August 27, 2010

August 27, 2010 | Commentary on China

Living With a Modernized PLA

The long-awaited annual US Department of Defense report Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010, was finally released last week. Although an August publication means it is several months late, the report makes up for its tardiness by providing China analysts with a very useful array of official information regarding the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It also presents an extensive discussion on China’s security situation.

This year’s report includes a survey of China’s relations with its neighbors, outstanding territorial disputes and an examination of Beijing’s energy strategy. The report also discusses domestic forces such as demographics and domestic political pressures, that are likely to focus China’s leaders inward rather than outward.

However, the most interesting thing about the report is what it leaves unsaid. It is replete with information that should alarm anyone concerned about Taiwan’s diplomatic space and ability to defend itself, yet the obvious strategic conclusions are left to readers to draw for themselves.

The main focus of the report remains military considerations. The PLA has enjoyed annual double-digit increases in the defense budget for two decades. Even this year’s reduced increase still boosted spending by nearly 8 percent. This steady growth in resources reflects China’s burgeoning economic power and has funded substantial improvements in the PLA’s capabilities.

Many of these developments are longstanding, as the PLA has had an interest in denying the US the ability to operate freely in the Western Pacific for at least the past decade. Thus, while there are few surprises in terms of new programs outlined, there is also little evidence that China is giving up a broad-based push to secure its surrounding seas, skies and space.

Moreover, the available information paints a picture of a PLA intent on achieving an anti-access, area-denial capacity that will greatly limit US commanders’ options — a problem for US operations anywhere in Asia, but particularly in any scenario involving US defense of Taiwan.

One of the major PLA advances highlighted in this year’s report includes the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles, which is repeatedly mentioned. If the PLA succeeds in developing such a weapon, it would significantly raise the stakes of deploying aircraft carriers within striking range of China.

The report also makes it clear that the PLA has enhanced its capabilities in the space and cyber realms, including an array of new satellites, as well as computer network attack and exploitation capabilities.

Another area of interest is Chinese joint operations. This year’s report includes an extensive discussion of Beijing’s efforts to build synergies between forces fighting in the air, on land, at sea, in outer space and in cyberspace.

The report also examines aspects of China’s military industrial complex, including references to civil-military integration, wherein the military exploits China’s “rapidly expanding civilian economy and science and technology sectors, particularly elements with access to foreign technology.”

Disappointingly, despite reviewing improvements in PLA capability, the report broadly failed to speculate as to how they might be deployed.

In particular, despite being perhaps the most extensive discussion of the PLA and China’s security situation available to the public, the report arguably underplays the threat to Taiwan.

As it pertains to Taipei, the report’s main focus is on the reform of the nation’s military. Repeated mention is made of Taiwan’s plan to reduce its military force to 215,000 troops and move from conscription to an all-volunteer force by the end of 2014. In contrast, there is little discussion of military capability or shortcomings in military structure and equipment.

Indeed, it is striking how the report avoids making an overall assessment of the security situation in the Taiwan Strait. Likewise, it offers little detail regarding the US commitment to Taiwan, including the link between the development of China’s anti-access, area-denial capabilities, the ability of Taiwan to defend itself, US ability to aid Taiwan during a crisis or the precise nature of the challenge presented to the US and Taiwan by China’s expanding naval capacity.

In light of what is included in this year’s report, how should the US respond?

First and foremost, it is important that the US maintain its ability to project power, especially naval power. It is worrying then that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seems to be giving the Navy the cold-shoulder.

Even as the Chinese are pursuing asymmetric strategies, Gates appears content with pursuing a more symmetric response — one that involves drawing down areas of US advantage, as he has hinted.

If China truly poses a potential threat to US naval pre-­eminence — and its commitment to Taiwan’s security — then the US cannot risk fielding an insufficient force. It may be that emerging technologies, such as naval unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), offer alternatives, but unless and until there are mature programs, the realities of shipbuilding dictates maintaining the current force structure.

The US needs to support development, because a military that stands still is no more than second best, especially in the face of dynamic changes engendered by technological and economic developments. The ability of the US to maintain freedom of the seas and access to East Asia therefore requires not only maintenance of current capabilities but a also robust research and development effort capable of exploiting new advances.

The growing portfolio of capabilities embodied within UAVs, for example, raises the question: Does future power projection require 100,000-tonne aircraft carriers? How do stealthy, long-endurance, heavily armed UAVs alter the calculus of forces required for sea control and land attack?

This does not justify reducing the US aircraft carrier advantage, no matter how “overmatching” it might be (for the moment), but it does suggest a need to revamp not only acquisition but doctrine as well.

It is also crucial that the US uphold its current commitments. As the report makes clear, the China has outstanding disputes with a number of nations, including many US allies. It is therefore essential that the US highlight its role as a reliable partner. Vacillating on issues such as whether to deploy a carrier to the Yellow Sea in the face of Chinese opposition is precisely the wrong approach.

This is of special relevance to the question of Taiwan. The silence about the cross-strait security situation is deafening.

In light of the all-round expansion of Chinese military capabilities, as outlined in the report, the administration of US President Barack Obama needs to maintain the credibility of its own presence in the Western Pacific. However, it should also be prepared to sell Taiwan the equipment it needs to defend itself — including the F-16C/Ds it has long requested and additional C4ISR-related systems, so that the Taiwanese military can maintain situational awareness over the sea and skies.

The Department of Defense’s annual report on the PLA is made absolutely necessary by the opacity of China’s military budget and planning, and will continue to be so as long as Beijing remains unforthcoming, regardless of strong opposition.

However, Chinese opposition and deft diplomacy could still work to erode the report’s value over time. Anyone concerned with the rise of the Chinese military should keep an eye out for changes in the 1999 law authorizing the report. Subtle revisions there could open the way for substantial changes in the content of the report.

In the meantime, more information for the public discourse is to be lauded. A preliminary US Defense Intelligence Agency assessment from earlier this year points to glaring weaknesses in Taiwan’s air defenses. A full report along the lines requested in the original Senate-passed Defense Authorization Bill and further articulated by supporters of that amendment should be completed as soon as possible and forwarded to Congress in both classified and unclassified form.

Dean Cheng is a research fellow in Chinese political and ­security affairs in the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

Dean Cheng Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Asian Studies Center

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First appeared in Taipei Times