The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #804 on Asia

July 25, 2005

July 25, 2005 | WebMemo on Asia

Pentagon Report on Chinese Military Power Deserves Careful Reading

On July 19, the Pentagon briefed its " 2005 Annual Report on the military Power of the People's Republic of China" to Congress. The 45-page unclassified version of the Report is a sobering catalog of China's rapid military modernization that pinpoints coercion of Taiwan and deterring U.S. support for the Island as China's "short-term" strategic goals.


A close reading of the report leaves no doubt that China's "ambitious" weapons modernization and doctrinal reforms are aimed at promoting vast increases in its "comprehensive national power." Dr. Condoleezza Rice described this phenomenon well in a February 2000 article:


…China is not a "status quo" power but one that would like to alter Asia's balance of power in its own favor. That alone makes it a strategic competitor, not the "strategic partner" the Clinton administration once called it. Add to this China's record of cooperation with Iran and Pakistan in the proliferation of ballistic-missile technology, and the security problem is obvious. China will do what it can to enhance its position, whether by stealing nuclear secrets or by trying to intimidate Taiwan.[1] 


Wake Up Call

The 2005 Pentagon Report is a wake-up call to the administration, to Congress, and to the Taiwan government that, five years after Dr. Rice's analysis, China stands poised to assert itself as the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific region.


All three must make critical policy adjustments to deter China from translating its fast-growing military power into political preeminence in East Asia. The administration must first ensure that the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) plans for China's new offensive capabilities. The administration must also make available to Taiwan new weapons systems with at least a limited 'offensive' capability, as a deterrent to Chinese aggressiveness. At the same time, the administration would do well to prepare the American public for new "complexities" in the relationship with China by making clear just what are Beijing's aims. Congress must establish a closer institutional channel to the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) to ensure the Commission's findings are known to the appropriate congressional committees on a timely basis.


Taiwan's opposition parties must affirm their commitment to defending their own nation against Chinese coercion by passing key defense budget items. Even if generously calculated, Taiwan's defense spending is only 2.4 percent of GDP, down from 4.8 percent in 1995. Other nations facing similar threats have significantly higher defense commitments. Israel's defense budget is 8.6 percent of GDP; Singapore's is 5.5 percent; and South Korea's is 4.5 percent. Moreover, Taiwan's pro-China "Blue Camp" politicians cast aspersions-bordering on slander-on the U.S. government, such as that it seeks only profits from its sales of weapons to Taiwan. Such rhetoric only undermines U.S. support for Taiwan, and yet Taiwan's politicians are encouraged to continue their polemics by the publicity and access to senior U.S. officials and legislators that it wins them.


Careful Reading Needed

The Pentagon's 2005 Report demands careful reading because the factual picture that it paints of China's military expansion is somewhat diluted by diplomatic nuance. For example, the Report forthrightly describes China's "short-term" strategic goals as:


  1. "Preventing Taiwan independence or trying to compel Taiwan to negotiate a settlement on Beijing's Terms" and
  2. "Building counters to third-party, including U.S., intervention in cross-Strait crises."


Parts of the Report are quite clear. It predicts that "over the long-term, if current trends persist, [the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army's] capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region," and states, "China's military planners are surveying the strategic landscape beyond Taiwan." As evidence for this, the report cites General Wen Zongwen, Political Commissar of the Peoples Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science, who declared this year that Taiwan "is of far-reaching significance to breaking international forces' blockade against China's maritime security . . . Only when we break this blockade shall we be able to talk about China's rise."


Despite this, the Report's summary simply concludes that China "is facing a strategic crossroads," while the compendium of facts that follows describe a China already well past any "crossroads." Diplomatic discretion, perhaps inflicted on Department of Defense by sister agencies in the administration that reviewed early drafts, impelled the Pentagon's authors to profess agnosticism by suggesting that China could choose among three courses of strategic development:


  1. "A pathway of peaceful integration and benign competition";
  2. "A pathway along which China would emerge to exert dominant influence in an expanding sphere"; or
  3. "Less confident and focused inward on challenges of national unity and the Chinese Communist Party's claim to legitimacy."


