Think of it like an iceberg: The top lies in plain sight, but a lot more hides beneath the surface.
In its annual appraisal of the Chinese military published last week, the U.S. Department of Defense seems to be describing an object it finds both familiar and mysterious. The report certainly answers many of the important issues concerning China's military, including its attempts to develop an anti-ship ballistic missile and its continuing fixation on Taiwan.
Yet for many crucial aspects of China's strategy, the Pentagon seems like it's just guessing. Here are the five most important questions about Beijing's defense strategy that remain stubbornly unanswered.
1. What are China's long-term defense spending plans?
Although China's official 2012 defense budget is $106 billion, an 11 percent increase over last year and a fourfold increase from a decade ago, the Pentagon places China's total military spending at somewhere between $120 and $180 billion. "Estimating actual PLA military expenditures is difficult because of poor accounting transparency and China's still incomplete transition from a command economy," the report notes, referring to the People's Liberation Army.
There have been no credible estimates of Beijing's long-term defense spending plans. On its current trajectory, China could overtake the United States as the world's biggest military spender in the 2020s or 2030s -- but there are too many unknown variables to accurately predict if this will happen. Is the PLA budget pegged to the growth of the wider economy, or have China's generals been promised double-digit growth even if the country suffers an economic downturn? Will growth slow once certain modernization milestones have been achieved, or are there no plans to close the PLA checkbook? What's clear is that the more funding the PLA receives, the closer it will come to achieving parity with the U.S. military.