Taiwan in the New 2017 DoD China Military Power Report

Taiwan in the New 2017 DoD China Military Power Report

Taiwan in the New 2017 DoD China Military Power Report

On June 7, the US Department of Defense (DoD) released its new Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017—hereafter referred to as the China Military Power Report (CMPR). This report accomplishes three main goals: first, it explains new developments in China’s evolving military capabilities; second, it examines China’s military developments in relation to its goals with regard to Taiwan, which indirectly affect the United States; and third, it considers the implications of China’s military on other parts of the region, such as maritime territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, and even on areas beyond the region.

Though one would expect significant analysis on China’s military capabilities, it is noteworthy that Taiwan is receiving more attention in this report compared to previous years. For instance, the number of mentions of “Taiwan” has risen between this report and its previous iteration in 2016, rising from 115 mentions to 133 mentions, even while the report’s page count, not including appendices, dropped from 102 to 89. In this context, the report mentions “the United States” only 43 times, “India” 29 times, “the Philippines” 28 times, and “Japan” 17 times. As is expected for a report on China’s military, it mentions “China” 790 times. While the number of mentions only gives the reader a general sense of an issue’s significance, this sense generally supports the notion that this is a report focused on China and Taiwan above other China-related issues.

Traditional Taiwan Defense Issues

The China Military Power Report judges that, “Taiwan remains the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) main ‘strategic direction,’ one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as endowed with strategic importance” (CMPR, p. 39). The report reflects that, not only is preventing Taiwan independence one of China’s top priorities for its military modernization, but the United States is committed to providing Taiwan with defensive articles and services (CMPR, p. 82).

As in previous years, there is an entire chapter dedicated to “China’s force modernization for a Taiwan contingency.” The new report mentions the euphemism “Taiwan contingency” seven times. A contingency, in this case, means one or a combination of China’s potential courses of action against Taiwan (CMPR, p. 76), such as:

  • Maritime blockade
  • Limited force or coercive options, to include computer attacks or physical attacks against infrastructure to induce fear
  • Precision air and missile strikes
  • Amphibious invasion

Next, the report mentions slightly updated numbers for China’s and Taiwan’s military spending in context of their regional neighbors. China is highest at 144 billion US dollars per year (CMPR, p. 67). Russia is surprisingly low at $46 billion—around one third of China’s spending—considering that Russia was a world military superpower just three decades ago (CMPR, p. 67). Japan is third at $47 billion, then India at $37 billion, South Korea at $33 billion, and at the bottom of that short list is Taiwan at $10.5 billion per year (CMPR, p. 67).

The report rehashes China’s March 2005 Anti-Secession Law, stating that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could use “non-peaceful means” if “secessionist forces … cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China,” if “major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession” occur, or if “possibilities of peaceful reunification” are exhausted (CMPR, p. 75). China has historically warned that it would use force against Taiwan under the circumstances that (CMPR, p. 75):

  • Taiwan formally declares independence
  • Taiwan makes undefined moves toward independence
  • There is internal unrest in Taiwan
  • Taiwan acquires nuclear weapons
  • Taiwan delays cross-Strait dialogue on unification
  • Foreign military forces are stationed on Taiwan

The 2017 China Military Power Report echoes a refrain from previous reports and countless US official statements: The United States “does not support Taiwan independence,” but supports the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues (CMPR, p. 82). However, it reiterates that, consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the United States will continue to provide defense articles and services to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.

As further indication that the focus is on China-Taiwan military dynamics, this year—as in previous years—data visualizations compare China’s and Taiwan’s military forces and no others.

New Developments on Taiwan

New ground in the report begins with the political developments of the past year. The report describes how China’s relations with Taiwan “cooled” after Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan, and China began to aggressively insist that Taiwan accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” (CMPR, p. ii). It mentions other political events of the past year, to include China suspending political consultations between its Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), and the drop in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan over the course of 2016 (CMPR, p. 6). China blocked Taiwan’s efforts to participate in international organizations, such as when Taiwan was denied an invitation to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in October 2016. However, the PRC continues to engage with the Nationalist (KMT) party, despite stalled government-to-government consultations.

The report also lays out the PLA’s current force posture for a Taiwan conflict by detailing the role of each of the services: PLA Army, PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, PLA Rocket Force, and its Strategic Support Force to operate in space and cyberspace (CMPR, p. 81). The report judges that China is continuing to compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence, and to delay or deny third party intervention to help Taiwan (CMPR, p. 6). It made a special update on China’s amphibious capabilities with clear implications for Taiwan since Taiwan is an island (CMPR, p. 83).

The report also mentions Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, and its main point is that China’s military modernization has eroded Taiwan’s ability to deter PLA aggression (CMPR, p. 82). It highlights Taiwan’s goal of downsizing its military to a “small but smart and strong force,” which will be an all-volunteer force by 2019 (CMPR, p. 82).

New Developments with China’s Military

China began sweeping military organizational reforms in 2015 (CMPR, p. i), replacing the decades old military regions (MR) system with new theater commands (TCs), reorganizing the Central Military Commission (CMC), establishing the joint operations command center, and others (CMPR, p. 1-2). The report makes new mention of China asserting claims over the East and South China Seas, especially using its maritime militia to advance its interests, while calculating its actions to fall below the threshold of conflict (CMPR, p. i).

Contrary to what one might expect, the China Military Power Report does not consider the balance of China’s military against US forces, or attempt to wargame conflict scenarios directly between China and the United States. The US military is indirectly involved because the United States will face a choice of whether and how to come to Taiwan’s aid against China if Beijing acts belligerently toward Taiwan. After all, the report is an unclassified document, and not an appropriate medium to consider sensitive operational capabilities of the US and China sides. In addition, it is unlikely that the DoD would want to risk the public affairs optics of preparing for a future conflict, especially when it strives to build military diplomacy bridges with China through its various bilateral military dialogues. Such planning is beyond the scope of this report, and would be more appropriate to address in DoD’s various classified operational plans (OPLANs) and conceptual plans (CONPLANs).

Ultimately, not only does this report definitively lay out the latest on PLA activities vis-a-vis Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond, but it is instrumental for the DoD, since it can be used to justify the United States providing arms to Taiwan. Moreover, it serves as rationale for aspects of the DoD budget due to concerns over China’s growing military capabilities, while simultaneously showing the benefits of a cooperative military-to-military diplomatic approach with China.

Main point: The 2017 DoD China Military Power Report captures the latest domestic political developments in Taiwan, China’s new amphibious assault capabilities, the PLA’s new reorganization away from military regions toward theater commands, and Taiwan’s shifting force structure toward an all-volunteer force by 2019. While expressing the United States’ non-support for Taiwan independence, the report highlights that the United States will continue to provide defense articles and services to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.