As U.S.-China relations continue through one of their most tumultuous periods in recent history, the executive’s intelligence agency for defense strategy has come out with an ominous assessment of the People’s Republic.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is the intelligence wing of the Defense Department. Since the days of legendary Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, DIA has been charged with producing regular reports on key U.S. adversaries. Back in those days (the 1980s of the Reagan-era) this meant the Soviet Union and other nations allied with the bloc. These regularly-produced documents came to be known as the Military Power reports.
While the old anti-communist paradigm of U.S. defense may be slightly altered, many of the same foes still exist as far as American strategy is concerned. However, some of these actors are playing slightly different roles today than they were thirty-five years ago.
Recently, DIA released its China Military Power Report (MPR) for 2019. The 109 page-long report is a deep-dive into China’s military and defense establishment, assessing both the strategic outlook of leaders in Beijing as well as the PRC’s actual deployable strength.
The MPR portrays China in a pretty aggressive light. Certain facts presented on the nature of Chinese defense will strike any Western observer as rather totalitarian and ultra-collectivist. Right off the bat, while still perusing through the “Introduction/Historical Overview” section, the reader is hot with this rather blunt reality: “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not a national institution but rather the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” To put this into perspective, this would be the equivalent of Nancy Pelosi raising an army to ensure that her party remains dominant in the Lower House of Congress and she, the Speaker of that House. While infighting and factionalization are part and parcel of the American political scene, the sentiment that government institutions exist for the sake of the society as a whole is absolutely fundamental. One would be hard pressed to find a handful of even the most fringe ideologues in America (or the entire of the West for that matter) that disagrees with this.
Their Steady Ascent
The DIA points to modern China as a product of Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s colossal reform initiative which began in the late 1970s. Military reform, however, was not at all a priority back then. It would take the shock-and-awe performance of the U.S. during the Persian Gulf War to get PRC to consider an upgrade. The efficacy information- based and precision-guided weapons displayed in Iraq convinced Beijing to “alter its military doctrine.” China quickly began to shift its focus from planning for a “World War II type” war, to preparations for a modern technological conflict. The first step was the development of long-range precision weapons, primarily ballistic and cruise missiles. This, in the minds of leaders, would keep a potential enemy “as far as possible from the economically fast-developing Chinese coastal areas” by fighting a short, sharp, and decisive war, a conflict that would basically mimic what the Americans did during the Gulf War.
But the adaptation of technology did not stop there.
The integration of smart-weapons became the new military-wide ethos of the PLA. An idea expressed in this 2015 strategy report of the Chinese government came to define the military’s trajectory.
Long-range, precise, smart, stealthy, and unmanned weapons and equipment are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Outer space and cyberspace have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties.
Under the auspices of the State Council’s State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) —the key organ responsible for overseeing China’s defense industry— cutting-edge systems began to permeate the entire military. Stealth technology, long-range targeting, laser guidance, state-of-the-art radar, and integrated command and control (C2) systems began to emerge in every branch of China’s armed forces. The trend of technological advancement in Chinese defense continues to this day in the form of smart weapons and artificially intelligent platforms.
With a rapidly advancing military, China began to shift outward and develop its global aspirations. In 2004, then-President Hu Jintao outlined for the PLA the “Historic Missions of the Armed Forces in the New Period of the New Century,” namely the role the military would play in securing China’s global interests. These interests have become increasingly territorial. To this day, China considers the nation of Taiwan a “rogue province” of PRC. A large swath of the East China Sea extending in the direction of Japan, essentially the entire South China Sea straddling the coasts of Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as well as the northern Indian province Arunachal Pradesh are all currently claimed by China. These territorial disputes continues to fuel schisms amongst regional powers.
DIA asserts that not only are the Chinese at the pinnacle of both their military development and territorial aspirations, they are also paranoid. The MPR states in no uncertain terms that “the party’s perception that China is facing unprecedented security risks is a driving factor in China’s approach to national security.”
Response and De-escalation
The response by Chinese leaders to the scathing MPR came quickly.
Two days after the report’s publication, China’s Foreign Ministry released a statement accusing the MPR of being “unprofessional, hostile and biased” toward China’s military development. “The report, in disregard of facts, made assumptions on China’s development path and strategic purposes using a Cold War mentality and zero-sum game,” said Hua Chunying, a spokesperson of the Ministry. Hua added that “the U.S. still treats China’s military development as a threat and is suspicious of China’s intention to develop its forces” and continues to level “absurd accusations” against China’s leadership.
What is worth taking away from China’s response to the MPR is that Beijing is clearly not looking for a fight.
To be clear, China does not lack in aggressive policies—the territorial claims above (especially the one concerning Taiwan) are stark cases in point. Similarly, the recent Foreign Ministry response was far from submissive. China still warned America of PRC’s “insistence on having a greater voice” in global affairs and warned of a future conflict “testing the status quo” in the region. At the same time, however, China is clearly signaling its interest in maintaining a friendly relationship with the United States, and even yearning to “safeguard the military ties between the two countries.” In truth, the driving factor in the future of U.S.-China relations will not be military related (although those elements have and still may play a role). Rather, it is reconciliation on trade that will be primary. The recognition by both countries that maintaining and increasing economic ties are mutually beneficial is why China as well as the U.S. are not eager to escalate any friction. Hopes for de-escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington have been rising for the better part of three months as a series of official meetings brought officials from both sides together. On 18 October, U.S. then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Chinese counterpart Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe met in Singapore. Several weeks later, Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to pause the long-running trade war in the interest of “providing relief to global markets.”
As things stand now, the world economy can’t quite breath a sigh of relief—at least not yet. The threat of a planned U.S. tariff increase on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods is still looming and the trade war has not yet been brought to a final settlement.
But there are hopeful signs. Recently, China has reached out with the offer of substantially increasing U.S. imports in an effort to “eliminate” the current feud. The offer, which was reportedly delivered by Chinese officials several weeks ago, would have a combined value of over $1 trillion for the U.S. economy. This attractive proposal along with China’s clear reluctance to confront the United States “on the ground,” will be major factors in the upcoming meeting between U.S. and PRC diplomats scheduled for the end of this month.