China made impressive gains last year in its military buildup that pushed the Communist Party-controlled People’s Liberation Army closer to matching modern militaries, according to the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress made public Wednesday.
“Militarily, China’s sustained modernization program is paying visible dividends,” the report says. “During 2010, China made strides toward fielding an operational anti-ship ballistic missile, continued work on its aircraft carrier program, and finalized the prototype of its first stealth aircraft.”
The report cautions that the Chinese military continues to lack key military capabilities, is equipped with large amounts of outdated hardware, and lacks operational experience. But the report concludes that the army “is steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces.”
By the end of this decade, China will be able to project military power and sustain a modest-sized force of naval and ground forces for smaller conflicts “far from China.” That assessment was not included in earlier annual reports to Congress.
China recently began sea trials of a refurbished Soviet-era aircraft carrier and is developing a ballistic missile to target ships at sea, the report says.
It also is continuing aggressive cyber-intelligence gathering and has targeted numerous computer systems around the world, the report says, noting the intrusions “appear to have originated within” China.
“These intrusions were focused on exfiltrating information,” the report says, adding that the same skills can be used for “computer network attacks” in warfare.
China’s cyberwarfare capabilities likely would serve future military operations by gathering intelligence, constraining enemy action or slowing their response, and bolstering conventional attacks during a crisis or conflict. Chinese military writings state that China plans to use its cyberwarfare weapons to achieve information superiority and to counter a stronger foe.
“The pace and scope of China’s sustained military investment have allowed China to pursue capabilities that we believe are potentially destabilizing to regional military balances, increase the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation, and may contribute to regional tensions and anxieties,” said Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia, in releasing the report at the Pentagon.
Mr. Schiffer said China is on track to becoming a regional military power by 2020.
He added that no decision has been made on new arms sales to Taiwan, when asked whether China’s military buildup could increase support for the sale of new U.S. F-16 jets to Taiwan.
Still, the report highlights the “very challenging security environment across the strait” that divides Taiwan from the Chinese mainland.
The report, which was due to Congress on March 1, presents a softer view of Beijing’s arms buildup than previous reports. It focuses on China’s modernization and uses a tone that in some sections echoes Chinese propaganda claiming the buildup is harmless.
“The report takes exquisite account of Chinese sensibilities, even when this leads to mischaracterizing and minimizing the China threat,” said Steven Mosher, a China specialist. “This does a disservice to the truth as well as to our country.”
For example, the report’s use of the phrase “active defense” to describe China’s military doctrine is a euphemism for the plans by China to strike first in a crisis, he said.
The Pentagon report, however, says this is only a possibility despite repeated assertions by Beijing that certain political acts, like Taiwan declaring independence, will prompt pre-emptive strikes.
“There is thus no question that ‘active defense’ is not defensive at all, but is a strategy of offense and expansion,” Mr. Mosher said.
China vastly increased its arsenal of long-range ground-launched cruise missiles last year. The report shows that the number of these DH-10 missiles, with ranges of more than 930 miles, grew from about 350 missiles in 2009 to as many as 500 last year.
The report says that China’s claims to large areas of the South China Sea and that disputes in other waters has increased tensions in the region. It also highlights China’s growing forces to attack ships or space systems, called “anti-access” and “area denial weapons” by the Pentagon.
Such weapons include the new DF-21D anti-ship missile, attack submarines, advanced warships, naval-strike aircraft, and anti-satellite missiles and lasers.
“China is fielding an array of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, modern aircraft, [unmanned aerial vehicles], ground- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles, special operations forces, and cyberwarfare capabilities to hold targets at risk throughout the region,” the report says.