The Pentagon’s perspective on China

September 29, 2011

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen is greeted by Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde, Chief of the Peoples Liberation Army's General Staff in Beijing, China on July 11, 2011. Mullen is on a three-day trip to the country meeting with counterparts and Chinese leaders. DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

In 1996, President Clinton told a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament that ‘the way [China] defines its greatness for the future will help decide whether the next century is one of conflict or cooperation’.

Fifteen years on, China’s trajectory has unmistakably lived up to Clinton’s expectations of ‘greatness’. On the question of cooperation or conflict, the focus of the Pentagon’s 2011 reportMilitary and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, is that the jury is still out (the US Congress has mandated the preparation of these annual assessments since 2000).

The 2011 report seems deliberately measured in tone, as though the intent was to hold the line rather than foreshadow imminent tilts in one direction or the other. As with earlier reports, it meticulously catalogues developments in PLA strategy, policy, and capability, imposing more transparency on China’s defence program than China’s own Defence White Papers.

While the report notes that PLA capabilities (especially in the naval, air and space arenas) are tracking China’s expanding set of interests, its outlook for the next decade is the relatively subdued proposition that ‘the PLA is on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally focussed military by 2020’. It also notes that ‘regional contingencies continue to dominate resources and planning’. Taiwan remains the preeminent regional contingency. But a major focus of China’s military investment has been to deter, delay or deny third party (read US) intervention in a Taiwan contingency. So a regional focus still means that the PLA is preparing to, if necessary, prevent the US meeting its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.

The PLA may be regionally focussed but if the benchmark is the US, ‘regional’ will not mean ‘limited’ in any way.

The 2011 report continues to stress the importance of engaging China. This includes engagement on the military-to-military axis, as part of the US strategy dating back to Clinton of shaping China’s choices in favour of cooperation. This report, like most of its predecessors, states that ‘in concert with our friends and allies, the United States will also continue adapting our forces, posture, and operational concepts to maintain a stable and secure East Asian environment’. That’s code for hedging against any aspirations that China may have, or could acquire, to test what the US considers to be the foundations of the order and stability that East Asia has enjoyed since 1945.

The Pentagon report does not restrict itself exclusively to characterising developments in PLA capabilities. There are brief but interesting observations on how a modernising PLA helps sustain the legitimacy of the Communist Party as China’s only permissible government. It also dips into China’s sharpening dilemma over a strategic culture that prizes secrecy and deception and the (hardly surprising) consequences this has for regional and global concerns about China’s rising power.

Common sense would suggest that there is a strong and direct correlation between resistance to transparency on security and defence and perceptions of the likelihood of conflict.

Over the past two decades, the US has gone from deliberately characterising China as just one of many interesting developments to acknowledging quite unambiguously that China is at the centre of the most challenging transformation of the international system it has ever had to cope with. While global events and its ramifications, above all the September 11 terrorist attacks, have granted Beijing something of a strategic holiday for a decade or more, the US and China are now unmistakably focused on one another. Many observers, including this author, sense that the odds on cooperation and constructive partnership are getting longer.

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