As the world rang in 2011, one of the lesser noticed events is the absence of a Chinese defense white paper for 2010. The biennial public explanation of Chinese military capabilities and intentions was due out by the end of December. Yet as of Tuesday morning, no report has been released.

This is a striking omission, as the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been assiduous in producing these reports in a timely manner. Indeed, although the reports have always come up short in terms of providing the world with anything like the level of transparency the U.S. provides, since the PLA began producing them in 1998, the reports have served Western analysts well.

The absence of a 2010 defense white paper is likely due to a combination of staffing issues and the forthcoming U.S.–Chinese high-level meetings: first, the visit of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to China at the beginning of next week, followed by President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States. One can imagine that, as these visits loom, the time simply ran out to gain bureaucratic approval from all the offices within the Chinese government for the white paper.

This suggests, however, that there may be something to the report or its context that the Chinese are hesitant to highlight ahead of this high level diplomacy. Any hope for improved U.S.–China relations that may emerge from these two Sino–American meetings should, therefore, be tempered. In light of the year-end reports on PLA developments—from an initial operational capability for China’s anti-ship ballistic missile force to reports of the Chinese aircraft carrier Shi Lang (ex-Varyag) beginning to work up its powerplant—the PLA is likely to be more active in 2011 than ever before.

In this regard, the contents of the Chinese defense white paper, when it emerges (likely after the two U.S.–Chinese meetings), are likely to be sobering.