A new assessment of China’s military power issued by the Pentagon on Wednesday is notable for a subtle but distinct shift in tone, being more firm and candid than previous appraisals. The review stopped short of accusing the Chinese of being devious or lying but was headed in that direction.
The Pentagon’s evaluation, as before, laments a lack of “transparency” in Chinese objectives and strategy, saying that the Chinese publish “incomplete defense expenditure figures and engage in actions that appear inconsistent” with Beijing’s declarations.
Throughout the report, China is more sharply criticized for “creating uncertainty and increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.” Graft “remains pervasive, structural, and persistent.” Corruption in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) includes “bribery for advancement and promotion, unauthorized contracts and projects, and weapons procurement.”
The annual report has grown to 78 pages from 56 pages in 2002 and reflects the Pentagon’s increased attention to China, the improved ability of US analysts to discern trends in China and a greater anxiety that Beijing potentially poses a serious threat.
An unnamed official who briefed the press on the report in Washington acknowledged the greater apprehension. China’s military modernization, he said, “is of growing concern to us.”
China’s response was swift and bitter. Defense ministry spokesman Hu Changming (胡昌明) was quoted in the China Daily as saying: “China is strongly dissatisfied with it and resolutely opposes it. China unswervingly sticks to a path of peaceful development and pursues a national defense policy which is purely defensive in nature.”
“We urge the United States to stop issuing such a report on China’s military strength and immediately take effective measures to dispel the baneful influence caused by the report so that bilateral military ties will incur no further damage,” Hu said.
Hu said issuing the report would block resumption of military exchanges with the US that China broke off in October after Washington announced the US would sell US$6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan. The US has been trying to get the Sino-US exchanges started again, asserting that dialogue helps to prevent miscalculation.
The new report emphasizes the secrecy in China’s military affairs: “The PLA draws from China’s historical experience and the traditional role that stratagem and deception have played in Chinese doctrine.”
The Chinese have shown renewed interest, the report says, in classical thinkers such as Sun Tzu, who wrote 2,500 years ago: “All war is based on deception.”
“There is a contradiction between the tendencies of China’s military establishment, which favors excessive secrecy, and the civilians’ stated goal of reassuring neighbors and existing powers about the peaceful nature of China’s development,” the report said.
It points to passages in Chinese military writing as examples of the Chinese saying one thing and doing another: “These passages illustrate the ambiguity of PRC [People’s Republic of China] strategic thinking as well as the justification for offensive — or preemptive — military action at the operational and tactical level under the guise of a defensive posture at the strategic level.”
Several commanders at the US Pacific Command have quietly cautioned Chinese military leaders not to miscalculate US capabilities and intentions. The new report brings that out into the open, saying Chinese leaders should realize “that a conflict over Taiwan involving the United States would lead to a long-term hostile relationship between the United States and China — a result that would not be in China’s interests.”
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.
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