The Chinese navy continues to expand its global reach, and is conducting more foreign port visits. Here, the destroyer Qingdao arrives at Pearl Harbor in September. (MC2 Nardel Gervacio / US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon on Thursday released its annual assessment of Chinese military power, and while it dropped no major bombshells, the 96-page report paints a picture of China’s broad-based efforts to modernize and expand its military forces.
In March 2013, China announced a 5.7 percent increase in its annual military budget to $119.5 billion, continuing more than two decades of sustained annual defense spending increases. From 2004 to 2013, the report said, data analysis indicates China’s officially disclosed military budget grew at an annual average of 9.4 percent. “China has the fiscal strength and political will to support defense spending growth at comparable levels for the foreseeable future,” the report noted.
The Pentagon estimates that China’s actual 2013 military-spending level exceeds $145 billion. Accurate cost estimates, the report said, are made more difficult by China’s “poor accounting transparency,” and because the published budget omits spending categories such as procurement of foreign weapons and equipment.
The focus and primary driver of China’s military investment, the report said, is to prepare for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, including deterring or defeating third-party intervention. However, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also is placing emphasis on preparing for contingencies other than Taiwan, including in the South China and East China seas.
The October 2013 Maneuver-5 exercise in the Philippine Sea, which included participation from all three PLA Navy fleets — the North Sea Fleet, the East Sea Fleet, and the South Sea Fleet — was the largest PLA Navy open-ocean exercise seen to date, the report noted. Additionally, China conducted the three-part Mission Action series of joint military exercises over a six-week period during September and October. These and other exercises combined PLA ground, navy and air forces in large-scale maneuvers along China’s southern and southeastern coasts, the report said.
The country’s strategy to avoid direct confrontation with the US, along with an expressed desire to maintain peace and stability along the country’s periphery, “has led to a growing Chinese presence in regions all over the world,” according to the report. Yet those expanding interests “have led to friction between some of its regional neighbors, including allies and partners of the United States.”
China’s military modernization program also has become increasingly focused on investments for a range of missions beyond China’s coast, including sea lane security, counter-piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
PLA participation in bilateral and multilateral exercises is increasing, the report noted. In 2013, China’s armed forces conducted seven bilateral and multilateral exercises with foreign militaries, three of which were with Russia.
“The PLA derives political benefit through increased influence and enhanced ties with partner states and organizations,” said the report. “Such exercises provide the PLA opportunities to improve capabilities and gain operational insights by observing tactics, command, and equipment used by more advanced militaries.”
China continues to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations, the report noted, and maintains approximately 1,900 military observers and troops in 10 operations as of the end of 2013, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. “This level of support has been consistent since 2008 and is the highest among the permanent members of the UN Security Council,” said the report. “China is the sixth-largest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget — fourth among Security Council members — pledging 6.64 percent of the total $7.54 billion budget for the period July 2013- July 2014.”
The country “will likely consider increasing its participation in future peacekeeping deployments,” the report added.
The continuing and growing problem of regional territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea areas has provoked confrontations with the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and sometimes involved US vessels, the report said. Noting China’s establishment in November 2013 of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, the report reiterated the US position to neither accept nor recognize China’s requirements for operating in the newly-declared ADIZ. The ADIZ, the report said, “will not change how the United States conducts military operations in the region.”
The report noted that Chinese military training is emphasizing “realistic combat scenarios and the ability to execute long-range mobility operations.” Most exercises in 2013 operated in “informationized” conditions, emphasizing system-of-systems operations similar to US network-centric warfare. The military is carrying out a more flexible year-round training cycle, “a departure from the Soviet-style conscript-dependent training cycles that were prominent throughout the PLA in previous decades.”
The PLA also is laying the foundation for future changes in military doctrine, “reshuffling its academies to cultivate junior officers proficient with and capable of leveraging technology in all warfighting functions for joint operations.”
China is increasing the lethality of the Second Artillery missile force — the unit that controls most of the country’s nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles — by fielding new conventional medium-range ballistic missiles to improve its ability to strike not only Taiwan but other regional targets.
China is fielding a limited but growing number of conventionally armed medium- range ballistic missiles, including the CSS-5 Mod 5 DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. The CSS-5 Mod 5 gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean, the report said. The missile has a range exceeding 1,500 kilometers and is armed with a maneuverable warhead.
The Army, added the report, is investing heavily in its ground force, “emphasizing the ability to deploy campaign-level forces across long distances quickly.”
The report noted that in November the aircraft carrier Liaoning made its first out-of-area deployment by steaming to the South China Sea, but while the ship continues to carry out flight integration training, “it is not expected to embark an operational air wing until 2015 or later.”
The report did not directly address reports of a new carrier under construction in China, noting only that the country “continues to pursue an indigenous aircraft carrier program and likely will build multiple aircraft carriers over the next decade. The first Chinese-built carrier will likely be operational sometime at the beginning of the next decade.”
The expansion of China’s submarine force also is continuing, and the new Jin-class ballistic missile submarine, carrying JL-2 missiles with an estimated range of 7,400 kilometers, is expected to conduct its first deterrence patrol in 2014. The new Type 095 nuclear-powered guided-missile attack submarine, expected to appear over the coming decade, may enable a submarine-based land-attack capability, incorporate better quieting technologies, and carry anti-ship cruise missiles.
New guided-missile destroyers and frigates, the report said, “provide a significant upgrade to the PLA Navy’s area air defense capability, which will be critical as it expands operations into “distant seas” beyond the range of shore- based air defenses.”
The PLAAF, already the world’s third largest, “is pursuing modernization on a scale unprecedented in its history and is rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities including aircraft, command and control, jammers, electronic warfare, and data links. Although it still operates a large number of older second- and third-generation fighters, it will likely become a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years,” said the report.
China continues to attempt to buy new Sukhoi 35 Flanker fighters from Russia equipped with an advanced passive electronically scanned array radar system. If the aircraft are procured, the report estimates they could enter service in 2016 or 2018.
China’s “agenda is frequently in line with Russia’s efforts to promote more intergovernmental control over cyberspace,” the report said.
According to the report, China still relies on foreign sources for advanced technology acquisition, but is also focused on indigenous research and development to advance military modernization. “Many of the organizations in China’s military-industrial complex have both military and civilian R&D functions. This network of government-affiliated companies and research institutes often provides the PLA access to sensitive and dual-use technologies or knowledgeable experts under the guise of civilian R&D.”
“Differentiating between China’s civil and military end-use remains a challenge due to opaque corporate structures, hidden asset ownership, and the connections of commercial personnel with the central government.”
The full report can be read at: www.defense.gov/pubs/2014_DoD_China_Report.pdf