Chinese Military Modernisation: Takeaways from the Pentagon Report

30 May, 2016    ·   5044

Dr Bhartendu Kumar Singh analyses the Pentagon report on China's military and security developments.

Every year, the American Department of Defence (Pentagon) publishes a report on the military and security developments of China under the National Defence Authorisation Act (2000). The report is supposed to address the current and probable future course of military-technological development of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), probable development of Chinese security and military strategy, and operational concepts supporting such developments. In a similarly annual ritual, the Chinese Defence Ministry issues a protest statement rubbishing the findings of the report.  2016 was no different when the Pentagon’s recent report came with some startling revelations, except the tone and tenor of the Chinese response was largely symbolic.
When the Pentagon started its annual report, Chinese military modernisation was largely shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Not much was known to the outside world and a large amount of literary work on Chinese military modernisation was based on guess work. Over the years, Pentagon reports have made Chinese military modernisation a contested discourse wherein the Chinese are confronted with irrefutable findings. For example, this year’s report has published detailed satellite pictures of Chinese construction and outpost activities in the disputed South China Sea (SCS). Also, the Chinese Military Regions (MRs) of Guangzhou and Nanjing are shown to have clear and precise locations of different arms of PLA, something that is not possible without intelligence inputs.
While studying Chinese military modernisation, Pentagon has shattered many myths surrounding the Chinese PLA. One myth that came from Beijing was about the invincibility of People’s War, making the PLA a powerful army. The Pentagon report established that the PLA was quite weak and its so-called People’s War strategy unworkable. It also engendered the global debate on Chinese defence expenditure and debunked the myth, again propagated by China, that it was spending too less on its defence. An exclusive chapter was dedicated, in annual reports, on China’s defence expenditure and the ubiquitous conclusion was that China was spending at least 2-3 times more than its official expenditure. The pressure from the report was so high that China was forced to bring more accounting reforms in its defence expenditure administration;  thereby making it relatively more transparent and bridging the gap with the Western estimates on its defence expenditure. Today, the debate on China’s defence expenditure is almost dead since there are little takers for Chinese whispers.
The Pentagon report has also pushed China to induce greater transparency about its military objectives, strategic culture and force restructuring. The biannual Chinese White Paper on Military Strategy is largely a response to US’ demands for better transparency in its defence policy. The May 2015 White Paper, for instance, reflects a new sense of openness by the Chinese leadership on military modernisation. It is quite candid about accelerating the modernisation of the PLA. It appears to be reasonably happy on the Taiwan front, and shows concerns about the US’ rebalancing strategy and military alliances in the Asia Pacific region. China’s immediate focus is on force development in critical security domains like the seas and oceans, commensurate with its national security interests. It is upgrading its combat readiness in the name of preparing for military operations other than war (MOOTW). It is this strategy that has been defining China’s low intensity coercive activities in the Asia Pacific region.
Along with the Pentagon report, other reports have also been hypothesising about China’s military build-up. According to the 2015 RAND report on the US-China military scorecard, though China is not close to catching up to the US military in terms of aggregate capabilities, it does not need to catch up to challenge the US on its immediate periphery. China has made relative gains in most operational areas, in some cases, with startling speed. For example, Taiwan is no more the core flash point endangering Asian security since the asymmetrical power gap across the Taiwan Straits has almost closed any space for the island territory to assert itself vis-à-vis the mainland.
The Pentagon report is not without gaps. It does not throw light on many crucial aspects such as the power push given to the PLA through Sino-Russian collaboration, the maturity of Chinese domestic military-industrial complex (MIC), China’s decreased dependence upon imported arms in its military modernisation and China’s force mobilisation in the Tibet area remains an enigma that are yet to be fully comprehended. Above all, it is focused on hot spots that impinge upon America’s security interests in the Asia Pacific region and does not throw light on China’s force mobilisation in the Tibet area that has ramifications for South Asian security.
Indians will have little use for the Pentagon report. The report is unlikely to cast statistical presentations on China’s military build-up in Chengdu MR, which covers a major portion along the Indian border. Therefore, there is an urgent need to study China’s military modernisation from the Indian perspective for peace and tranquility on the Sino-Indian border.
Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of the Government of India.