Chinese Military At Least Two Decades Away from Rivaling U.S. Forces, Concludes Newly Released Council Task Force Report
from Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Chinese Military At Least Two Decades Away from Rivaling U.S. Forces, Concludes Newly Released Council Task Force Report

May 21, 2003 4:17 pm (EST)

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May 22, 2003 - China is pursuing a deliberate course of military modernization, but is at least two decades behind the United States in terms of military technology and capability. Moreover, if the United States continues to dedicate significant resources to improving its military forces, as expected, the balance between the United States and China, both globally and in Asia, is likely to remain decisively in America’s favor beyond the next twenty years. This is the central finding of the Council-sponsored Independent Task Force on Chinese Military Power, led by former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Admiral USN (Ret.) Joseph Prueher.

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China is a growing regional power. If current trends continue (e.g., if Japan continues to eschew a role as a major regional military power), the Task Force expects that China will become the predominant military power among the nations of East Asia. China’s current force structure provides effective defense against any effort to invade and seize Chinese territory.

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The Task Force notes, however, that while China will have the enduring advantage of proximity to Asia, it is the maritime, aerospace, and technological dimensions of military power in which Beijing has traditionally been weakest and the United States traditionally strongest. Consequently, a continued robust U.S. naval and air presence can offset the ability of Beijing to leverage future military capabilities into real advantage against U.S. and allied interests in the Asia-Pacific region over the next twenty years, if not longer.

The Task Force, comprised of a diverse group of former government officials, China experts, and other scholars, hopes that its findings will minimize in discussions about China the frequent alarmism and occasional triumphalism that characterized American debates about the Soviet-American military balance during the Cold War.

The report thus issues a double warning: first, don’t overreact to the large-scale modernization program of China’s military; second, don’t under-react based on the relative backwardness of the People’s Liberation Army compared to U.S. military power. Attributing capabilities to the People’s Liberation Army it does not have and will not attain for many years might risk the misallocation of scarce U.S. resources. Overreaction could lead the United States to adopt policies and undertake actions that become a self-fulfilling prophecy, provoking an otherwise avoidable antagonistic relationship with China that would not serve long-term U.S. interests. Under-reaction, on the other hand, might allow China someday to catch unaware the United States or its allies in Asia.

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The one area of near-term concern, the report concludes, is in the Taiwan Strait. Here, China is more likely to use new technologies and asymmetric strategies, not to invade Taiwan outright, but rather to achieve political goals such as forcing the resumption of political dialogue between the two sides on the mainland’s terms. While U.S. forces would ultimately prevail in a military crisis or conflict, Beijing might be able to impose serious costs on the U.S. military if the United States concluded that it was necessary to commit air and naval forces to battle with China in defense of Taiwan.

The Task Force emphasizes that China’s military modernization takes place against the backdrop of much broader changes in China’s economy, society, and politics. In technology, although China has emerged in recent years as an increasingly powerful competitor in global markets, converting economic into military power will proceed more slowly. Chinese capabilities to develop, produce, and—in particular—integrate indigenously sophisticated military systems are limited. While China is trying to offset this weakness by purchasing advanced technologies from other countries, the Task Force judges that these purchases will fall short of fully compensating for domestic shortfalls.

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The report finds that, for the foreseeable future, China will be preoccupied with domestic problems—political succession, public health issues, non-performing loans and a potential banking crisis, rising unemployment, growing inequality, and corruption. To address these domestic concerns, China’s leaders need a peaceful international environment in general and good relations with the United States in particular.

The Task Force believes that in spite of the impressive growth rate in military spending over many years, the likelihood of ever-increasing demands for government funding in areas other than military development will in the long term constrain the pace of military modernization. Improving China’s armed forces must compete alongside the challenges posed by social security, education, SARS, AIDS and other public health needs, science and technology, and large-scale public work projects for resources and attention. While improving, the ability of the central government to collect fiscal revenue still is limited. With growing resource demands, any economic downturn would sharpen the competition between military and non-military spending.

Influencing the political future of Taiwan is a focal point of Chinese military development and will remain so for the next decade. If there are major shifts away from China’s current modernization priorities, the Task Force finds that America’s present rate of force buildup and maintenance of a robust forward presence in Asia would allow the United States to respond to any potential problems that may arise. The continued dedication of significant resources to the U.S. military ensures that U.S. capabilities do not stand still, and thus that the military balance with China will remain in America’s favor.

