Sizing Up China

By Thomas Duffy / April 12, 2011 at 2:44 PM

Adm. Robert Willard, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, is appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning to provide an update on his corner of the world. China's military modernization is a main part of every PACOM commander's report to Congress.

The following assessment of China is taken from Willard's written testimony to the committee:

Beginning in the mid-1990s, China’s peacetime military modernization program has progressed at a rapid rate. While force modernization is understandable in light of China’s growing regional and global roles and accompanying requirements, the scope and pace of its modernization without clarity on China’s ultimate goals remains troubling. For example, China continues to accelerate its offensive air and missile developments without corresponding public clarification about how these forces will be utilized. Of particular concern is the expanding inventory of ballistic and cruise missiles (which include anti-ship capability) and the development of modern, fourth- and fifth-generation stealthy combat aircraft. In conjunction, China is pursuing counter-space and -cyber capabilities that can be used to not only disrupt U.S. military operations, but also to threaten the space- and cyber-based information infrastructure that enables international communications and commerce.

Absent clarification from China, its military modernization efforts hold significant implications for regional stability. The region is developing its own conclusions about why the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to expand its ability to project power outside China’s borders, and to range both U.S. forces and U.S. Allies and partners in the region with new anti-access and area-denial weaponry. Of growing concern is China’s maritime behavior. China’s recent official statements and actions in what Beijing calls its ―near seas represent a direct challenge to accepted interpretations of international law and established international norms. While China does not make legal claims to this entire body of water, it does seek to restrict or exclude foreign, in particular, U.S., military maritime and air activities in the ―near seas - an area that roughly corresponds to the maritime area from the Chinese mainland out to the ―first island chain (described, generally, as a line through Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and Indonesia) and including the Bohai Gulf, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. Chinese naval and maritime law enforcement vessels have been assertive in recent years in trying to advance China’s territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas which has resulted U.S. partners and allies in East Asia seeking additional support and reassurance to balance and curb the Chinese behavior. Many of China's maritime policy statements and claims stand in contrast to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The U.S. has consistently sought the appropriate balance between the interests of countries in controlling activities off their coasts with the interests of all countries in protecting freedom of navigation. China has questioned whether a non-party may assert such rights under UNCLOS, a baseless argument but one that would be removed if the U.S. was a party to UNCLOS.