The List

5 Things the Pentagon Isn't Telling Us About the Chinese Military

Here's what you won't find in the Defense Department’s latest report on China's military rise.

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.

2. What is China's nuclear strategy?

The Pentagon concludes that "China's nuclear arsenal currently consists of about 50-75 silo-based, liquid-fueled and road-mobile, solid-fueled ICBMs." The Pentagon doesn't attempt to estimate the total number of nuclear weapons that China possesses, although it's generally assumed to have a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the U.S. cache of over 5,000 nukes. Nonetheless, theories that Beijing possesses or plans to develop a much bigger nuclear weapons stockpile just won't die down. Speculation last year that China may have as many as 3,500 nuclear warheads -- predicated on rumors of a sprawling network of underground tunnels -- has been reliably trashed, but some still argue that Beijing sees a strategic opportunity in building a nuclear arsenal that could match or even exceed that of the United States in the coming decades.

China currently has only two Jin-class Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) in service, the Pentagon tells us, and the missiles designed to arm the subs are not yet operational (though when they are, they will be nuclear-capable). Two submarines aren't much of a strategic deterrent for an aspiring superpower, but the true scope of the SSBN fleet that China plans to build remains unknown.

3. What is the Chinese navy up to?

American analysts often use the term "string of pearls" to describe Beijing's supposed strategy of establishing a network of foreign naval bases, especially in the Indian Ocean, but the Chinese don't. The latest Pentagon report does not discuss whether China plans to create a U.S.-style network of permanent forward bases for the PLA Navy.

Nonetheless, there is no shortage of speculation that China will eventually deploy military forces to port facilities it has constructed in places like Burma, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Seychelles has invited China to use its ports as resupply points for Chinese ships, but Beijing has insisted that this is not the establishment of a first foreign base, unconvincingly calling it a "re-supply port." The "places or bases" debate has already been running for some years, and it will continue to rumble on while Beijing remains tight-lipped about its long-range ambitions.

The Pentagon report also struggles to shed light on China's future aircraft carrier program, beyond the existence of the single ex-Soviet carrier that is currently undergoing sea trials. "Some components of China's first indigenously produced carrier may already be under construction," it suggests, adding that "China likely will build multiple aircraft carriers and associated support ships over the next decade." That's guesswork. It's unknown whether China envisages merely a couple of working aircraft carriers as floating trophies designed to symbolize the country's arrival as a world power, a handful of combat-capable carriers to drive home its territorial claims in the South China Sea, or a larger number of U.S.-style carrier battle groups with a mission to project force globally.

4. What kind of space capabilities is China developing?

China is becoming increasingly proficient in space. The report mentions that China is assembling its own GPS-style satellite network, blasted the Tiangong-1 spacelab into orbit in 2011, and has developed a ground-launched anti-satellite missile to improve its counter-space capabilities. But the Pentagon neglects to mention one of China's most ambitious space programs: the development of the Shenlong spaceplane and the possible associated development of advanced propulsion systems, whose existence increases the risk of a military space race with the United States.

It is not yet known whether Shenlong is anything more than a hi-tech experiment. But because of Shenlong's military potential, any information about it could allay or exacerbate growing fears within the U.S. military that the PLA Air Force has more than a passing interest in space operations.

5. Paper tiger or fire-breathing dragon?

There are many other imponderables in China's military. Chinese cyber-espionage has been effective in obtaining foreign military secrets, but it's unclear how much of this know-how has been successfully and usefully absorbed into China's own military programs and doctrines. The overhaul of the Chinese defense industry has revolutionized the country's indigenous capabilities, but how close has China really got to ironing out the kinks in its military-industrial structures and processes?

All of the unknowns feed into one larger question: Is the PLA worth the hype? China's military is untested; it hasn't fought a major campaign since a disastrous war with Vietnam in 1979. In the event of conflict, would its performance live up to the nation's expectations, or would disadvantages like corruption and inexperience critically undermine its war-fighting capability? Is the 21st-century PLA even designed to be used, or does it exist to prop up and counterbalance the Communist Party domestically in a world where Beijing calculates that large-scale warfare is increasingly unlikely? Maybe the answers to these questions are buried in some secure vault at the Pentagon, but they're not in its latest report.

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The List

Sonnets for the Mujahideen

The militant movement has a little-examined sensitive side.

Poetry of the Taliban is the first-ever English-language collection of verse from the Afghan militant group. Edited by Kandahar-based researchers and journalists Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the book is an attempt to broaden international understanding of what historian Faisal Devji refers to in the introduction as the Taliban movement's "aesthetic dimension."

Afghanistan, like other Muslim countries in the region, has a long tradition of popular verse, and the Taliban -- both its official leadership and individual fighters -- have embraced the form. Despite the group's austere interpretation of Islam, which extends to a complete ban on instrumental music, recordings of poetry recitations are frequently traded between fighters on CDs and MP3s and often serve as soundtracks for the movement's propaganda videos.

Shakespearean love sonnets they are not. But those expecting doctrinaire propaganda might be surprised by the range of the verse in the book. "The Taliban are known not only in the West, but in much of the Muslim world, too for their strict conservatism rather than for any delicate feelings of humanity, yet the poetry associated with them is replete with such emotions," Devji writes.

Yes, there are paeans to the glory of the battlefield and vicious parodies of enemy leaders, but also a surprising emphasis on comradeship and some chaste and ambiguous references to romantic love. In its ideology, the poetry tends more toward Afghan nationalism than global jihad, with frequent reference to past invaders, from the British in the 19th century to the Soviets in the 20th.