Established in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is a nonpartisan membership organization, publisher, and think tank, dedicated to increasing America’s understanding of the world and contributing ideas to U.S. foreign policy. The Council accomplishes this mainly by promoting constructive debates, clarifying world issues, producing reports, and publishing Foreign Affairs, the leading journal on global issues.

Full text of the Council’s Independent Task Force, Chinese Military Power

Read the transcript from the Task Force Roll-Out: Chinese Military Power


KENNETH W. ALLEN is a Senior Analyst in “Project Asia,” the Asian security studies center at the CNA Corporation. He served twenty-one years in the U.S. Air Force, including assignments in Taiwan, Japan, China, and Headquarters Pacific Air Forces.

DESAIX ANDERSON is a writer and artist. He served as Executive Director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization as well as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, covering Japan, China, and Korea.

PAUL BRACKEN is a Professor of Management and Political Science at Yale University.

HAROLD BROWN, Chairman of the Independent Task Force on Chinese Military Power, is a Partner at Warburg Pincus and Counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as Secretary of Defense during the Carter administration and was the first Secretary of Defense to visit the People’s Republic of China (in 1980).

THOMAS J. CHRISTENSEN is a Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

BERNARD D. COLE is Professor of International History at the National War College. He previously served for thirty years in the U.S. Navy.

RICHARD N. COOPER is Maurits C. Boas Professor of Economics at Harvard University.

He previously served as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and was Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs.

C. RICHARD D’AMATO (*) is Vice Chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a former delegate in the Maryland General Assembly, and a retired Navy Reserve Captain. He previously was Foreign Policy Director for the Senate Democratic Leader and Staff Director for Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Jim Jeffords.

JOHN DEUTCH is Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He previously served as Director of Central Intelligence, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Technology, and Under Secretary of Energy.

WILLIAM H. DONALDSON+ is Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He co-founded Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, is a past Chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, and served as Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance in the Nixon Administration.

JUNE TEUFEL DREYER is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. She is currently a Commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

DAVID M. FINKELSTEIN is the Director of “Project Asia” at The CNA Corporation. A retired U.S. Army China Foreign Area Officer, he served in multiple China-related assignments throughout his career, including Assistant Defense Intelligence Officer for East Asia and the Pacific in the Pentagon, on the Joint Staff, and teaching Chinese history at West Point.

THOMAS S. FOLEY is a lawyer with the firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld and a former U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Prior to becoming Ambassador, he served in Congress from 1965 to 1994.

JOHN FRANKENSTEIN is a Research Associate and adjunct faculty member of the Weatherhead East Asia Institute, Columbia University.

BATES GILL holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

BONNIE S. GLASER has served as a consultant on Asian affairs for the U.S. government since 1982. She is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and at Pacific Forum, CSIS.

JOHN L. HOLDEN is President of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He was based in Beijing and Hong Kong for fifteen years while doing business in China.

ALASTAIR IAIN JOHNSTON (*) is the Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs at Harvard University.

ARNOLD KANTER (*) is a Principal and founding member of the Scowcroft Group. He served as Under Secretary of State from 1991 to 1993 and is currently a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

ROBERT A. KAPP is President of the U.S.-China Business Council, the principal organization of U.S. companies and firms conducting trade and investment with China.

CHARLES R. KAYE is Co-President of Warburg Pincus.

MICHAEL KREPON is the founding President of the Henry L. Stimson Center. His most recent book is Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense, and the Nuclear Future. (Palgrave, 2003).

NICHOLAS R. LARDY is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Economics.

DEBORAH M. LEHR is Chairman of MBP Consulting and previously served as Deputy

Assistant U.S. Trade Representative at the U.S. Trade Representative Office and Director

for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

KENNETH G. LIEBERTHAL is Professor of Political Science and William Davidson Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan. He previously served as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Asia at the National Security Council.

WINSTON LORD is Co-Chairman of the International Rescue Committee. He previously served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Clinton administration, Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

MICHAEL A. MCDEVITT (*) is Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the CNA Corporation and founder of CNA’s “Project Asia.” A retired Rear Admiral, he served in Asia policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as J-5 at Pacific Command.