Arrived now at this "strategic crossroads," China's next step, according to the Pentagon document, "is difficult to predict." In fact, it is not difficult at all to predict. The Report itself states that "current trends" indicate China has already chosen the second path.


Do Not Minimize the Challenge

As such, it is important that the Pentagon not minimize the challenge posed by China. On July 20, General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded to a press inquiry about China's military posture in the Taiwan Strait by observing, "You judge military threat in two ways: one, capacity, and two, intent." He added, "There's absolutely no reason for us to believe there's any intent on [China's] part."


General Pace's "absolutely" is unfortunate and strays even from the agnosticism of the Report itself. In fact, the Pentagon Report shows that there is every reason to believe that China intends to either coerce Taiwan or attack it. There is no third option. The Communist regime in Beijing has rested its legitimacy on an ideology of increasing China's "comprehensive national power," and on this end, the Party tolerates no opposition. In March 2005, the regime promulgated "Anti-Secession Legislation" that requires "non-peaceful" action against Taiwan whenever the military high command-not the legislature-determines that Taiwan refuses to accept the communist regime's "peaceful reunification." These factors, together with General Wen's observations, are ample evidence of China's "intent." Indeed, Secretary of State Rice understood this "intent" as far back as 2000.



Unless deterred by stronger reactions from the United States and Taiwan, China's hardline military spokesmen will succeed in convincing Beijing's more moderate domestic and social policy leaders that there will be no consequence to continued military expansion. Indeed, the U.S. administration's continued characterization of China relations as "good" (albeit "complex")-while Chinese leaders refuse to see anything "good" in U.S.-China frictions over trade, North Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the War on Terror, Iraq, or anything else-heightens the impression in Beijing that the U.S. is wary of China. Increased Chinese military power, therefore, will make the U.S. more wary.


Instead, the U.S. approach should be to make China more wary. The administration, Congress, and the Taiwan government must make critical policy adjustments:

  • Review the QDR: The administration must ensure that the Quadrennial Defense Review plans for China's new offensive capabilities.
  • Consider 'Offensive' Systems for Taiwan: The administration must also make new weapons systems with at least a limited 'offensive' capability available to Taiwan as a deterrent to Chinese aggressiveness. For 25 years, U.S. policy has limited arms sales to Taiwan to systems "of a defensive nature." While "defensive" systems are certainly part of the mix, they are vastly more expensive than the systems they defend against. The administration must make available to Taiwan weapons capable of effective strikes against the bases from which attacks against Taiwan may be launched. In any conflict scenario, it will be in the U.S. interest that initial strikes against Chinese targets come from Taiwan, not U.S. platforms.
  • Speak the truth: At the same time, the administration would do well to prepare the American public for new "complexities" in the relationship with China by avoiding overly agnostic or even rosy rhetoric about the perceived direction of China's military expansion. Rather than say there is "absolutely no reason" to believe that China has embarked on a course of coercion or attack against Taiwan, U.S. policymakers should take note of repeated Chinese rhetoric that describes the U.S. as its enemy, and state the obvious: "If present trends continue, China will pose a threat to the nations of the Asia-Pacific Region."
  • Improve Congress-USCC Coordination: Congress must establish a wider institutional channel to the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC)-an excellent and thorough examination and analysis of trends in China-to ensure the Commission's findings are briefed to the appropriate congressional committees on a timely basis.
  • Increase Taiwan's Defense Budget: Taiwan's legislature must swiftly pass a defense budget adequate to the threat that the country faces. Taiwan's defense spending is only 2.4 percent of GDP, down from 4.8 percent in 1995. Other nations facing similar threats have much larger defense commitments.
  • Rebuff Taiwan's Pro-China Politicians: To domestic audiences, Taiwan's Pro-China "Blue Camp" politicians accuse the U.S. government of seeking only profits from defense sales to Taiwan and insist that Taiwan does not need weapons, but only to "negotiate" with China. Their continued access to senior U.S. officials legitimizes their claims in the domestic media. The U.S. administration and Congress should refuse to meet any pro-China "Blue Camp" politicians who accuse the U.S. of lying about China's threat or charge that the U.S. only seeks profits from Taiwan.


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Condoleezza Rice, "Campaign 2000 -- Promoting the National Interest", Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000 (volume 79, number 1) p. 56.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia