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Testing time for US arms report on China

August 27, 2010

By Peter J Brow
Asia Times
Aug 25, 2010

With the release in mid-August of the United States Department of
Defense's latest assessment of China's military, "2010 Annual Report
to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the
People's Republic of China", the US has provided the world with
sobering news about China's military buildup and modernization. [1]

"China has been increasingly effective at translating its increasing
economic strength into military capabilities," said a senior defense
department official during a background briefing on the report. "Yet
at the same time, the lack of transparency surrounding China's
growing capabilities and its intentions has raised certain questions
about Chinese investments in the military and security sphere." [2]

China's reaction in general was characterized by widespread agreement
that the tone and content of the Pentagon's report was quite negative.

"Other than limited credit given to the Chinese military's overseas
peacekeeping efforts and humanitarian assistance, the annual report
is making vague accusations over China's military power, growth and
intentions," declared the Global Times. "The report calls for
sustained and reliable US-China military-to-military relations. Yet,
given the recent US military activities surrounding China's Yellow
Sea and the South China Sea, including the symbolic presence of the
aircraft carrier George Washington, has US military shown willingness
to build mutual trust? The report illustrates the Pentagon's
hostility against the Chinese defense sector. It also sent a
confusing message to the world about China's military role." [3]

The official Chinese reaction is no less irate. China described the
assessment as exaggerating and distorting China's military strength.

"We firmly oppose this report," said Jiang Yu, a spokesperson for
China's Foreign Ministry.

The US report also "ignored objective facts" and is "not beneficial
to the improvement and development of Sino-US military ties", said
Geng Yansheng, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman.

Contrast these opinions with the conclusion reached by Joan
Johnson-Freese, chair of the National Security Decision Making
Department at the US Naval War College, for example, who depicts this
report as further evidence that the more positive rhetoric about
US-China relations which can be detected at the highest, strategic
levels in both countries has yet to filter down to the operational levels.

"The good news is the language of the report is less sensationalist
than past reports, with far less 'speculative' aspects - at least
regarding space," said Johnson-Freese. "On the other hand, that there
is still a somewhat bipartisan, anti-China mood in Washington,
especially in congress - for a variety of reasons, some substantive,
some less so - is still reflected. Not surprising due to timing with
the upcoming elections."

Timing is everything. US President Barack Obama's popularity has
fallen in 2010, and an important election looms that will determine
who controls the US Congress. Still, other experts see the timing of
the release of the report which is mandated by congress as
insignificant - it was months overdue - and there is also
considerable disagreement about whether China or the US benefits more
from the release of this report.

"The issue of who benefits 'more' is not very relevant. China does
not release a great deal of information about its military
capabilities to their public or to the rest of the world. If it did,
such a report would not be necessary," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior
fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Washington,
DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "As for the
timing, you can conjure up complex theories, but I attribute the
delay to bureaucracy. This is an interagency report that was
carefully vetted. It is not the highest priority - after all, we are
fighting two wars. It sat under various piles on people's desks for a
long time."

Does this report address the concerns of two different and important
factions in the US simultaneously? After all, there are some who want
to ensure that US forces are able to deter or defeat China in the
unlikely, but altogether conceivable, event of an armed conflict; and
others who want, despite the recurring disruptions in bilateral
military relations, to seek cooperation with China. Some experts say
that it does.

"The scope and seriousness of the threat posed by the modernizing
People's Liberation Army [PLA] is fully presented. But, to my
surprise, the report then also gives ample support to the importance
of restoring a military relationship," said retired US Navy rear
admiral Eric McVadon, a senior adviser in Asia-Pacific Studies at the
Virginia-based Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. "As a result,
the report truly embraces my conviction that, like it or not, we have
a relationship with China that demands we hedge militarily while at
the same time we pursue cooperation and try to build trust and confidence."

McVadon also gives the team of authors high marks for their handling
of the complexity of the bilateral relationship, a factor of profound
importance to those Americans who think seriously about the global
roles of the US and China. Perhaps most importantly, the team
presented China's military developments "in a sufficiently
encouraging and even positive light so that the potential for
cooperative efforts is not ruled out, which might serve the interests
of both countries."

"We might take some comfort in that even if Beijing predictably
elects again this year publicly to pan it," said McVadon. "It is also
noteworthy that [the authors] have not chosen to present a searing
indictment of China and its armed forces, although the report
perpetuates the long-held US complaint about lack of transparency
which I consider largely bogus. We, indeed, wish they would publish
national strategy documents and White Papers that resemble those of
some other nations. But I think that Beijing and the PLA have, in
recent years, made altogether clear their intentions, strategy, and goals."

