U.S. Experts Urge Greater Chinese Military Openness

By Jacquelyn S. Porth
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - China’s growing military investments in capabilities ranging from conventional weapons to cybersystems and its lack of openness regarding intent raise the possibility of a miscalculation that could spark conflict, according to U.S. security policy experts.

Analyst James Lewis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit policy research organization, and others told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission March 30, for example, that China miscalculated the reaction of the international community to its January 11 anti-satellite test. (See related article.)

During a two-day hearing on China’s military modernization, members of Congress and Defense Department consultants stressed the need for greater openness by the Chinese military, which says it spends $30 billion annually. Some U.S. analysts place Chinese military spending at as high as $140 billion a year.  Defense Science Board Chairman William Schneider said the absence of transparency raises ambiguity about China’s military modernization and recapitalization effort, leaving it open to varying interpretations. The Defense Science Board advises the secretary of defense on a range of issues.

Schneider said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pursued the theme of transparency during a trip to China in March.  Marine General Peter Pace welcomed proposals during his trip from his Chinese counterpart to establish several new confidence-building measures such as a telephone crisis hotline, officer exchange programs and expanded search and rescue exercises.

Schneider said increasing dialogue and interactions promote better understanding.  Marine General James Cartwright said exchanges are critical to understanding competing viewpoints and serve to defuse tension.  Cartwright, who leads the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told commissioners that the United States and China need to “move forward” on military-to-military exchanges to work through issues such as ballistic missile deployments and establish a base of common knowledge and level of strategic comfort.

Although the process cannot be rushed, Cartwright said, the sooner meaningful military exchanges can be established “the better.”  Pentagon consultant Michael Pillsbury suggested in his presentation that STRATCOM and the Pacific Command might include information in future briefings with the Chinese on “the consequences of an attack on U.S. military satellites in a crisis.”

Pillsbury warned that, in a crisis, even a limited anti-satellite attack against a mix of 50 U.S. satellites “could have a catastrophic effect” not only on U.S. military forces, but on the American economy as well.


Much of the hearing, the second in a series in 2007 on China, was devoted to Chinese goals in space in the wake of Beijing’s third anti-satellite test in January.  Cartwright said U.S. officials were not surprised by it, but added that the quick scientific adjustments that the Chinese made to achieve the successful intercept were significant.

Cartwright said Beijing underestimated not only the international reaction to the test, but the amount of space debris it created.  He said environmental damage from it will be experienced for 20 years to 30 years.

The general said the United States conducted its last anti-satellite test in 1985, but it was carried out at the bottom of the atmosphere putting debris in lower orbit.  Even so, Cartwright said, it took two decades for that debris to disappear.

Cartwright said the Chinese are pursuing efforts against U.S. space assets that include trying to jam communications and disrupt the flow of global positioning data that is critical to successful military deployments.

Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Mark Cozad told the commission that China is focused on U.S. vulnerabilities in advanced communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Another area of focus is cyberspace.  Schneider said being able to attack computer networks is “a good illustration of asymmetric capabilities China has been developing to leverage its investment in traditional military capabilities.”

The Chinese have a long-range view of the utility of cyberactivity, according to Cartwright, and have been probing and conducting reconnaissance to map U.S. government and commercial computer networks.


A number of witnesses addressed China’s efforts to manage its image.  Naval War College professor Derek Reveron said China wants to be seen as “a giant, smiling panda and not a fire-breathing dragon.”

The Chinese government seeks to play down its defense spending and cast “itself in a positive light relative to the United States” while distributing generous foreign assistance, Reveron said.

He said China’s outreach in recent years includes giving more than $100 million to both Dominica and Grenada - two countries that have withdrawn diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.  China also has funded cricket stadiums in Antigua and Jamaica, according to Reveron.

Ehsan Ahrari, a professor with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, said another aspect of China’s strategy is to arm surrogates to combat U.S. or allied interests.

China also is probing for openings, especially in the Muslim world, he said, and seeking to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities, while trying to maximize Beijing’s political, economic, military and technological advantages.

For more information on U.S. policy, see The United States and China and Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.