US-China Commission Report Toned Down; Errors Remain

By November 22, 2006

The annual report published Monday by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission is different – kind of toned-down – compared with the report published in 2005. The Commission hasn’t gone soft on China, and the report continues the strong critique of China that has characterized the Commission since it was established in 2000. But much of the stronger language from the 2005 report, and many of the more questionable claims about Chinese nuclear weapons capabilities, did not make it into the new report.

The toning-down of the report follows reports earlier this year that the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military capabilities was also softened before publication. A call to the US-China Commission office about why the changes were made was not answered.

Noticeable changes in the 2006 report compared with last year include:

* Deletion of the top recommendation that Congress should “encourage increasing U.S. military capabilities in the Western Pacific in response to growing Chinese capabilities.” This blunt call for an arms race is replaced in the new report with a recommendation that DOD includes in its annual report on China’s military power “an assessment of U.S. weapon systems, force structure, basing, doctrine, and tactics in order to maintain a favorable balance of military power in the region” to ensure that the Pentagon can beat the Chinese in a war.

* Deletion of the erroneous claim that China’s next-generation long-range nuclear ballistic missiles will carry multiple warheads. In last year’s report, this claim was based on two non-authoritative sources: a Heritage Foundation brochure and a Japanese news paper article. The U.S. intelligence community, in contrast, has consistently stated that the missiles will be equipped with single warheads.

* Deletion of the erroneous claim that the Chinese navy has nuclear-armed anti-ship cruise missiles.

* The section “Expansion of China’s Nuclear Forces” is now simply called “Missiles.”

While it is a positive development that the Commission has made these changes, the 2006 report by no means looses sight of the Commission’s mandate to report on China’s military modernization and force deployments. Yet there are several claims in the 2006 report that stand out:

* A big one is that China is said to be pursuing measures to “control” the seas in the “Western Pacific.” But as anyone with just a little knowledge of naval operations understands, gaining “control” over an area requires superior capabilities, something China simply does not have now nor is likely to acquire in the foreseeable future. It is one thing to try to achieve “control” of a limited coastal area between China and Taiwan, but quite another to achieve it in the “Western Pacific” as the Commission says.

* Another claim is that China “continues to improve its older intercontinental ballistic missiles,” which, although true, forgets to mention that this particular improvement of the DF-5 missile has been underway since the 1980s and is now finally nearing completion. Slow and long-term is typical for Chinese nuclear programs.

* The Commission also claims that a new missile currently under development – the DF-31A – “will be the first Chinese ICBM capable of hitting Washington, DC.” Not so, unless the U.S. intelligence community has been wrong or lying for 30 years. According to numerous declassified documents, unclassified official reports and official statements made by the intelligence community, China has been targeting all of the United States with the DF-5 since the early 1980s. But the suggestion that DF-31A has a longer range than DF-5 echoes information contained in the 2006 DOD report on China’s military forces. A map in that report showed a DF-5 range considerably shorter than shown on a map in the 2005 DOD report. Whether the U.S. intelligence community has decreased its estimate for the DF-5 range or simply made an error (that everyone keeps repeating) is unknown.

* The Commission report also claims that China “continues to expand” its submarine fleet, when, in fact, it is not. On the contrary, China’s submarine fleet is in sharp decline, down from approximately 120 boats in the mid-1980s to about 60 today. While the Commission report focuses on highlighting China’s acquisition of new submarines, U.S. Naval Intelligence anticipates that the Chinese submarine fleet will level out at around 40 boats.

Over the past two years, military-to-military contact has increased between China and the United states, not least thanks for the efforts of Admiral William J. Fallon, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command. Likewise, U.S. Strategic Command has begun direct conversions with its Chinese counterpart about the role of nuclear weapons. The U.S.-China Commission report acknowledges this development, but complains that the military-to-military contacts “may disproportionally benefit the” Chinese by increasing their knowledge of U.S. military capabilities.

To ensure that the United States doesn’t t fall behind, the Commission has a solution: increase U.S. spying against China. This is a curious recommendation, given that allegations about Chinese spying against the United States is what gave birth to the U.S.-China Commission in the first place.

The overall impression I get from the Commission’s report is that it spends too much time on reporting dramatic new developments and too little time on analyzing what its all means. To that end it is important not only to get the facts right but also to describe them in context. China is modernizing its military forces – as are virtually all of its neighbors including the United States. All these players are engaged in a dangerous game of deterrence that creates fear and suspicion and triggers requirements for better weapons and bolder war plans.

The challenge for the United States and its allies in the region is not, as the Commission seems to believe, to continue to deploy more and better weapons to counter China’s military modernization, but to figure out how to create a foreign policy that ends the mistrust.

New report
forthcoming:

Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning
Federation of American Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council
November 2006

Categories: China, Nuclear Proliferation, Nuclear Weapons