Calibrating a long-range China policy may be the greatest challenge for the U.S. administration’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. And that challenge has become even more difficult because of what appears to be Pentagon reluctance to provide the kind of detailed, authoritative information about China’s armed forces that it has in past years.
Neither complacency nor hyperbole will help in making long-term judgments about the future capabilities and intentions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). That is why Congress and the American people deserve authoritative information based on the best declassified intelligence available. Until this year, that source was the Pentagon’s Annual Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. While this year’s edition, released in May, technically met its congressional reporting requirements, at half the length of its predecessor, it was a watered-down departure from the in-depth reporting of past editions. The report also contained a number of omissions, making it more difficult to place PLA military modernization into perspective.
For example, the development of the Shenlong unmanned space vehicle, which was last known to be tested in 2011, was omitted despite growing Chinese space power. New details on China’s ballistic and cruise missile programs were also omitted. Nor was there any reference to Chinese activities in the South China Sea, where multiple major incidents occurred last year and where China has been at loggerheads with Vietnam and the Philippines.
The latest report may well become a trend unless Congress insists on more comprehensive reporting. Policymakers and the public badly need information to navigate the rise of China. While there are numerous reports about PLA programs available on the Internet — usually of questionable accuracy — the Defense Department report is used as the baseline by members of Congress, analysts and reporters. Access to good information will not guarantee sound decision-making, but it is hard to see how the absence of reliable, detailed data can contribute to wise policy.
Fortunately, Congress is intervening. The Senate’s FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act would mandate new reporting requirements for greater detail in critical areas of PLA capabilities, including cyber, space and counterspace, and anti-access/area-denial. It would also require details on China’s enlarging military footprint, including foreign relations, arms sales and maritime activities.
As the report accompanying the legislation makes clear, “although some of this information has been included in past iterations of the annual report,” these provisions would “codify the requirement[s] and provide more specificity regarding the details.”
Congress needs to go further. At least four additional areas of information should be added to the reporting requirements to ensure the report’s future vitality.
Reporting on the Chinese defense industry is necessary to predict the sophistication of future PLA weapons and capabilities. Steady advances, like the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group’s production of the J-20 stealth fighter prototype, indicate the Chinese industrial base is rapidly closing the gap with its American counterparts.
Reporting on the institutional character of the PLA, including key personnel changes, is essential to understanding its organizational capacity and likely future paths of development. For instance, this past year saw the creation of a strategic planning department with major implications for PLA joint operations. The upcoming fall leadership transition, which will result in seven likely personnel changes on the Central Military Commission out of 11 members, also demonstrates the need for such reporting.
The report must address elite Chinese debates on the role of the PLA that may alter Chinese military behavior and operational development. For example, according to Brookings Senior Fellow Cheng Li, a major debate is underway on whether the PLA should serve as “a state army rather than a party army.”
Also, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, a prominent voice in the PLA, commented that the U.S. pivot to the Pacific is intended “to contain China” — a perception which, if generally adopted, may have major consequences for Chinese behavior.
Finally, the report should be more candid on what is unknown. The PLA’s opacity inevitably results in major U.S. knowledge gaps of Chinese capabilities and intentions. These gaps must be discussed, as in earlier reports, to inform the risk calculations of policymakers and highlight the limits of PLA transparency.
The rise of China and the modernization of its armed forces are too important for U.S. national security not to ensure a well-informed public. By taking the steps outlined above, Congress can help the Pentagon better inform policymakers and the electorate as they navigate a prudent course for engaging China.
Bill French, left, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, and Daniel Katz, a former researcher at CNAS.