Poetry of the Taliban is currently on sale in Britain and will be published in the United States on July 17. Here are six examples from the collection:

May I be sacrificed for you, my homeland

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed for your high, high mountains,
For your flowerlike chest and pines

May I be sacrificed for you, my homeland, each region of yours is beauty,
Each of your stones are rubies, each bush of yours is medicine.
Each village of yours is a trench, and every youth of yours is sacrificing for you,
Each mountain and hill of yours is a calamity for your enemies.

May I be sacrificed for your dusty deserts and green valleys,
For your flowerlike chest and pines.

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed for you; I will sacrifice my head and property for you,
I will give you my body's blood in order to make you fresh and thriving.

I will murder all the enemies of your religion and prosperity,
I will gradually make you the holy necklace of Asia.

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed, for your hot trenches,
For your flowerlike chest and pines.

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed for your Helmand, your chest,
For your mountains, Uruzgan, your Kandahar-like trenches,
For Zabul's trenches and Ghazni's honorable battlefields,
For Gurbat, Gurbat Wardak, Maidan and Lowgar.

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed for your great youths,
For your flowerlike chest and pines.

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed for you while my homeland, Kunar is alive,
Your youths from Paktika and Farah are heroes.
Your people from Nangarhar and Laghman are successful,
You have trained famous sons.

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed for your dry ruins,
For your flowerlike chest and pines.

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed for your Hindu Kush and Mahipar,
For your Shamshad, Shah-I Kot, Spin Ghar and Tur Ghar.
My ditch-filled country! You have trenches all over.
Your body is Maiwand, Maiwand, you are Habibi's beloved.

May I be sacrificed for your burnt wounds,
For your flower-like chest and black pines.

Transcribed from a recording made during the 1990s


Your love aside, what else is there?
It is like approaching the desert.
Like the dust on your footsteps.
Look! The crazy one lay down.
In your love up to the sky
Means rising from the earth.
Those who burn with the fire of zeal
Are shackled at this time.
Your cheeks in the spring,
Red like flowers.
Admonisher! Give us advice!
My head has burst.
With the heart, I behave correctly with everyone,
But they cheat me.
Your eyelashes never miss
When they are turned against someone.
Your looks have grabbed my heart,
Its heart's habits are like that of a thief.

—Pordel Pustan

Dec. 23, 2007

Condolences of Karzai and Bush

O hello, my lord Bush;
Now that you've gone, who did you leave me with?

My slave, dear Karzai!
Don't be upset; I am handing you over to Obama.

These words make me happy.
Tell me, how long will I be here?

Karzai! Wait for a year;
Don't come till I send someone else there.

Life is tough without you my darling;
I share in your grief: I am coming to you.

As for death, we'll both die;
Alas, we'll be first and next.

Give me your hand as you go;
Turn your face as you disappear.


Sorrow takes over and overwhelms me;
My darling! Take care of yourself and I will take care of myself.

Mountains separate you from me;
Say hello to the pale moon and I'll do so as well.

—Author unknown

Dec. 18, 2008

How many are the NGOs!

Wasting time, they merely sit in their offices,
How many are the NGOs!
Their salaries, more than ministers',
How many are the NGOs!
Wasting time, respecting recommendations,
Those who have no recommendations are forgotten.
How many are the NGOs!
When you are interviewed, they ask for recommendations.
During interviews they make tension suddenly;
How many are the NGOs!
When there is a vacancy, boys are appointed;
They will not admit that they are over-aged,
How many are the NGOs!
If the applicants are girls, they will be admitted without interview;
Women in large numbers but men are few.
How many are the NGOs!
Most people who broke with the government move to NGOs;
The reason is, salaries are in dollars,
How many are the NGOs!
People come from here and there taking salaries in dollars;
They don't work in the government because they have their hearts broken,
How many are the NGOs!
If someone gets to be head of an NGO, then he is rich,
So they enjoy a better living situation than Karzai.
How many are the NGOs!
Perform the tricks, spend large amounts;
It is not clear where these people come from;
How many are the NGOs!
A meddler strolls around with his bodyguards;
That Afghan doesn't think about the situation:
How many are the NGOs!

—Matiullah Sarachawal
Dec. 23, 2007


Hot, hot trenches are full of joy;
Attacks on the enemy are full of joy.
Guns in our hands and magazine belts over my shoulders;
Grenades on my chest are full of joy.
They enemy can't resist when he sees them;
Black hair and stiff moustaches are full of joy.
He who fights in the field is manly;
Houses full of black-haired women are full of joy.
We become eager two times after hearing it:
The clang, clang and rockets are full of joy.
Leave the lips and spring, O poet!
Poems full of feeling are full of joy.
Jawad, I say, on the true path of jihad,
All kinds of troubles are full of joy.

May 21, 2008

Night Raid:

Those who have ruined my life's harvest
Made a night raid on my home again.
The Red armies came and returned defeated;
They left the destroyed Afghan valleys behind them.
In any direction that I look, I see the deserted garders;
The unity of my home has been hit by separation.
Who made a night raid on my home again?

What complaint can you make of the Red, this is their rule;
The forest wolves will always eat meat.
What else should humans expect from the wolves?
They have hit my mount and Hamun's as well.
Who made a night raid on my home again?

Somebody extended the hand of the cruel onto my lap,
That's why there is no respect for the country's Ulemaa'.
The turbans fell from the heads of our elders today,
They have set our people on fire.
Who made a night raid on my home again?

The house of my history and culture was looted today,
Each slave is now riding me.
The teeth of the East and West have become like pliers on my muscles.
I have stepped into his hall in his presence.
Who made a night raid on my home again?

Wise up, O Afghan!
This scene of grief is made for you.
Be zealous and grab him by his neck,
This is seared on your heart from the history of yesterday.
Who made a night raid on my home again?

—Author unknown

Aug. 8, 2008

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