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Time to Retire Annual Reports on Chinese Military Power

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Before he left office, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered a freeze on “the enormous amounts of taskings for reports and studies” conducted by the Department of Defense, including studies requested by Congress. Gates noted that “there is little basis to determine whether the value gained is worth the considerable time and resources expended to generate reports and studies.”

The Congressionally mandated Pentagon annual report on Chinese military power is decidedly not worth the expense. Originally conceived in the context of a highly politicized battle over China policy that reached a fever pitch when New York Times columnist William Safire accused then President Clinton of selling military secrets to the Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions, the annual reports have always been more political theater than military intelligence.

During the George W. Bush administration the reports were praised by hard-line China hawks looking for confirmation of their worst fears about the military intentions of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  But there were obvious problems with some of the information that found its way into the reports, including sensational claims about secret Chinese space weapons based on highly questionable sources, such as Chinese blog posts, that were not properly investigated by US defense analysts. The reports began to be somewhat toned down after some of these problems were highlighted.

The Obama administration further changed the tone and content of the annual report in ways that disappointed the China hawks. Recent editions, including the current report, contain none of the startling revelations Congressional sponsors had come to expect from a document whose original purpose was to drum up support for a hard-line policy on China rather than to acquire and relay accurate information.

Congressional dissatisfaction with past Pentagon report assessments of Chinese nuclear weapons capabilities led the House Armed Services Committee to authorize two new studies based on recent claims that China may have ten times more nuclear weapons than current Pentagon estimates. This despite the fact those claims are based on a hand-full of Chinese blog posts with even less credibility than the internet rumors behind earlier claims about Chinese “parasite satellites.”

Government reports are only useful if they are conducted objectively by trained researchers using reliable methodologies. Reports that are driven by politics are a clear waste of time and money.

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About the author: Gregory has lived and worked in China for the better part of the last twenty-five years facilitating exchanges between academic, governmental, and professional organizations in both countries. Since joining the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2002, he has focused on promoting and conducting dialog between Chinese and American experts on nuclear arms control and space security. His areas of expertise are Chinese foreign and security policy, Chinese space program, international arms control, cross-cultural communication. He received his Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1994.

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