Like clockwork—well, like clockwork only if the clock mechanism is really slow, since the report was five months late—on Monday the Pentagon issued the latest in its series of annual, congressionally mandated reports on China’s military capabilities, intention, and strategy. If you have a couple of hours, you can read all eighty-three pages of the report, entitled "Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010."
As we shall see, the Pentagon report is chock full of rather alarming rhetoric about China’s military power, especially its focus on Taiwan, its missile buildup, and its inexorable efforts to float a modern navy that would allow China to project its power around the Indian and Pacific oceans. But the facts are unavoidable: China spends only a tiny fraction of what the United States spends on its armed forces. China has little or no real ability to project its power abroad, yet. And, unlike the United States and NATO, China has attacked no one, at least not since border skirmishes with India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979.
The report says that China is, not surprisingly, concerned about threats to its energy supply—not surprising, because the United States wreaked havoc on the Persian Gulf by invading Iraq, and thus canceling Chinese contracts with Iraq for the supply of oil, and because the United States is threatening to make it worse by attacking Iran, a major source of China’s energy supplies. It says:
Beijing is also seeking to ensure supply from as many producers and through as many transport options as possible. Although energy independence is no longer an option for China, Beijing still seeks to maintain a supply chain less susceptible to disruption from outside factors.
Though China is engaged in constructing a huge network of oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and the Middle East, the report notes that the pipelines won’t ensure that China can secure the energy it needs:
Evaluation of proven global oil reserves indicates that China’s future energy needs can only be met through suppliers in the Persian Gulf, Africa, and North America—all extraction points that will continue to require maritime transport. Pipeline projects, for example, will do little to minimize Beijing’s vulnerability in the Strait of Hormuz."
Given that China is, by the Pentagon’s own admission, vulnerable to losing its energy lifeline because of external disruption, you’d think that the Defense Department would acknowledge China’s legitimate interest in securing those supplies. But even though China is barely at the entry level stage in terms of having a navy that doesn’t stop the Pentagon from ringing alarm bells. It notes that China is fast expanding a naval base on Hainan Island off its southeast coast, conducting an R&D program for building aircraft carriers, improving its "over the horizon" ability to use missiles to carry out precision strikes on naval vessels, growing its submarine fleet, and more. The Pentagon is especially concerned about the possibility, down the road, that China could use its military, including anti-ship missiles, to intimidate US naval forces in the western Pacific.
In a background briefing at the Pentagon, US officials laid out their concerns, in full military-speak, using terms such as "area denial capabilities," i.e., China’s alleged capability to keep US or other forces out of an area:
"We’re obviously concerned about a range of anti-access aerial denial capabilities that the Chinese appear to be—appear to be developing. And that’s an area that we’re keeping a very close eye on so that we can develop appropriate responses.…
"We remain concerned about the lack of transparency from China into the force projection and anti-access, area denial capabilities it is acquiring, the intentions that underlie those acquisitions and the resources dedicated to that task."
Also from the Pentagon briefing:
When we talk about China’s military developments, we put it into a very, you know, long-term, you know, kind of historical context as well. And as China’s developing, you know, these capabilities, it is putting them in a position where they’d be able to exercise greater political and military influence in the region.
Obviously there are things that the Department of Defense does, both unilaterally and also work that we do with our allies and partners in the region, to be able to, you know, maintain stability and to be able to maintain the capacity and the infrastructure that allows us to be able to advance and defend our interests in the region.
Reports the Wall Street Journal:
"A particular concern for the U.S. is China’s development of an antiship ballistic missile with a projected range of nearly 1,000 miles. The missile is meant to give the PLA the capability of attacking ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific, the report said.
"Some experts say the missile could herald the end of U.S. naval domination. Others say the PLA has yet to conduct any realistic tests of the conventionally armed ballistic missile and has no reliable way of targeting U.S. carrier task forces when they are at sea because China doesn’t have enough low-earth-orbit reconnaissance satellites."