While McVadon does not see the approaching US elections as a factor
in the timing of the release of the report, he is, however, surprised
it has been issued amid the ongoing intense disruption of
military-to-military relations stemming from China's displeasure with
the US over arms sales to Taiwan, the joint South Korean and US navy
exercises, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "alleged
effort to rally Southeast Asian nations at the Hanoi ASEAN gathering
against China".

"The release could well have been delayed by uncertainty or
disagreement at the US Department of State and/or the Pentagon on how
best to react to this latest and most entrenched set of complaints by
the Chinese," said McVadon, who described China as "incensed" by the
naval exercises and Clinton's actions in Hanoi. "We may, thus, have
wasted a potentially conciliatory gesture by firing this
almost-friendly round into a bit of an inferno. So, again, I am
somewhat surprised that the authors, first, took such a moderate
posture in these tense times and, then, released the report in the
face of a likely Chinese rebuke."

In response, China once again repeated its claim that its military
development "is reasonable and appropriate, and is aimed to protect
its national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, as well
as keep apace with the rapid military development in the world".

"We ask the US side to view China's national defense and military
build-up from an objective and just perspective, put an end to
comments and conduct that might compromise mutual trust between
Chinese and US military forces, and stop issuing the so-called
Chinese military and security development report, so to create a
favorable environment for the improvement and development of Sino-US
military relations," said Geng.

This request will probably be ignored by the US. Glaser pointed that
out at this year's annual Asian military summit held in Singapore -
the "Shangri-La Dialogue" - where China waved off a visit to China by
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, among other things, Lieutenant
General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the PLA's general staff, cited
the three obstacles to the full restoration of US-China military
exchanges - US arms sales to Taiwan, the unwelcome, intrusive and
intensive activities of US ships and aircraft in China's "near seas",
and the restrictions imposed the DeLay Amendment to the 2000 National
Defense Authorization Act. [4]

"Ceasing publication of this report was not one of them. The issuance
of the report will not have an appreciable impact on the mil-mil
relationship," said Glaser. "The Chinese have signaled that they want
to resume high-level exchanges and convene the Defense Consultative
Talks and other bilateral consultation mechanisms. They appear to be
seeking a 'gesture' from the US before proceeding, perhaps to save
face and avoid excessive criticism domestically."

McVadon sees this report as a sign that Washington is not just
sitting and awaiting a change of heart among the Chinese.

"I continue to hope that China's President Hu [Jintao] and Obama
might declare early next year that the mil-mil relationship should
look past differences and cease to be the first casualty when there
is friction in relations," said McVadon. "This report is not serving,
in the near future, as a catalyst for a positive development in
relations, but on a positive note, it does not erect any new barriers
to improved relations."

On the other hand, Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project
manager at the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists,
deems the report as not at all useful or timely.

"No one benefits from the release of this report. Chinese observers
found it hostile, provocative and yet another indication that the US
is pursuing a policy of containment," said Kulacki. "US observers
will find little new information in the unclassified version of the
report, which is produced every year because of a decade-old mandate
from congress, not because there is a demonstrable need for an annual
public report."

Looming US elections or not, the plain fact is that the average
American does not really care about whether the US and China are
engaged in any meaningful discussions.

"The Obama administration took more time preparing this year's
report, which is more comprehensive and objective than those issued
in the past," said Kulacki. "While a few US politicians, like
[Republican] Senator [Jon] Kyl, have attempted to make the report a
political issue, US-China relations is not a high priority for the
American electorate, especially those voters most likely to
participate in the upcoming elections."

 From China's perspective, the release comes after a period of
intense US diplomatic and military activity in East Asia that has
deeply offended the sovereign sensibilities of both the Chinese elite
and the Chinese public - most especially the participation of the US
aircraft carrier USS George Washington in military exercises off the
Chinese coast close to Beijing.

"Because the Chinese perceive the report as a provocation, it is
likely to further inhibit renewed dialog between the two militaries,"
said Kulacki. "While it is difficult to say whether the classified
version of the report is useful to congress, the annual production
and release of a public report that contains little new information
is a pointless impediment to constructive military-to-military
relations that the administration and the congress should consider
eliminating."

