Beijing’s military capabilities are growing but with what end remains unclear to the United States, according to an annual Pentagon assessment of China’s armed forces. The report’s release coincided with conflicting Chinese statements about whether it would ever initiate the use of nuclear weapons against the United States.
Mandated by Congress, the Pentagon’s July 19 report details China’s longtime effort to modernize its military, ranging from acquiring advanced fighter aircraft and developing more survivable long-range ballistic missiles to improving its armed forces’ joint operational capabilities. The report paints a picture of a country that is slowly but steadily obtaining the accoutrements of a modern military but is still trying to put all the pieces together.
The report underscores that “secrecy envelops most aspects of Chinese security affairs,” making judgments about China’s long-term strategy and policy goals speculative. Indeed, infighting about China’s intentions within the Pentagon and among other senior administration officials reportedly delayed the report’s release by several months. It was supposed to be completed by March 1.
The report offers more definitive judgments about China’s short-term military aspirations. The Pentagon says China’s immediate interest is in preventing Taiwan from asserting its independence and dissuading other countries, namely the United States, from rushing to the island’s defense if a military conflict occurs in the Taiwan Strait. China considers Taiwan a rebellious province that should be brought under the mainland’s control, if necessary by force.
The Pentagon assesses that China is sparing few expenses toward this mission. Although China claims that it spends some $20 billion annually on its military, the Pentagon contends Beijing expends about two or three times as much, possibly as much as $90 billion. This high-end estimate is dwarfed by current annual U.S. military spending of more than $400 billion, but it would rank China as Asia’s biggest spender.
Beijing has objected to previous U.S. estimates of Chinese military expenditures. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao described U.S. claims June 8 as “totally groundless.” Liu explained that China’s military budget “has witnessed a slight increase, the bulk of which is used for improving the living conditions of military officials and soldiers.”
In contrast, the Pentagon report emphasizes the new weapons systems that China is procuring. In recent years, China has indigenously produced or imported combat aircraft, destroyers, submarines, and anti-aircraft missiles. One ongoing deal involves the acquisition of eight Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines from Russia to supplement the four China had previously imported.
Russia is China’s major arms source. Key weapons sold by Moscow to Beijing over the past decade include more than 150 advanced combat aircraft, two destroyers (with two more on tap), and more than 1,000 various missiles, including air defense missiles with ranges greater than the 160-kilometer-wide Taiwan Strait.
In a departure from earlier reports, the Pentagon identifies Israel as China’s other top weapons supplier. A 2001 Israeli transfer of Harpy unmanned aerial vehicles to China and subsequent maintenance work on the drones in 2003 and 2004 has strained the normally close U.S.-Israeli military relationship. Seeking to mend relations, U.S. and Israeli officials recently concluded an agreement to ease U.S. concerns about Israeli arms sales (see "U.S., Israel Reach China Arms Deal").
Washington bristles over its allies supplying China with arms and technologies that the Pentagon fears could be used against Taiwanese or U.S. forces. In its report, the Pentagon reaffirms U.S. opposition to the 25-member European Union lifting its 1989 arms embargo against China. The consequences of such a move would be “serious and numerous,” the Pentagon states. After China adopted a March law codifying its resolve to use force to forestall Taiwanese independence, the EU postponed a decision on ending the embargo, although it still intends to do so (see "Between Noble Goals and Sobering Reality: An Interview with EU Nonproliferation Chief Annalisa Giannella").
China’s drive to get the EU to lift its embargo and Beijing’s continuing reliance on Russia for advanced weapons reflects that its domestic production capabilities are still lagging behind those of the West. “According to intelligence community estimates, China’s defense industries are inefficient and dependent on foreign suppliers for key technologies,” the Pentagon assesses.
The Pentagon further notes Beijing’s difficulties in marrying its arms imports and domestically produced weapons into a cohesive force. China’s military has an “overall lack of operational experience” and a “limited” capability to “project conventional military power beyond its periphery,” the report states. Still, the Pentagon warns, “[c]urrent trends in China’s military modernization could provide China with a force capable of prosecuting a range of military operations in Asia—well beyond Taiwan—potentially posing a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region.”
The Pentagon also highlights China’s efforts to augment and upgrade its ballistic missile forces. Across from Taiwan, China has now arrayed up to 730 short-range conventionally armed ballistic missiles. Last year, the Pentagon put the number of such missiles at approximately 500.
China, according to the report, is also expected to realize “over the next several years” its decades-old ambitions to add new, mobile, nuclear-armed, land-based ICBMs and a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2, which was flight-tested in June. The test did not necessarily indicate the missile’s readiness for deployment, and Beijing is still developing the submarine that the JL-2 is supposed to outfit.
U.S. intelligence predicts that, with the eventual addition of these new strategic ballistic missiles, China’s arsenal of some 20 ballistic missiles capable of targeting the United States could expand fivefold. The United States deploys several thousand strategic nuclear weapons capable of striking China.
China has forsworn the first use of nuclear weapons. Hence, Chinese leaders consider the mobility of the new ballistic missiles as crucial because it would make them more difficult for an adversary to pinpoint and destroy in a first strike.
Notwithstanding China’s long-standing nuclear policy, Chinese General Zhu Chenghu implied July 14 that China might not wait for the United States to strike the first nuclear blow. Zhu, a dean at China’s National Defense University, told reporters, “If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.”
U.S. officials quickly denounced the remark. Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack labeled Zhu’s comment the next day as “highly irresponsible” and “unfortunate.” Three days later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mused, “[I]t will be interesting to see to what extent [Zhu’s] remarks do or do not reflect the views of his government.”
Initially, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson was quoted as saying Zhu was speaking in a personal capacity. The state-run Xinhua news agency later reported Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing July 22 as disavowing Zhu’s comment and stating unequivocally that Beijing would not be the first to use nuclear weapons “at any time and under any condition.”