The Pentagon's 2016 China Military Report: What You Need to Know

What does the Department of Defense really think about China's military? 

Friday’s Department of Defense (DoD) report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments is the last issued under the Obama Administration. Amid geopolitical uncertainty, it was a respectable final contribution. Nevertheless, it suffers from an unfortunate shortcoming. The Pentagon report rightly highlighted growing concern about Beijing’s mounting maritime coercion, but passed up a rare chance to connect it with a potent player flouting the rules of the game. China’s Maritime Militia, the irregular frontline sea force of “Little Blue Men” trolling for territorial claims, receives nary a mention. Like a trident with only one full-fledged prong, a report covering only one of China’s three major sea forces in depth—and ignoring one entirely—remains regrettably incomplete.

“China is using coercive tactics...to advance their interests in ways that are calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict,” DoD’s report rightly emphasizes. Asked to elaborate on such “Gray Zone” operations in yesterday afternoon’s roll-out event at the Pentagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of defense for East Asia Abraham M. Denmark stated that China’s coast guard and fishing vessels sometimes act in an “unprofessional” manner “in the vicinity of the military forces or fishing vessels of other countries in a way that’s designed to attempt to establish a degree of control around disputed features.” “These activities are designed to stay below the threshold of conflict,” Denmark explained, “but gradually demonstrate and assert claims that other countries dispute.”

A key official thus encapsulated one of the most important, complex security challenges facing his government and a vital region whose peacefulness and openness it underwrites. The problem: his administration’s final iteration of the report offering unparalleled authoritative public insights on Chinese security developments missed a chance to cut to the heart of the problem by addressing China’s Maritime Militia and the concept of People’s War at Sea that inspires its development.

Covering Most Bases Commendably:

None of this should overshadow the report’s many welcome contributions. At a hefty 145 pages, it is highly informative and will repay whatever time you can devote to it. Through detailed text, maps, and figures, it documents a rapidly developing Chinese military, commanded by leaders inspired by ambitious national goals, in the throes of the most sweeping reforms in three decades or more. In doing so, it outlines broad dimensions of strategy, organization, leadership, and events that are largely available in open source scholarship—sometimes richer, more nuanced, and more comprehensive—but rarely in one place and almost never with a leading government’s analytical seal of approval.

Those seeking a reasonable overview of Chinese military efforts need look no further than paragraph one. “Chinese leaders have characterized modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as essential to achieving great power status and what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the ‘China Dream’ of national rejuvenation. They portray a strong military as critical to advancing Chinese interests, preventing other countries from taking steps that would damage those interests, and ensuring that China can defend itself and its sovereignty claims.” Thus motivated, “The long-term, comprehensive modernization of the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) entered a new phase in 2015 as China unveiled sweeping organizational reforms to overhaul the entire military structure. These reforms aim to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control over the military, enhance the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations, and improve its ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances from the Chinese mainland.” Beijing continues to put its money where its mouth is, with China’s defense budget indisputably the world’s second largest. While acknowledging the challenges inherent in such a calculation, the Pentagon estimates Beijing’s total military-related spending in 2015 at over $180 billion. Exercises of increasing scale, jointness, complexity, and realism are part of an effort to make China’s military far more than the sum of its unevenly growing parts.

Pages