In early May, just before the end of her long visit to the US as a
fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard
University, PLA Senior Colonel Yunzhu Yao was focused on the new US
Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which had emerged a few weeks earlier,
and among other things, included one glaring omission.

"The US would like China to contribute its share to strategic
stability. Yet, the issue of Taiwan, which presents a possible
scenario for military conflict between China and the US, is not
mentioned at all in the NPR report," Yao said.

While the US openly frets about China's rapidly evolving anti-access
strategy reinforced by a new generation of anti-carrier missiles,
China's growing concern over US ballistic missile defense (BMD) and
"prompt global strike" capabilities "needs more than just dialogues
and talks if it is to be relieved," she said.

"If China is regarded as part of the 'newly emerged regional missile
threat' against which the US and its allies are setting up regional
BMD architectures, tension over the BMD is going to stay and loom
larger than before," said Yao. "[China] will be cautious in looking
for indicators that Washington would back reassuring words with a
willingness to limit capabilities." [5]

Barely three months later, Taiwan is clearly a focal point of the new
report. Taiwan quickly seized the opportunity that this latest report
provided and began renewing its call for the US to immediately sell
Taiwan more F-16 fighter aircraft and other advanced weaponry. In
this tense election year, Obama's Republican opponents will certainly
pounce if they detect the first sign of reluctance from Obama to
comply with Taiwan's urgent appeal.

"The sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan will only serve to escalate
the pace of military expenditures and deployments in the region,
leading to increased tensions not only between Taiwan, the mainland
and the US, but between China and other nations in the region who are
concerned about China's military buildup," said Kulacki. "An arms
race in Asia would put a break on the region's economic development,
increasing tensions, disrupting trade and diverting financial
resources from the productive investments in new technologies that
have made Asia the center of the world economy."

Taiwan magnifies the anti-access dimension of the Chinese game plan
which is raised in the new report, and McVadon welcomed the report's
depiction of China's combination and sequencing of the prospective
anti-ship ballistic missile capability, the existing
submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missile threat, and the
possibility of follow-on attacks by guided-missile destroyers and
maritime-interdiction aircraft. However, McVadon was disappointed by
the lack of emphasis on the extant Kilo-submarine threat, "because of
the Kilo's quietness, and, the range and capabilities of its
submerged-launch, evasive, supersonic-attack SS-N-27B/Sizzler missiles."

Secretary Gates, who is watching Taiwan carefully and has found
himself immersed in Asian matters, recently criticized congress for
imposing so many time-consuming reporting requirements, although he
was probably not referring to the annual requirement for a dossier on
the PLA when he did so.

"China's legendary opacity makes a report essential, lest the general
public ignore the military dimensions of a rising China," said
Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia
Program at the Washington, DC-based Center for a New American
Security. "While publicly declaring much of what we know about
China's strategies and its security forces, of course, provides the
Chinese with insights about our strengths and weaknesses in
intelligence and perception, this damage is more than offset by the
benefits of providing a relatively authoritative and balanced
assessment of Chinese military forces and plans."

Despite the fact that Cronin mentioned "a major cyber attack that
appeared to emanate from China, and further eroded security
relations", he remained optimistic that issuing the report in the
dead of August will help the two governments seek a restoration of
military ties by the end of the year.

"China is gradually erecting a military juggernaut, and it will not
simply be satisfied with defending its strict territorial limits. Nor
should we expect the Chinese to suddenly begin sharing with us any
operational plans for coping with a meltdown in North Korea,
territorial disputes in the South China Sea, or even base access and
dual-use arrangements in Asian and Central Asian countries," said Cronin.

"But the Chinese are assisting with some international peacekeeping,
humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and counter-piracy
missions. And they do share an interest in averting an overt arms
race and potential miscalculation. Within that space, this report
provides a realistic context for further engagement, an engagement
bent on trying to foster greater cooperation while being resigned, if
necessary, to living with a higher degree of tension."

Notes
1. Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments
Involving the People's Republic of China, 2010, US Department of Defense.
2. DOD Background Briefing on Military and Security Developments
Involving the People's Republic of China, US Department of Defense,
Aug 16, 2010.
3. Pentagon's distortion on China's military, Global Times, Aug 18, 2010.
4. Short shelf life for China-US reset, Asia Times Online, Jun 8, 2010.
5. "A Chinese Perspective on the Nuclear Posture Review". A Chinese
Perspective on the Nuclear Posture Review, Carnegie Endowment, May 6, 2010.

* Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.
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