The Cable

Where is the Pentagon report on the Chinese military?

Every year, the Pentagon issues a congressionally mandated report outlining the Defense Department’s collective judgment about the Chinese military. And every year, the Chinese protest the findings. This year, the report is almost five months overdue, and some in Congress want to know why. Congress originally required the report, entitled, "Military Power of the People’s ...

Every year, the Pentagon issues a congressionally mandated report outlining the Defense Department’s collective judgment about the Chinese military. And every year, the Chinese protest the findings. This year, the report is almost five months overdue, and some in Congress want to know why.

Congress originally required the report, entitled, "Military Power of the People’s Republic of China" in the fiscal 2000 authorization bill. Compiled mostly by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, with input from regional commands and some outside experts, the reports offers the most comprehensive publicly available evaluation of the scope and impact of China’s ongoing military modernization and expansion.

Past reports have sounded the alarm on China’s ever expanding army of cyber warriors, its development of asymmetric capabilities to combat the more powerful U.S. war machine, its accumulation of missiles opposite Taiwan, and its building up of a blue-water navy that could project Chinese power regionally or even globally.

But the overall theme running through each report is that China continues to hide the true size of its military budget, and is not being open about true intentions behind its military modernization and expansion.

"The outside world has limited knowledge of the motivations, decision-making, and key capabilities supporting China’s military modernization," the 2007 document stated. "China’s leaders have yet to explain adequately the purposes or desired end-states of the PLA’s expanding military capabilities.  China’s actions in certain areas increasingly appear inconsistent with its declaratory policies.  Actual Chinese defense expenditures remain far above officially disclosed figures.  This lack of transparency in China’s military affairs will naturally and understandably prompt international responses that hedge against the unknown."

It’s not unusual for the report to be delivered late, but now that it is extremely late this year (it was due March 1), GOP senators are asking the Pentagon why.

In a letter sent today to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, five Republican senators — John Cornyn, R-TX, John McCain, R-AZ, James Ricsch, R-ID, Pat Roberts, R-KS, and James Inhofe, R-OK — wrote to express their "serious concern" over the Pentagon’s failure to submit the report.

The senators said that they heard the Pentagon completed the report months ago, and they are worried that the White House or the National Security Council is holding it in order to not upset Beijing or that they are scrubbing it down to make it more palatable to the Chinese.

"Since the responsibility for this report lies with the DOD alone, we ask for your assurance that White House political appointees at the National Security Council or other agencies have not been allowed to alter the substance of the report in an effort to avoid the prospect of angering China," the senators wrote.

An administration official told The Cable that actually, the NSC completed its review of the report some time ago and therefore the White House is not holding it up. The document should be in the Pentagon’s hands, pending release, the official said.

The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment.

To some extent, the senators’ letter reflects longstanding skepticism on the right about China’s intentions. But it also gives voice to a growing concern in Congress and among China watchers in both parties that the Obama administration has been slow to react to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive and antagonistic posture toward Washington.

The most glaring example of this trend came in June, when the Chinese refused to allow Gates a visit during his trip to Asia, leading the defense secretary to declare that he no longer believes China’s People’s Liberation Army is interested in improving its ties with the United States.

Over the last few months, China has pointedly warned the U.S. not to continue selling arms to Taiwan, refused to acknowledge that North Korea sank a South Korean ship, and claimed exclusive maritime rights in what the United States considers international waters.

The United States and South Korea are holding joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan Sunday, off South Korea’s east coast. The war games are intended to send a stern message to Pyongyang and improve South Korea’s antisubmarine warfare capabilities, but Chinese officials had strenuously objected to the two countries holding the drills in the Yellow Sea, on the west side of the Korean Peninsula, where the Pentagon insisted it would hold future exercises.

This week, during a visit to South Korea, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said of China that he’s "moved from being curious about what they’re doing to being concerned about what they’re doing," pointing to "a fairly significant investment in high-end equipment — satellites, ships … anti-ship missiles, obviously high-end aircraft and all those kinds of things."

Administration officials say they see an internal struggle within the Chinese system, with PLA hard-liners gaining ground against more moderate government actors.

Conservative China hands argue that the Obama administration needs to support more friendly Chinese interlocutors while taking a tougher line overall.

"Why are the Chinese coming out swinging now? Two reasons. One is the smell of American weakness, which Obama appears to be correcting. The second is that all is not well within China," former Pentagon China official Dan Blumenthal wrote Wednesday on FP’s Shadow Government blog.

But it’s not just the China hawks who are sounding the alarm bells. Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia security program at the Center for a New American Security, and Paul Giarra, director for global strategies and transformation at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, criticized China’s recent actions in an article for The Diplomat entitled "China’s Dangerous Arrogance."

"As China has become more influential, it has also become uncharacteristically assertive in the diplomatic arena. This assertiveness is nowhere more evident than with its naval power, and is prompting many to ask if it is now verging on the reckless, particularly over the South China Sea," they argued.

"It’s increasingly clear that Beijing may have misinterpreted a relatively passive but definitely welcoming set of international reactions to China’s rise. And the combination of China’s aggressive naval actions and maritime territorial claims suggests an alarming indicator: Chinese assertiveness over its region is growing as fast as China’s wealth and perceived power trajectory."

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