After a very protracted gestation and calls from Congress for its release, DOD today finally unveiled the latest report on China’s military capabilities, as called for under the FY 2000 National Defense Authorization Act.
What is surprising in this report of some 83 pages is how little of its content is actually surprising.
For example, the report reminds us that, not only is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a large force, but it is also increasingly sophisticated. This sophistication is reflected in its growing ability to conduct joint operations (i.e., operations involving land, sea, air, space, and cyber forces). It is also reflected in its people, who are thinking carefully about the shape of future wars, as reflected in the emphasis on “informatized war,” i.e., the application of information technology to all aspects of warfare, from command and control to logistics.
The report also points out the growing range of capabilities at the PLA’s disposal. This is not an army that will rely on human wave attacks; it is one that is working on anti-ship ballistic missiles, electronic and information warfare, and space combat capabilities.
Nor is the PLA solely a local force anymore. Chinese military forces, as the report notes, now operate in the Gulf of Aden, and exercise with a variety of nations from Africa to Asia. China’s military officers are part of its larger diplomatic outreach efforts.
But none of this is especially surprising. These “developments” have been elemental to PLA modernization and expansion efforts for much of the past two decades.
Perhaps this is the real news: The PLA has enjoyed sustained growth in its resources, its capabilities, and its sophistication for so long that we are no longer surprised by its burgeoning reach and expanding envelope. There are individual technologies, such as anti-ship ballistic missiles, that are being pioneered by Chinese engineers, but we have become accustomed to China’s overall efforts to become a true military power.
The question, in this context, is no longer: “What will China do?” China clearly will continue to expand its military as it sees fit.
Instead, the question is: “What will the United States do?” In this context, the delay in releasing the report is troubling, especially as there were no major surprises embodied within it. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, have we become so accustomed to expanding Chinese capabilities that we think we can afford to ignore them?