system; and reducing China’s current seven Military Regions by as many as two.
Finally, if Beijing is to secure the overseas influence and reach it increasingly desires, foreign policy adjustments will be required. Logistics and intelligence support remain key constraints on Chinese operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond. To remedy this, DoD assesses, Beijing “will likely establish several access points in this area in the next 10 years. These arrangements likely will take the form of agreements for refueling, replenishment, crew rest, and low-level maintenance. The services provided likely will fall short of permitting the full spectrum of support from repair to re-armament.”
Positive Chinese Contributions and Bilateral Military Relations
Despite the above concerns, DoD also takes pains to recognize positive, growing Chinese contributions to international security and military-to-military relations with the U.S. It documents in exhaustive detail the frequent exchanges and discussions between the two militaries, as well as bilateral and multilateral military exercises dating to 2008. It clearly strives for a balanced approach: “As the United States builds a stronger foundation for a military-to-military relationship with China, it must also continue to monitor China’s evolving military strategy, doctrine, and force development, and encourage China to be more transparent about its military modernization program. In concert with its allies and partners, the United States will continue adapting its forces, posture, and operational concepts to maintain a stable and secure Asia-Pacific security environment.”
Limitations of the Report Itself
Like many products of complex bureaucratic exercises amid far greater competing priorities, this report suffers slightly from omissions, small weaknesses, and inconsistencies. The Maritime Militia, an important component of China’s Cabbage Strategy of enveloping disputed features in layers of non-military forces that opponents might hesitate to use force against, is not mentioned once. With regard to shipbuilding, DoD’s broad brushstrokes obscure lingering unevenness. It names China “the top ship-producing nation in the world,” but omits the critical qualifier that this is in terms of gross commercial tonnage; not sophistication, systems, technology, or quality. Ranges quoted for anti-ship cruise missiles are not explained; some may be debatable in practice depending on the assumptions used to calculate them. Likewise unexplained is DoD’s methodology for calculating China’s total 2014 military spending at $165 billion (against the official figure of $136.3 billion for that year).
Moreover, Pentagon reports are typically stronger in analyzing hardware than software, and this one is no exception. The disparity manifests most prominently in two instances. First, DoD offers incomplete, seemingly uncritical analysis of the “new type of major power relations” advocated by Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials. This may be part of a larger pattern in which the Obama Administration has fallen into the trap of appearing to embrace this loaded meme, which carries Chinese expectations of Washington accommodating China’s “core” sovereignty interests without reciprocal concessions from Beijing. It is arguably somewhat disjointed for DoD to express such significant concerns about Chinese weapons systems, while avoiding critical analysis of some of the very policy approaches that inform their threatened worst-case use. Second, the report misses a chance to put in full context the important keynote address that Xi delivered at the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference in 2014. While the full text remains unavailable in public, subsequent bureaucratic activities and official statements suggest that it may represent a watershed in Xi’s exhorting officials to propose more considerably more assertive external policies. Given the clarity it brings to details of Chinese security hardware, it is unfortunate that DoD could not shed more light on the high-level policies that inform its development and employment.
All told, however, DoD’s 2015 report continues its useful contribution to vital public knowledge of China’s military-security development. It is far more substantive than any public Chinese documents, including the much-touted Defense White Papers. Such knowledge remains far more limited than the vast sea of information available to anyone interested in the U.S. military, a great proportion of which is translated into Chinese on a regular basis.
Chinese government spokespeople will now predictably denounce DoD’s publication self-righteously in official media, but their talking points will appear generic, as if merely dusted off from years past. Behind this querulous façade, and unwillingness to engage the report’s specifics, likely lies an inability to disprove anything more than a few technicalities. What apparently bothers Beijing far more than any facts revealed is the very notion that Washington would have the temerity to bring transparency and open discussion to the state and trajectory of what is now the world’s second military by many measures. All the more reason why DoD’s slightly imperfect yet irreplaceable contribution is invaluable yet again.