Hearing on Chinese Military Power

Bates Gill

Allow me to begin by thanking you, Mr. Chairman, and the members of this distinguished Committee for the opportunity to take part in the series of hearings you are holding on the topic of Chinese military power. As a student for more than 15 years of Chinese military-technical issues and their implications for U.S. national security, I am looking forward to this timely and important exchange of views.

My formal remarks will consist of three parts. First, I will raise four methodological points to help guide our efforts in analyzing Chinese military power. Second, I will present a contextual overview to understand both the challenges and opportunities which stand before the Chinese military in their modernization program. Third, I will zero in on two key concerns: Chinese conventional capabilities in a Taiwan scenario and Chinese nuclear weapons modernization.

Methodological Concerns

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I commend your efforts to hold this series of hearings in order to better grasp the motivations and prospects for Chinese military modernization, and its implications for U.S. interests. These questions are both timely and urgent, and we need to get our policies and legislation right. This is not a time for simplistic assessments, but for reasoned, well-informed, and objective analyses, and these hearings will make an important contribution to that goal.

As a part of my contribution to this process, allow me to begin by flagging four general methodological concerns which should help guide and refine our efforts.

First: Our country has thus far devoted far too little in the way of resources and intellectual energies toward understanding and appropriately responding to the many challenges and opportunities which Chinese military modernization places before us.

It is true that China is a “hard target” which closely guards all manner of information, especially with regard to military affairs. But we can hardly blame China for wishing to protect its national secrets. On the contrary, there is more open-source information available today from China, and a greater degree of potential intelligence access, than we have ever known.

The problem lies in our ability to access, decipher, translate, filter, analyze and report on the abundance of information that is out there. In a word or two, far more resources are necessary in the areas of intelligence, research and analysis on Chinese security motivations and perceptions, doctrinal developments, and operational capabilities. There will still be many unanswered and difficult issues, but more needs to be done to make the “black box” smaller.


Second: The politicization of views regarding the Chinese military in the United States unnecessarily strengthens the Chinese hand.

Unfortunately, without better information, our debate on Chinese military power has become overly polarized and simplistic, which in many respects proves beneficial to Beijing. China is able to play off of divisions in our body politic to its advantage in our bilateral relationship. In addition, over-the-top exaggerations of Chinese military modernization merely grant to China precisely the kind of psychological deterrent they could never hope to achieve on the basis of their actual capabilities. I can only imagine that the happiest persons to hear our analysts overly tout the China threat would be the Chinese general staff, students of Sun Zi (Sun Tzu) who are grateful for every psychological advantage they can get. Likewise, dismissing Chinese capabilities in certain well-defined scenarios also plays into Chinese hands.

We do not owe China any favors in this regard, and should do all we can to work toward and broaden a well-informed, balanced, appropriately nuanced, and reasoned consensus about Chinese military modernization and its implications for the United States.

Third: We wrongly focus too much attention on Chinese hardware—weapons systems—rather than the “software” which determines a military’s effectiveness, such as doctrine, command and control, experience, training, logistics, maintenance, and “jointness”.

Let’s face it. Hardware is “sexy” and tangibly understood. It is easy to see and touch an Su-27, for example, and readily recognize its potential. But noting its existence, while important, does very little to inform us of how, when, and under what conditions that weapon will be operated, how well it will operate, what can be expected of it under combat conditions, and whether it will be integrated to fight with other military assets.

Unfortunately, analysts too often to equate “acquisition” with “capability”. At best acquisition translates to potential capability. As such, our job should be to carefully analyze what potentiates China’s military modernization program. This is real “in the weeds” stuff, and unlikely to result in splashy headlines, but my hat is off to those who do the hard work of understanding Chinese security assessments, doctrinal shifts, operational planning, logistics capacities, training regimens, command and control guidelines, and technology absorption, assimilation, and diffusion. These and a host of other questions make up the real sinews of military capability. This becomes all the more important as we try to understand China’s approach to the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). As we know, RMAs are not simply based on hardware. Rather, militaries are challenged all the more to go well beyond basic applications of hardware, to place far more emphasis on what might be termed “software”: the behind-the-scenes knitting together of technologies, concepts, and organizational frameworks which make militaries more effective.

Knowing what weapons the Chinese have is the easy part. Knowing when, where, how, and why they will use them are far more important, but difficult, questions to answer.

Fourth: Our efforts should focus particularly in two areas: China’s conventional missile capabilities in the Taiwan Strait and China’s ongoing strategic nuclear modernization program.

While we should strive to be as comprehensive as possible in our understanding of Chinese military modernization, we do not have unlimited resources to do so. Our efforts can be improved by placing priorities in certain areas. First, it is clear that over the past five years, Chinese military planners and procurement patterns have placed increasing attention on improving capabilities relevant to a Taiwan Straits contingency, mostly in the area of ballistic and cruise missiles. Second, we need to place more resources into understanding China’s nuclear weapons modernization program, especially as we proceed with our national missile defense plans. These areas are where China is placing its emphasis. So should we.

