China this week revealed new details about the size of its military in a report that U.S.-based analysts largely dismissed for its omissions on defense spending, weapons systems and strategic ambitions.
The document, posted April 16 on People's Daily Online, the English-version website of the state-run newspaper, for the first time included a headcount of People's Liberation Army by service. There are 850,000 troops in the army, 235,000 in the navy and 398,000 in the air force, it states, for a total of 1.48 million.
The report, "The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces," didn't include a similar tally for the PLA's Second Artillery Force, the more secretive unit that oversees nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, or its civilian workforce. China has previously said its military has 2.3 million members.
"These are basically a few meager bones they're throwing our way," Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said of the manpower numbers. "There's almost no really serious issue on PLA defense that this paper deals with adequately."
The report, which is published about every two years, lacks basic information about China's defense budget, developmental weapons programs such as the J-20 stealth fighter jet and reasoning for maritime expansion, Cronin said. The Defense Department in a 2012 report estimated China's annual military-related expenditures at $120 billion to $180 billion.
"China prefers to gain leverage and power by ensuring that there is a degree of deception and lack of transparency," Cronin said. Hopefully, upcoming discussions between Chinese and U.S. military officials will yield deeper insights, he said.
U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on April 19 left for a weeklong trip to Asia. While he plans to visit South Korea and Japan, he will spend most of his time in China, meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Fang Fenghui, and possibly President Xi Jinping.
Topics likely to be discussed include China's alliance with North Korea, which has recently threatened nuclear attacks against South Korea and its allies, as well as the U.S. strategic shift away from the ground wars of the past decade and toward threats in the Asia-Pacific region.
China's military report references the changing U.S. posture with concern. "Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser," it states, in a not-so-subtle reference to the U.S.
The tone of the document isn't as optimistic as the previous one, according to Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The lack of information about military spending was "somewhat disappointing," she said.
"It would have been more significant if they had released the budget for each of the services, not just the number of people in them," she said. "We don't know how they allocate money to each of the services, or for procurement or any of these issues."
Arguably the most noteworthy part of the the report is a section that seems to indicate the Chinese air force has the responsibility over the army, navy and police force of providing territorial air defense, according to Roger Cliff, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
"It would suggest they've been able to break down the organizational walls, the bureaucratic barriers, that would start to truly enable joint operations, at least in the air defense, which has been a longstanding weakness of the PLA," he said, though he cautioned, "I'm not sure if what they wrote is actually true."