Different Audiences, Different Purposes: The PLA, the Pentagon and Chinese Military Modernization

The long-awaited annual review of Chinese military power was finally released by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) last week. This document, along with China’s bi-annual Defense White Paper (published in late March), ought to enable comparison of how both capitals and both militaries view China’s defense modernization, but for the most part they do not. Though nominally addressing the same issue, the two documents could not be more different in scope and emphasis. China’s military leadership is intent on defending official policy, hoping to convince external audiences that China’s military advances do not pose a threat to its neighbors or signal a change in China’s strategic intentions. The PLA, historically unaccustomed to disclosure of its military capabilities, presents military modernization as the logical outgrowth of  China’s rapid, sustained economic development and the globalization of China’s economic interests. It also sees heightened military development as a response to revolutions in military technology and strategic uncertainties facing China. 

The mandate and intended audience for the OSD report are very different from those for the Defense White Paper. As specified by the Congress in 1997, the Pentagon is obligated to prepare an annual assessment of Chinese military modernization, in particular weapons systems development. This mandate bears obvious comparison to the reports on Soviet military power prepared under the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations, though the current document is very different from the earliest versions of the China report. As specified by the authorizing legislation, “the report shall address the current and probable future course of military-technological development of the People’s Liberation Army and the tenets and probable development of Chinese security strategy and military strategy, and of the military organizations and operational concepts supporting such development over the next 20 years.”

Comparing the Approaches

There is very little overlap between the two reports. The Defense White Paper is focused primarily on China’s strategic aspirations and institutional evolution, especially the PLA’s posited role in the defense of Chinese interests, changes in the PLA’s organizational roles, developments in the military legal system and innovation in science, technology, and industry for national defense. The paper emphasizes broad strategic concepts and doctrinal change, with both reflecting what the PLA characterizes as major changes in warfare that leave it at a pronounced disadvantage. The report provides minimal information on specific weapons capabilities, even when such information has been disseminated in other Chinese publications.

OSD’s assessment is largely capability oriented, with specific attention to trends and activities in weapons development and their potential implications for future military operations. Though acknowledging China’s economic transformation and the ever wider scope of Chinese economic interests, the Pentagon report devotes disproportionate attention to the multiple transitions in China’s various service branches, the enhancement of Chinese capabilities, and the missions against which they appear to be dedicated. There are additional sections devoted to PLA maritime strategy and to the Chinese military’s increased external activities, including military exercises, peacekeeping operations, and weapons sales. Neither document pays much heed to the deliberations within the Chinese military –ones featured regularly in open PLA publications- about the shortcomings under which the Chinese military believes it still labors. Not surprisingly, OSD sees far more impressive strides in Chinese military development than the PLA is prepared to acknowledge.

Both documents, moreover, remain largely elliptical or non-committal about larger strategic considerations. But the tone of the two papers is more sober than alarmist. Both militaries appear intent on sustaining military to military relations that have been repeatedly interrupted over the past several decades, but have resumed since late 2010. Notwithstanding these renewed professional exchanges, more worrisome possibilities loom. The military to military relationship remains the weakest link in bilateral relations, and without much deeper and more institutionalized ties, the possibility of a long-term military competition is increasingly apparent. Though neither state is on a collision course, underlying, mutually reinforcing suspicions between the two militaries persist, even though neither document calls major attention to them.

Redirecting the Sino-American Strategic Conversation

A more candid strategic conversation needs to take place between the American and Chinese militaries, beginning with far more explicit attention to the expectations and concerns of both states. The Defense White Paper, for example, posits a “commitment to the new security concepts of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination,” all in the context of a shifting international balance of power and a “more intricate and volatile” Asia-Pacific region in which the United States has extended its involvement. How does China propose to reconcile these concepts and arguments with the requirement of “accelerating the modernization of national defense and the armed forces” and making “profound preparations for military struggle,” including “enhance[d] capabilities in fire power, mobility, protection, support and informatization”?

OSD needs to explicate far more fully whether and how China’s future military development poses a direct challenge to American security interests. This should begin with much more explicit attention to the PLA’s stated military goals, not how DOD chooses to characterize them. In the new Pentagon report, for example, OSD argues that “the PLA is on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally-focused military by 2020,” but this purported objective is nowhere to be found in Chinese policy documents. Similarly, the Pentagon calls repeated attention to the PLA’s growing capabilities to undertake “anti-access and area denial operations,” but these are US constructs, not ones espoused by the Chinese. Increased attentiveness to the PLA’s depiction of its strategic goals and operational concepts seems particularly important, irrespective of how OSD might view them.

Suggestions for Future Reviews

The tendency to transpose U.S. concepts onto Chinese realities may be understandable, but it should be avoided. The Pentagon report, for example, makes reference to China’s posited goal of “becoming a world-class economic and military power by 2050” that would presumably equate with U.S. global military reach. But the report acknowledges “an active debate among military and civilian theorists in China concerning the future capabilities the PLA should develop to advance China’s interests beyond traditional requirements.” OSD further acknowledges that the PLA’s strides in military modernization over the past decade –including what it describes as “capabilities that are on a par with or exceed global standards”- have yet to tested through “more realistic training and organizational reform,” including the need “to integrate many new complex platforms, and to adopt modern operational concepts, including joint operations and network-centric warfare.” By implication, China’s longer term capacities will derive at least as much or more from software as from hardware, even as Chinese strategists disagree over China’s security goals and needs.

Intermittently throughout the document, OSD suggests that China’s future military development is not foreordained. The report argues that U.S. strategy needs “to shape China’s choices as we seek to capitalize on opportunities for cooperation while mitigating risks.” But how does the United States propose to achieve these goals when dealing with a far more capable Chinese military? OSD contends that the coming decade will be pivotal to China’s longer-term military transformation, but there is little indication of how the United States plans to discuss this future with Chinese counterparts. Can the United States reconcile its stated goal of “a stable and secure East Asian environment” with the PLA’s expressed belief that the “international strategic competition and contradictions are intensifying, global challenges are becoming more prominent, and security threats are becoming increasingly integrated, complex, and volatile”? Does the United States envision a more prominent role for China in global and regional security, and (even assuming this to be a possibility) is this a role that the PLA seeks? The authors of both reports may have fulfilled their obligations to their respective audiences, but neither document provides answers to larger strategic considerations. There is an unaddressed agenda that should compel serious attention by both militaries, and sooner will be vastly preferable to later.