Chinese Military Power in Context: Challenges and Opportunities

Only through an understanding of the bigger, behind-the-scenes picture can fully grasp and appropriately respond to Chinese military capabilities. With this in mind, this section addresses three sets of questions.

First: Chinese military capability for what purpose? What are the roles and missions that Chinese military capability needs to address?

For most of the history of the People’s Republic of China, the purpose of Chinese military power has been largely devoted to basic defense of core national territory and security of inland borders, a goal they have more or less achieved. Over the past five to ten years, with this first purpose behind them, the Chinese military has moved on to a more ambitious goal: full unification of national territory, meaning extension of sovereignty over Taiwan. The Chinese military is now in the earliest stages of formulating a more focused approach to this purpose.

Looking out further ahead to the future—perhaps over the next 15 to 20 years—the purpose of the Chinese military will be to extend its power over water to protect natural resources and sea lanes, and provide a greater buffer for the center of economic gravity which stretches along its eastern seaboard. Looking even further ahead, but with outcomes very difficult to predict, it is possible that the purpose of the Chinese military in 25 to 30 years will be to solidify China’s position as the preeminent Asian regional power within its sphere of influence. In general, the purpose of Chinese military power is turning slowly away from inland concerns to its north, south and west, to mission requirements to its east and southeast.

Second: To achieve those ends, what internal challenges and opportunities will China face?

China faces three major internal challenges as it seeks to develop its military capabilities to meet the missions described above: shift in battle space, shift in doctrine, and shift in technology. To put it another way, the Chinese military needs to dramatically retool its capabilities to consider where they will be applied, how they will be applied, and what instruments will be used.

Shift in battle space: China will need to entirely rethink its approach to warfare by going from a land-based, heavily mechanized infantry power, to one capable of projecting power over, under, and on water. If we think of the last two thousand years of Chinese history as timeline stretching from one end of a football field to the other, we see that China has been a serious naval player over about two or three yards of that field, and most of that occurred in the early 1400s. The overwhelming concern with inland borders likewise has dominated Chinese military thinking during the 50 years of the PRC. The name of the Chinese navy—the People’s Liberation Army Navy—aptly illustrates the subordinate place which men in blue continue to have in the Chinese military. The land-based Army dominates the PLA—in terms of men, materiel, organizational structure, and leadership. A case in point: one of the longest and most ambitious naval expeditions the PRC has ever undertaken was the port visit of two small warships and an oiler across the Pacific to the west coast of the United States in 1997, and that peacetime effort was fraught with difficulties. Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom, or Japan—which, as “island” powers, have extraordinary naval, naval air, and marine warfare traditions and hard-won experience—China, as a traditional land power, has much work to do to become a green water, let alone a blue water, force.

Thus, one of the biggest challenges facing future Chinese military power is trying to come to grips with this reality: its principal military missions will likely be to its east and southeast, moving into a maritime battle space with which it has almost no serious experience.

Shift in doctrine: Moving into this new battle space, China will need to significantly revise the way it conceptualizes warfare, meaning a shift in doctrine. On paper, Chinese strategists appear to recognize this. The Chinese military has moved from the notion of “People’s War” in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, to “People’s War Under High Tech Conditions” in the 1980s, to the current approach termed “Limited, Local War Under High-Tech Conditions.” Chinese strategists see the new environment for warfare to be limited in both time and space, and likely to be fought against technologically sophisticated, “high-tech”, and even superior adversaries. Some analysts have shown that Chinese strategists based at their military academies now theorize about a Revolution in Military Affairs. But as Michael Pillsbury has shown in his work, RMA advocates remain outliers in a Chinese military system where the vast majority of both force structure and doctrinal thinking remains wedded to “People’s War”-based approaches.

However one looks at these doctrinal debates in China, and how they unfold in terms of force structure, they represent a significant and challenging shift for Chinese military power. We can be relatively confident that old ways will die slowly, and this is especially true in the PLA’s military culture where change comes from the top, and innovation goes unrewarded.

Shift in technologies: The shift in battle space and in doctrine suggests China will also need to adopt itself to new technologies and tools of warfare. At a minimum, the new battle space and a “Limited, Local War” approach will require operational improvements in precision, lethality, rapid mobility, stealth, and joint operations. This raises a number of procurement problems for China as its own defense industry has largely failed to provide many of the kinds of advanced weapons and technologies called for by battle space and doctrinal shifts. This explains why China has so actively gone abroad over the past decade, seeking advanced weapons and technologies from Russia and Israel in particular. “Going abroad” has its advantages, but also raises questions about dependency, reliability, maintenance, spares, and cost.

New technologies and tools also demand improved training and dissemination methods. Pillsbury and others, such as Dennis Blasko, argue that perhaps five to ten percent of the PLA—a not insignificant force at about 150,000 to 200,000 troops—might be expected over the next 10 years to fully adopt concepts and equipment consistent with the “Limited, Local War” approach. But this will not be easy in a military which has no non-commissioned officer corps, short, two-year enlistment periods, and teaching raw recruits from the Chinese countryside simply how to drive a truck is a major training accomplishment.

