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China’s rapid rise over recent years as a regional political and economic power with growing global influence is an important element in today’s strategic landscape, one that has significant implications for the region and the world. The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China. No country has done more to assist, facilitate, and encourage China’s national development and its integration in the international system. The United States continues to encourage China to participate as a responsible international stakeholder by taking on a greater share of responsibility for the stability, resilience and growth of the global system. However, much uncertainty surrounds China’s future course, in particular in the area of its expanding military power and how that power might be used.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is pursuing comprehensive transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to one capable of fighting and winning short duration, high intensity conflicts along its periphery against high-tech adversaries – an approach that China refers to as preparing for “local wars under conditions of informatization.” China’s ability to sustain military power at a distance remains limited but, as noted in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, it “has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages.” China’s near-term focus on preparing for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, including the possibility of U.S. intervention, is an important driver of its modernization. However, analysis of China’s military acquisitions and strategic thinking suggests Beijing is also developing capabilities for use in other contingencies, such as conflict over resources or disputed territories.
The pace and scope of China’s military transformation have increased in recent years, fueled by acquisition of advanced foreign weapons, continued high rates of investment in its domestic defense and science and technology industries, and far reaching organizational and doctrinal reforms of the armed forces. China’s expanding and improving military capabilities are changing East Asian military balances; improvements in China’s strategic capabilities have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region.
China’s nuclear force modernization, as evidence by the fielding of the new DF-31 and DF-31A intercontinental-range missiles, is enhancing China’s strategic strike capabilities. China’s emergent anti-access/area denial capabilities – as exemplified by its continued development of advanced cruise missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to strike ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, and the January 2007 successful test of a direct-ascent, anti-satellite weapon – are expanding from the land, air, and sea dimensions of the traditional battlefield into the space and cyber-space domains.
The international community has limited knowledge of the motivations, decision-making, and key capabilities supporting China’s military modernization. China’s leaders have yet to explain in detail the purposes and objectives of the PLA’s modernizing military capabilities. For example, China continues to promulgate incomplete defense expenditure figures, and engage in actions that appear inconsistent with its declaratory policies. The lack of transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation. This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown.
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