Nuclear Weapons

New US Navy Report on Chinese Navy

03.22.07 | 5 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

Despite frequent complains about lack of transparency in Chinese military planning, a new report from the Office of Naval Intelligence – recently described in the Washington Times and subsequently released to the Federation of American Scientists in response to a Freedom of Information Act request – boasts a high degree of knowledge about meticulous details of the Chinese navy’s operations, training, personnel and regulations.

The details in the report China’s Navy 2007 are many but unfortunately largely superfluous to the main answers many want to hear from the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and other intelligence agencies: How are Chinese naval forces and operations evolving, and what do the changes mean?

Questionable Reporting

Unfortunately, some have already (mis)used the ONI report to hype fear that China is rising and out to get us. One example is the Washington Times, which last week described the report findings in a highly selective manner. Despite many unknowns about China’s military modernization and intentions, the paper’s description only included excerpts that indicate a threat or worrisome development. Moreover, the paper appears to have distorted the ONI report’s description of the Chinese submarine force’s importance: “China’s submarine forces are given ‘first priority’ of all branches of the navy, it states.”

But that’s not what the ONI report states. In fact, “first priority” as quoted by the Washington Times does not appear in the report at all. What the report says is very different: “The PLA Navy’s submarine forces…are generally listed as first in protocol order among the PLAN’s five branches.”

Being listed first in the protocol order is not the same as being the “first priority” of all the navy branches. According to the RAND Cooperation’s reference book The People’s Liberation Army as Organization:

[People’s Liberation Army] is a very protocol oriented institution.
When the PLA lists its military regions, services, service branches,
administrative organizations, or its key personnel, the lists are
almost always in protocol order, what the PLA calls organizational
order (zuzhi xulie).
The first criterion is generally the date a particular organization
was established. For example, the order of the three services (junzhong)
is always Army (August 1927), Navy (April 1949), and Air Force
(November 1949). Since the Second Artillery Corps (July 1966) is
technically a branch/service arm (bingzhong),
and is usually not listed with the services….Therefore, the
protocol order is more of an administrative tool today rather than a
reflection of priority within the hierarchy
.” (Emphasis added)

What the ONI Report Does (and Doesn’t) Say

In contrast with the threat-focused style of the Washington Times reporting, the ONI report purports to have a much broader objective to “better understand the world’s fastest growing maritime power and its means of naval action and thereby foster a better understanding of China’s Navy.” The report observes up front that the enhanced naval power sought by China “is meant to answer global changes in the nature of warfare and domestic concerns about continued economic prosperity.” The drive to build a military component to protect the means of economic development, ONI states, “is one of the most prevalent historical reasons for building a blue water naval capability.”

Part of what has triggered the Chinese modernization is the extraordinary military capabilities that the United States have developed and deployed and demonstrated over the past two decades. The point is not that the United States is to blame and China just an innocent victim, but that all military modernization influences potential adversaries.

To that end the most interesting aspect about the ONI report may not be so much what it says but what it leaves out. Missing are many of the key developments that most concern US military planners and lawmakers, and many of the developments that are ignored by those who hype the Chinese “threat.”

For example, the ONI report does not include new information about the size of the Chinese navy. Instead it reprints a brief overview from the 2006 DOD report Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. Nor does the ONI report describe the construction of several new types of submarines, including the Type 093 nuclear-powered attack submarine and the Type 094 ballistic missile submarine.

Likewise, the ONI report begins with reprinting portions of two Chinese government documents, one of which states that the Chinese navy’s “capability of nuclear counter-attacks has also been enhanced.” This refers to China’s current possession of a single Xia-class ballistic missile submarine, but the ONI leaves out any information about what that enhancement actually is.

The other Chinese government statement used describes that the Chinese navy is “enhancing its capabilities in…nuclear counterattacks.” This is a hint that China is building a new class (Type 094 or Jin-class) of ballistic missile submarines that will be equipped with the long-range Julang-2 ballistic missile. Yet the ONI report does not give any details about the status of those programs much less what they mean for the Chinese navy or Chinese intentions.

In addition, the ONI report contains a very detailed description of the various categories of training used by the Chinese submarine force, yet it doesn’t mention submarine patrols with one word. The omission is curious because the report describes that Chinese submarines in the late 1970s began conducting independent sustained operations in the Pacific, and that “long-range navigation training is an important overall type of training for submarines.” So why leave out the important fact that the number of patrols have declined since 2000 rather than increased with the acquisition of more capable submarines?

To that end, the ONI report describes how the “basic hands-on and crisis-management training for strategic-missile submarines that cannot be conducted while the submarine is navigating underwater for long periods of time must be conducted on shore.” Yet it leaves out the important piece of information that China’s missile submarine Xia has never conducted a patrol.

Apparently, too little transparency is not only a problem in the Chinese military.

Balanced Reporting

One week before the Washington Times hyped the ONI report, the nominated commander of Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee where he dismissed alarmist reports of recent gains in Chinese submarine development.

“If the reports are fairly accurate, they are well behind us technologically. We enjoy significant advantages across the spectrum of defensive and offensive systems, in particular undersea warfare,” he said according to Taipei Times. In an interview with the paper, Keating added: “Should it become necessary for us to put our forces [in harm’s way], the development of Chinese submarines are [sic] a concern to us, but it is hardly an insurmountable concern.”

Admiral Keating’s testimony was not covered by the Washington Times.

Breaking the cycle of military modernizations that trigger military modernizations is perhaps the biggest challenge in US-Chinese relations. Balanced reporting is another.

Background: China’s Navy 2007 | China Naval Modernization | FAS/NRDC Report