JAMES C. MULVENON is the Deputy Director of the RAND Center for Asia-Pacific Policy.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY (*) is a consultant to the Defense Department, a research affiliate at the National Defense University, and a Councilor of the Atlantic Council. He formerly served as Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning and as Special Assistant for Asian Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

JONATHAN D. POLLACK (*) is Professor of Asian and Pacific Studies and Director of the Strategic Research Department at the Naval War College.

JOSEPH W. PRUEHER, Vice Chairman of the Independent Task Force on Chinese Military Power, is a Consulting Professor and Senior Advisor on the Stanford-Harvard Preventive Defense Program. He previously served as U.S. Ambassador to China; is a retired Navy Admiral; and was formerly Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command.

ERVIN J. ROKKE is President of Moravian College. He is a retired Lieutenant General and former President of the National Defense University.

ROBERT S. ROSS is a Professor of Political Science at Boston College and a Research Associate of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University.

J. S. ROY is Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, Inc. He previously served as Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to China.

ANDREW SCOBELL is Associate Research Professor and a specialist on Asia at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.

ADAM SEGAL, Director of the Independent Task Force on Chinese Military Power, is the Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

DAVID SHAMBAUGH is Professor and Director of the China Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and a nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution; he is presently on leave as a 2002–2003 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

SUSAN L. SHIRK is a Professor in the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and Research Director at the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. She also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 1997 to July 2000.

WALTER B. SLOCOMBE++ is a member of the Washington, D.C., law firm, Caplin & Drysdale. He served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 1994 to 2001 and was Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Policy from 1993 to 1994.

KAREN SUTTER is Director of Business Advisory Services at the U.S.-China Business Council. She previously served as the Director of the Atlantic-Pacific Program at The Atlantic Council of the United States.

MICHAEL D. SWAINE is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Co-Director of CEIP’s China Program. He was formerly a Senior Political Scientist and first recipient of the Asia Research Chair at RAND.

G. R. THOMAN is a Managing Partner of Corporate Perspectives, LLC. He managed Chinese businesses in four companies as a former CEO of Xerox and is a past Group Executive of IBM, Nabisco Foods and American Express.

LARRY D. WELCH is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C. Before assuming his current position, he served for thirty-nine years in U.S. military forces, from private in the U.S. Army National Guard to Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force.

DONALD S. ZAGORIA is Project Director of the U.S.-China-Taiwan Relations Program at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

+ Mr. Donaldson participated as a member of the Task Force until his appointment as Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2003.

++ Mr. Slocombe participated as a member of the Task Force until his appointment in May 2003 as Senior Security Advisor (Ministry of Defence) of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

(*) Individual largely concurs with report but submitted an additional view.


RICHARD K. BETTS is an Adjunct Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Professor and Director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and a member of the National Commission on Terrorism.

BENJAMIN T. BRAKE is a Research Associate in China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

MARCUS W. BRAUCHLI is National Editor at the Wall Street Journal. Previously, he was the Journal’s China Bureau Chief and before that its Asia correspondent.

JEROME A. COHEN is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a Professor at New York University Law School, specializing on China.

ELIZABETH C. ECONOMY is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

KARL EIKENBERRY is a Major General in the U.S. Army and is the Security Coordinator and Chief of the Office of Military Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He formerly served as Defense Attaché to China and was Senior Country Director for China and Taiwan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

EVAN A. FEIGENBAUM is a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. He was previously the Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Initiative at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

RICHARD L. GARWIN is Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow and Director in Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as IBM Fellow Emeritus in the IBM Research Division.

ERIC HEGINBOTHAM is a Senior Fellow in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

LONNIE HENLEY is a Senior Defense Intelligence Expert for Strategic Warning in the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is a retired Army China Foreign Area Officer and has worked in a variety of China- and Korea-related positions.

EUGENE A. MATTHEWS is a Senior Fellow in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

DANIEL RANKIN is Special Assistant in the Office of Dr. Harold Brown at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

DAVID E. SANGER is a White House correspondent for the New York Times.

DOUGLAS SEAY is a member of the staff of the Committee on International Relations in the House of Representatives, where his areas of responsibility include China, Russia and the former Soviet Union, nonproliferation, and public diplomacy, among others.

JAMES J. SHINN is a Visiting Professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Contact: Lisa Shields, Vice President, Communications, (212) 434-9888


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