Friday, May 17, 2013

US criticism stirs China's military pride
By Brendan P O'Reilly

A Defense Department report on the state and posture of the Chinese military has set off alarm bells in both Washington and Beijing, with US military intelligence openly accusing the Chinese government of engaging in extensive cyber espionage of American military technology and systems.

The report also detailed extensive Chinese investment in developing technologies that can specifically counter America's regional dominance. As the United States repositions its massive arsenal into the Asia-Pacific, the Pentagon has highlighted both powers' strategic concerns, and China's growing investment in creating a credible challenge to America's conventional military superiority.

The annual report, required by the US Congress since 2000 and entitled "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China", made a direct accusation of Chinese state-sanctioned cyber espionage:
In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the US government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military.
In recent months, American media has been abuzz with accounts of Chinese hacking aimed at stealing classified American military secrets. However, these warnings have come from private security firms and media. Because of its official nature, the Pentagon's accusation is significantly more incendiary.

According to the Pentagon, the central focus of China's cyber espionage has been military, although diplomatic and economic networks are also targeted. Specifically, it appears the Chinese government is attempting to garner information about cutting-edge US military technology, with the hopes of recreating these weapon systems domestically.

Due to sanctions imposed in 1990, China is restricted from directly purchasing US weaponry. China's wide-ranging military modernization program has been aided by the procurement of technologically advanced systems from Russia. It appears the Chinese government is using cyber capabilities to diversify their sources of military technology.

Beijing's regional stance
The Pentagon report also asserted that China's military posture is primarily aimed at Taiwan - as it has been since at least the collapse of the Soviet Union:
The People's Republic of China (PRC) continues to pursue a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program designed to improve the capacity of its armed forces to fight and win short duration, high-intensity regional military conflict. Preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait appears to remain the principal focus and primary driver of China's military investment.
Beijing has long threatened to use force should Taipei seek a formal declaration of independence. However, such a declaration of independence is almost certainly not likely to be issued by Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang Party.

The current trend between mainland China and Taiwan is one of economic cooperation and deepening political ties. Taipei and Beijing enjoy closer relations at this moment than they have at any time in the last half-century. It seems very telling that Beijing's military posture is primarily aimed at fighting a war that is almost certain not to occur anytime in the next several decades, if ever.

Beyond mentioning Beijing's preoccupation with Taiwan, the Pentagon's latest report also highlighted the mounting territorial rows between China and the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan. These potential conflicts between China and America's regional allies are of course a major concern for policymakers in Washington. However, after mentioning these hotspots, the report displayed an astute understanding of the contemporary Chinese perspective:
Official statements and media during these situations indicate that China sees itself as responding to perceived threats to its national interests or provocations by outside actors. China's lack of transparency surrounding its growing military capabilities and strategic decision making has also increased concerns in the region about China's intentions
This acknowledgment of China's regional outlook - quickly followed by the often-repeated denouncement of "lack of transparency" - reflects a mature understanding of one's rival and potential enemy.

Such an understanding was again highlighted by the report's acknowledgment of Chinese fears over America's strategic role:
China continues to see the United States as the dominant regional and global actor with the greatest potential to both support and, potentially, disrupt China's rise.

 In addition, China remains concerned that should regional states come to view China as a threat, they might balance against China through unilateral military modernization or through coalitions, possibly with the United States. Many Chinese officials and the public see the US rebalance to Asia as a reflection of "Cold War thinking" and as a way to contain China's rise.
Reading between the lines, the Pentagon report paints a picture of a country that is adopting a largely defensive military posture. While it is strategically understandable why Hanoi, Manila, Taipei, and Tokyo may view China as a potential threat, Beijing is looking over these relatively minor rivals to the far side of the Pacific, where it sees the most powerful nation in the history of human civilization as intent on stopping Beijing's rise to its natural place at the center of the world. The annual report's detailing of specific Chinese weapon systems further illustrates the essentially conservative nature of current Chinese military doctrine:
To support the Chinese People's Liberation Army's (PLA) expanding set of roles and missions, China's leaders in 2012 sustained investment in advanced short- and medium range conventional ballistic missiles, land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, counter-space weapons, and military cyberspace capabilities that appear designed to enable anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) missions (what PLA strategists refer to as "counter-intervention operations")
. China is not particularly intent on preparing for a war with a less powerful neighbor - such as Vietnam or the Philippines. Rather, the Chinese government is focusing on developing weapon systems that can serve primarily as credible deterrents to America's conventional superiority.

