China “is the only country in the world other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs.” DoD anticipates the maiden flight of the fifth J-20 low-observable fighter prototype in 2015, while the J-31 fighter may be offered for export. Variants of the Y-20 transport—which may be commissioned in 2016—could provide badly needed troop movement, refueling, and airborne early warning and control (AWACs) capabilities. New variants of the venerable H-6 bomber have been exquisitely retrofitted to serve as tankers and to carry significant weapons load outs, including the YJ-12 supersonic ASCM and the CJ-20 LACM.
Meanwhile, China is placing major emphasis on UAVs. DoD cites a 2013 report by the Defense Science Board, which judges that “China’s move into unmanned systems is ‘alarming’ and combines unlimited resources with technological awareness that might allow China to match or even outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems in the future.” No fewer than three long-range precision-strike variants under development. The BZK-005 UAV has already been observed conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) over the East China Sea. Without elaboration, DoD notes: “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023.”
Finally, as part of China’s IADS, the PLAAF also maintains one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range SAMs. China is not as strong in SAMs as it is in other ballistic (and cruise) missiles, but is acquiring the long-range S-400 system from Russia, even as it continues to develop long-range indigenous systems such as the CSA-9 for IAD and ballistic missile defense (BMD).
Ground force materiel is typically last in sophistication, although the report offers few specifics. It does draw attention to China’s prioritization and rapid deployment of internal security forces. This pattern has only intensified in response to dozens of deaths from domestic unrest and terrorism in recent years, particularly in conjunction with Xinjiang.
Weaknesses and Attempts to Rectify Them
On the hardware side, China is still missing some critical technologies, industrial processes, and related knowhow. It “continues to lack either a robust coastal or deep water anti-submarine warfare capability,” and its ability to collect and disseminate targeting information in real time under wartime conditions remains uncertain.
Through determined multi-pronged effort, however, Beijing is progressively closing many of the remaining gaps. It continues to obtain significant technologies, components, and systems from abroad. As in the 1990s (albeit to a less extreme degree today), Russian and Ukrainian economic woes facilitate Chinese access to advanced expertise and systems (including S-400 SAMs, Su-35 fighters, and the Petersburg/Lada-class submarine production program from the former; assault hovercraft and aeroengines from the latter). Much technology acquired for commercial aircraft and other civilian programs has military applications. Along the way, DoD documents multiple cases of Chinese nationals seeking to transfer foreign technology illegally. Finally, China is consolidating its own state S&T research funding. Having bet big on nanotechnology, for instance, it now trails only the United States in research funding for that field.
Amelioration of software weaknesses requires laborious human capital investment and wrenching organizational reforms, but the PLA and its civilian masters are clearly determined to prevail even here. As part of enhancement of training realism emphasized by Xi, the PLA is increasing “joint” pan-Military Region exercises. Further reforms likely under consideration include reducing non-combat forces and the relative proportion of ground forces; elevating the proportion and roles of enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers vis-à-vis commissioned officers; bolstering “new-type combat forces” for naval aviation, cyber, and special operations; establishing a theater joint command system; and reducing China’s current seven Military Regions by as many as two.
Finally, if Beijing is to secure the overseas influence and reach it increasingly desires, foreign policy adjustments will be required. Logistics and intelligence support remain key constraints on Chinese operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond. To remedy this, DoD assesses, Beijing “willlikely establish several access points in this area in the next 10 years. These arrangements likely will take the form of agreements for refueling, replenishment, crew rest, and low-level maintenance. The services provided likely will fall short of permitting the full spectrum of support from repair to re-armament.”
Positive Chinese Contributions and Bilateral Military Relations
Despite the above concerns, DoD also takes pains to recognize positive, growing Chinese contributions to international security and military-to-military relations with the U.S. It documents in exhaustive detail the frequent exchanges and discussions between the two militaries, as well as bilateral and multilateral military exercises dating to 2008. It clearly strives for a balanced approach: “As the United States builds a stronger foundation for a military-to-military relationship with China, it must also continue to monitor China’s evolving military strategy, doctrine, and force development, and encourage China to be more transparent about its military modernization program. In concert with its allies and partners, the United States will continue adapting its forces, posture, and operational concepts to maintain a stable and secure Asia-Pacific security environment.”
Limitations of the Report Itself
Like many products of complex bureaucratic exercises amid far greater competing priorities, this report suffers slightly from omissions, small weaknesses, and inconsistencies. The Maritime Militia, an important component of China’s Cabbage Strategy of enveloping disputed features in layers of non-military forces that opponents might hesitate to use force against, is not mentioned once. With regard to shipbuilding, DoD’s broad brushstrokes obscure lingering unevenness. It names China “the top ship-producing nation in the world,” but omits the critical qualifier that this is in terms of gross commercial tonnage; not sophistication, systems, technology, or quality. Ranges quoted for anti-ship cruise missiles are not explained; some may be debatable in practice depending on the assumptions used to calculate them. Likewise unexplained is DoD’s methodology for calculating China’s total 2014 military spending at $165 billion (against the official figure of $136.3 billion for that year).
Moreover, Pentagon reports are typically stronger in analyzing hardware than software, and this one is no exception. The disparity manifests most prominently in two instances. First, DoD offers incomplete, seemingly uncritical analysis of the “new type of major power relations” advocated by Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials. This may be part of a larger pattern in which the Obama Administration has fallen into the trap of appearing to embrace this loaded meme, whichcarries Chinese expectations of Washington accommodating China’s “core” sovereignty interests without reciprocal concessions from Beijing. It is arguably somewhat disjointed for DoD to express such significant concerns about Chinese weapons systems, while avoiding critical analysis of some of the very policy approaches that inform their threatened worst-case use. Second, the report misses a chance to put in full context the important keynote address that Xi delivered at the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference in 2014. While the full text remains unavailable in public, subsequent bureaucratic activities and official statements suggest that it may represent a watershed in Xi’s exhorting officials to propose more considerably more assertive external policies. Given the clarity it brings to details of Chinese security hardware, it is unfortunate that DoD could not shed more light on the high-level policies that inform its development and employment.
All told, however, DoD’s 2015 report continues its useful contribution to vital public knowledge of China’s military-security development. It is far more substantive than any public Chinese documents, including the much-touted Defense White Papers. Such knowledge remains far more limited than the vast sea of information available to anyone interested in the U.S. military, a great proportion of which is translated into Chinese on a regular basis.
Chinese government spokespeople will now predictably denounce DoD’s publication self-righteously in official media, but their talking points will appear generic, as if merely dusted off from years past. Behind this querulous façade, and unwillingness to engage the report’s specifics, likely lies an inability to disprove anything more than a few technicalities. What apparently bothers Beijing far more than any facts revealed is the very notion that Washington would have the temerity to bring transparency and open discussion to the state and trajectory of what is now the world’s second military by many measures. All the more reason why DoD’s slightly imperfect yet irreplaceable contribution is invaluable yet again.
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) and a core founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008, he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson is also an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. This piece first appeared on Dr. Erickson's website here. The views expressed here are those of the author alone. They do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.