The Congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has one job: to provide a realistic view of the relationship, unfiltered by diplomatic niceties. While some of its assessments may be overstated, it always contains important information, and this year’s report is especially sobering.
[November 27, 2014 | Wall Street Journal Opinion]
The bipartisan commission of experts—including intelligence veterans, former diplomats and business executives—concludes, “As a result of China’s comprehensive and rapid military modernization, the regional balance of power between China, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies and associates on the other, is shifting in China’s direction.”
Across 600 pages there are many more such warnings. By 2020, when the U.S. Navy plans to station 67 submarines and surface ships in the Asia-Pacific (“budget permitting”), China could have 351.
Twice this year Beijing appears to have tested a new hypersonic missile vehicle, the WU-14, that “could enable China to conduct kinetic strikes anywhere in the world within minutes to hours.” Yes, Beijing’s reach may exceed its grasp—even the U.S. faces difficulty in fielding a similar system. But the eventual payoff would be huge. Approaching speeds of 8,000 miles per hour, it “could render existing U.S. missile defense systems less effective and potentially obsolete.”
Then there’s outer space, where “China likely will be able to hold at risk U.S. national security satellites in every orbital regime in the next five to ten years.” The report quotes U.S. Air Force General William Shelton to explain: “We are so dependent on space these days, we plug into it like a utility. It is always there. Nobody worries about it.” Losing space assets to China’s anti-satellite weapons therefore “would be almost a reversion” to “industrial-based warfare.”
The report also bears bad news about America’s vulnerable cyber networks: “China’s cyber espionage continued unabated in 2014, despite a concerted U.S. effort since 2013 to expose and stigmatize Chinese economic espionage.” The commissioners clearly think little of the Obama Administration’s indictment of five Chinese military officers for stealing secrets from U.S. industrial firms: “China’s material incentives for continuing this activity are immense and unlikely to be altered by small-scale U.S. actions.”
The report recommends instead that officials examine ways “for sanctions to be imposed against entities that benefit from trade secrets or other information obtained through cyber intrusions or other illegal means.”
Elsewhere the commission indicts the government for keeping Americans in the dark about China. The Pentagon hasn’t publicly assessed the size of China’s nuclear arsenal since 2006, it notes, when the estimate was 100 warheads—a number that some experts believe China has since eclipsed by 30 times. Nor has the Pentagon reported publicly on China’s missile forces since 2010.
The commissioners similarly score Pentagon leaders for failing to explain the “purpose and rationale” of expanding military-to-military engagements with a Chinese party-state that acts belligerently and refuses to “engage in substantive military diplomacy.”
As ever, some caveats are in order. Intelligence assessments, let alone the open-source material cited by the commission, can be faulty. China’s ships and planes remain inferior to America’s, its soldiers less well-trained and untested in combat. The People’s Liberation Army has one aircraft carrier that is no match for any of America’s 11. And while the U.S. government has been open about many of its vulnerabilities, it stays understandably mum about its own offensive capabilities in cyberspace, outer space and otherwise.
So no commission report can be all-knowing, but this blunt accounting is a public service. As it says: “Unfortunately, China’s pursuit of a more confrontational relationship with the United States likely will persist.” Rather than pretend the challenge from China can be wished away, the executive branch must be spurred to recognize and counter it.