The "area denial", or, as revealingly referred to by the Chinese themselves as "counter-intervention" technologies are designed specifically to protect the Chinese coast in the (extremely unlikely) event of a war in and around Taiwan. Of course, these weapon systems could also be useful at deterring or countering American intervention if a clash erupted in the disputed territories of the South China Sea.

The Chinese Reaction
Many aspects of the Chinese reaction to this latest Pentagon report were entirely predictable. First, the accusation of cyber espionage was specifically dismissed by Hua Chunying of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who warned: "groundless accusations and flare-ups will only hurt both sides' endeavors and the atmosphere for talks". [1]

Second, the overall tone of the report itself was condemned. Hua said the Pentagon "made irresponsible comments about China's normal and justified defense buildup and hyped the so-called China military threat".

Beyond these predictable rebuffs, Chinese state media responded to the report in some rather interesting ways. The Chinese language website of China Daily featured a top story entitled: "US releasing the Chinese Military Power Report; worries about the development of offshore defense capabilities" [2]. This article, while condemning the alarmist implications of the Defense Department report, also took a measure of pride in America's concerns over China's development of stealth aircraft and aircraft carriers.

Furthermore, the English-language edition of China Daily featured an article detailing American calls for increased military-to-military ties. This piece quoted Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey's press briefing on the annual report:
"Over the course of 2012, the armed forces of the United States and China made progress in building positive momentum in their defense contacts and exchanges… Indeed, having this type of relationship is an important part of our large strategy to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region." [3]
It appears that the Chinese government is slightly conflicted regarding how to react to the latest Pentagon report. While condemning the overly combative and alarmist viewpoint of the US military, the Chinese government appears to be somewhat proud of being taken seriously as a rival.

The issue of "lack of transparency" is particularly interesting in the current regional atmosphere. The United States has called on China to be more militarily transparent in every annual report since 2000, while at the same time accusing the Chinese government of spending more on its military than is publicly stated.

China has an obvious interest in hiding its military capabilities for at least two reasons. First, Beijing does not want to overly alarm its smaller neighbors and spark a costly and destabilizing regional arms race. Secondly, China wants to hide the technologies that are designed to counter American conventional dominance. In the very unlikely case that they must be used someday, China hopes the American military would not know the full extent of Chinese military capabilities.

Chinese opacity and cyber espionage appear aimed at creating a strategically ideal situation for the Chinese military. Modern Chinese military doctrine is taking the guidance of Sun Tzu very seriously:
If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles... if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
However, Sun Tzu's most relevant piece of advice on how to wage war to the current Chinese leadership is to avoid war in the first place:
Therefore, to gain a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; to subjugate the enemy's army without doing battle is the highest of excellence. Therefore, the best warfare strategy is to attack the enemy's plans, next is to attack alliances, next is to attack the army, and the worst is to attack a walled city.
Chinese military procurements and "anti-intervention" technologies are aimed precisely at thwarting America's regional military plans. However, Beijing should note that Sun Tzu also advised countering a rival's alliances - not their allies.

The best method for China to do so is to develop closer economic and political ties with America's regional partners while reassuring them of China's long-term interests. Intensifying territorial rows can be useful for strengthening domestic political support, but they are rather counterproductive for enhancing regional power.

The Chinese government should recognize the parallels between their own fear of Washington's increased regional military footprint and the concerns of China's neighbors over Beijing's increasing capabilities.

While condemning Chinese opacity and territorial ambitions, the Pentagon has also displayed a large degree of strategic understanding of China's current military posture. Military posturing and aggressive espionage from both countries are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. However, if both Beijing and Washington can respect each other's core interests, then all sides can achieve a form of victory by avoiding what would likely be devastating and ultimately fruitless conflict.

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