Third: What overarching opportunities and motivations will drive China to confront these challenges?

One of the most important factors in China’s favor is the likelihood of continued economic and technological development—though this is far from a given—including increased access to dual use technologies. The PLA is also taking steps to become a more professional force, less burdened with political and Party-related baggage. In addition, another powerful motivator will be a singularly strong political will under the current regime to reunify Taiwan. Indeed, the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty cuts to the very legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as to China’s would-be great power image. Hence, powerful forces motivate Beijing’s effort to bring Taiwan back under Chinese sovereignty. That will, combined with increased economic, technological, and professional capacities over time will steadily improve Chinese military capabilities, but that progress will be painful and difficult.

Bridging the mission-capabilities gap: implications for the United States

Mr. Chairman, no one is more painfully aware of the gap between mission requirements and desired capabilities than the Chinese themselves. Indeed, if it is true that we are in the midst of an RMA, that gap may be widening, not narrowing, for China. To deal with this problem, China has undertaken an increasingly rational approach to building its military capabilities in a comparatively focused, but gradual way, zeroing in on certain niche areas, especially with regard to missiles. Improved missile capabilities answer a number of questions for Chinese forces both with regard to a Taiwan scenario, and with regard to improving its nuclear weapons capabilities. I believe our priorities should focus on these developments—it is certainly where the Chinese will place their emphasis over the next five to ten years.

Taiwan scenario: Recognizing its weaknesses, China appears to be devoting increased resources not to an “invasion” scenario, but to an “intimidation” and perhaps an “area denial” strategy. In contemplating the Taiwan Strait, the most steadfast military reality is its width: 90 miles of open water. In spite of that persistent tactical conundrum, China has never seriously invested in air or sea lift, amphibious assault capabilities, or credible air superiority assets, let alone the creation of a viable marine corps. It is clear that at this time China does not wish to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. Navy, or even attempt an all-out invasion of the island, which would both be politically and militarily disastrous.

Under these conditions, stand-off, coercive weapons, such as cruise and ballistic missiles, make good sense for the Chinese military. This explains their rapid build up of short range missiles opposite Taiwan, their interest in the SS-N-2 “Sunburn” missiles aboard the Sovremenny class destroyers purchased from Russia, and continued R&D to improve China’s indigenous cruise missiles. In the most dire scenario, China would use its missiles to attack Taiwan in hopes of bringing about a rapid capitulation. However, history tells us that missiles alone usually cannot prove decisive, and need to be backed up by comprehensive and effective conventional forces—manpower, ships, planes—to complete the job.

Nevertheless, the United States should continue to equip Taiwan to defend itself against potential Chinese coercion, especially with regard to possible missile attack. Providing lower-tier, land-based missile defenses to Taiwan is consistent with U.S. commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act and is entirely appropriate given China’s continuing build-up of missiles opposite Taiwan. Other, follow-on sales of more capable missile defenses should await further study of their diplomatic and military-technical implications. The U.S. side should more seriously urge Taiwan to develop its “passive defenses”—hardening command posts, shelters, and other key facilities, for example—to better withstand a possible Chinese missile attack.

Nuclear weapons modernization: From China’s decision to build the bomb in the mid-1950s, nuclear weapons have always been seen as a critical trump card to make up for the country’s comparatively poor conventional capabilities and prevent what China terms “nuclear blackmail.” The situation is no less true today, and China will devote considerable resources to assuring the viability of its nuclear deterrent.

After more than 35 years as a nuclear weapons power, China is now in the early stages of deploying a second-generation nuclear force that over the next 10 to 15 years will present the United States with an entirely new strategic situation. Having sensed the vulnerability of its strategic forces for a decade or more, especially with regard to its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), China’s ongoing nuclear weapons modernization will build toward a far more qualitatively and quantitatively capable deterrent. China will deploy an all-mobile, solid-fuel missile force, build a larger number of strategic missiles, and these systems could be armed with multiple warheads. Drawing from work I conducted for the National Intelligence Council with a colleague from the RAND Corporation, Dr. James Mulvenon, I would argue that this more modern arsenal will aim for a credible, minimal deterrent vis-à-vis the United States, and a more forward-leaning, counterforce, warfighting posture of “limited deterrence” for its theater systems.

As we move forward with our national missile defense (NMD) plans, we need to more fully integrate this new reality into our thinking. The current debate on these questions either a form of NMD or stable relations with China—strikes me as wrongheaded. Rather, our aim should be to achieve both. In any event, we have not taken into adequate account the range of negative steps China may take in response to our NMD plans—from accelerated strategic modernization, to driving a wedge into our alliance relationships, to proliferation of countermeasures. We need to be better prepared to avert or shape such negative responses in ways that favor U.S. interests.