Yesterday the U.S. Defense Department finally released -- at least four months late -- its annual report on Chinese military power. The delay can be excused. This year's report is more comprehensive and more serious than its predecessors. In addition to its descriptions of China's inexorable expansion of weapons systems, force structure, and military power over the Taiwan Strait, the report added useful sections on China's grand strategy, its political-military guidance to the PLA, China's current military doctrine, its military-industrial espionage efforts, and its use of military diplomacy around the world. Those hoping the Western Pacific region would somehow smoothly merge into a stable strategic equilibrium will find little comfort in this report. The view instead appears more like an asteroid in the sky getting larger and larger every night.
Over the past decade, the United States and China have taken completely opposite paths on force structure investment. During this time, China has sharply reduced the headcount of its ground forces. Ground force modernization receives but a brief mention in the report. Instead, the report allocates dozens of pages describing China's investment in new classes of ballistic missiles of all ranges, new long-range land-attack cruise missiles, new nuclear weapons capabilities, new fighter and bomber aircraft, new integrated air defense systems, new diesel and nuclear submarines (attack and ballistic missile), new surface warships, improved expeditionary forces (airborne and marine divisions), cyber operations, space warfare, etc. China has focused its investment priorities on naval and aerospace power projection and high-end asymmetric capabilities, paid for with reductions in the army's headcount and, naturally, China's booming economy. According to the report, China is aiming its future naval and aerospace expeditionary forces beyond Taiwan and China's territorial claims over the South China and Yellow Seas; China intends to reach past Guam and the "second island chain" and deep into the Pacific.
Meanwhile, United States military investment priorities over the past ten years have been a mirror image. The Pentagon has added to its ground force headcount (and its personnel costs) while cutting heads in the Navy and Air Force. The Congress has generously funded counterinsurgency patrol trucks (MRAPs) and large logistic bases in the Middle East and Central Asia. In the meantime, U.S. naval and aerospace investments are waiting, both for defense contractors to sort out their problems and for policymakers to assign a higher priority to these investments. The F-35, when it finally arrives from testing, will have limited utility in Asia due to its short range and scarcity of survivable bases (the F-22's utility in Asia is similarly hobbled). Defense Secretary Robert Gates has had to cancel several of the Navy's surface warship programs due to cost overruns. Over the decade, the Navy has received a few new ships a year and has retired even more, resulting in a shrinking fleet. The Air Force won't get a new bomber for at least a decade. All of this is in sharp contrast to China's military investment program.
The Soviet Union's collapse allowed China to reallocate resources from frontier defense to naval and aerospace power projection. This trend was in place long before the United States intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan. But China is no doubt also exploiting what it likely perceives as U.S. neglect in the Pacific while it focused on ground wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. With the China military power report now in their hands, U.S. policymakers need to question what risks they are taking with America's strategic position and whether they are entirely comfortable with the military investment program they are now managing.