Last week The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) released yet another in a long line of annual reports with sensational claims about China’s military capabilities. Unfortunately, the USCC also continued to improperly source the information on which some of its claims are based. This year’s report generated alarming headlines about a rapid expansion of China’s nuclear forces. A quick look at a few of the sources behind those headlines suggests the USCC still needs to improve the quality of its work.
Since its establishment in October 2000, the commission has been unduly influenced by domestic political debates over U.S. China policy. The USCC appears to have adopted a position in those debates, which inhibits its ability to provide objective and reliable information.
A History of Mistrust
The commission was created in the waning days of the Clinton administration at the suggestion of the late Senator Robert Byrd on behalf of a group of Senators who opposed the Clinton administration’s push to grant China permanent normal trade relations. By making normal trade relations permanent, Clinton put an end to fourteen years of increasingly acrimonious annual debates within the Congress on the negative consequences of expanding U.S. trade with China. Byrd saw creating the USCC as a way of continuing those debates. In the conference report for the legislation that created the USCC, Byrd lent his venerable voice to a rising tide of congressional mistrust in the executive branch’s assessment of U.S.—China relations.
“Let’s have some group that will advise the Congress as to what impact the trade engaged in by China with the United States might have on our national security. We are not depending upon the administration. We are not depending upon the executive branch. We have a commission that will advise the Congress so that we will know, we will have some idea as to what the impact on national security is of this permanent normal trade relations legislation.”
At the time of the vote Congress was investigating a variety of concerns about the Clinton administration’s China policy. A select committee of the House chaired by Congressman Christopher Cox had recently issued a report accusing China of exploiting commercial ties with U.S. satellite manufacturers to steal information that could improve the accuracy of its ballistic missiles, and of using official exchanges between the U.S. and Chinese nuclear weapons laboratories to obtain data it used to modernize the warheads those missiles carried. Some political opponents of the administration, like New York Times columnist William Safire, accused President Clinton of selling these military secrets to the Chinese for campaign contributions. Administration supporters, like Senator Byrd, simply doubted the President’s judgment, and felt that Congress needed an independent source of reliable information in order to come to its own conclusions.
But the way the USCC was formed and operated compromised its objectivity. Democrats appointed commissioners inclined to oppose or restrict trade with China and Republicans appointed commissioners who were already convinced China was a serious security threat. Several years after the USCC was established a democratic commissioner told UCS that the Democrats on the USCC generally deferred to their Republican counterparts on security issues and the Republicans usually left the economic issues to the Democrats. The USCC quickly became a platform for China skeptics in both parties to challenge various aspects of U.S. engagement with the communist regime. Since the commissioners already held strong opinions on the issues they cared about, they tended to collect data that supported those opinions while ignoring countervailing evidence. And because they felt their pro-engagement opponents dominated the stream of China-related information coming from the executive branch, the USCC never seriously questioned this practice. They seemed to feel their role was to act as a counterweight to U.S. advocates of pro-engagement policies, rather than to provide objective information.
Byrd eventually became disillusioned with the USCC. It was never the independent source of reliable information he intended it to be. His staff told UCS the late senator tried to reform the commission, on multiple occasions, but ultimately failed to alter its role as a platform for critics of engagement.
Because the commission’s conclusions have become predictable, the USCC’s annual reports lack credibility. Many policy-makers, both in the executive and in Congress, have told UCS repeatedly that the commission has no substantive impact on U.S. China policy. Ironically, the reports it produces appear to be clouded by the same aura of mistrust the commission was originally created to dispel.
Some of the claims on the supposedly rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal that appear in this year’s report are likely to further undermine the commission’s reputation.
Questionable Use of Sources on China’s Nuclear Arsenal
USCC annual reports are filled with copious footnotes that give it the appearance of a well-researched paper. But the notes can be deceiving. There is a telling example in a footnote related to claims about China’s nuclear arsenal.
Pages 301-302 of this year’s report contain the following claim:
“By the end of 2014, the PLA Navy’s JIN SSBN probably will conduct its first patrol while armed with the JL–2 submarine-launched ballistic missile. China also is developing its next-generation SSBN and submarine-launched ballistic missile, called the Type 096 SSBN and the JL–3, respectively. The new SSBN likely will feature improved stealth over its predecessor, the JIN, which is a very noisy submarine and could be vulnerable to U.S. and Japanese antisubmarine capabilities. Additionally, the new submarine-launched ballistic missile probably will have a longer range and be more lethal than the JL–2.”
Footnote 71, which appears at the end of this paragraph, supposedly substantiates these claims. But unlike a well-researched paper, the note contains a list of sources but does not identify which sources support the various claims contained in the footnoted paragraph. That makes it difficult for readers to check.
But worse than that, the more authoritative sources listed in footnote 71 don’t support the claims made in the paragraph. They contradict them.
The first listed source cannot be checked. It is an interview conducted by the commission with J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based journalist. The second source is an article titled China’s Transition to a More Credible Nuclear Deterrent, written by Michael Chase and published in the July 2013 edition of the academic journal Asia Policy. The author is an Associate Professor in the Warfare Analysis and Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College who has written extensively on China nuclear weapons program. In the cited article Prof. Chase notes that “although the new Jin-class submarines have started entering service with the [Chinese Navy], China has not yet completed development of the JL-2.” That contradicts the USCC’s “judgment” that the submarines could begin patrols within the next few months “while armed with the JL-2.”
Footnote 71 also cites an earlier article by Professor Chase that mentions the claims about the Type 096 SSBN and the JL-3—the new missile the new submarine will supposedly carry. He mentions it in the other cited article as well. But both times he does so with considerable skepticism. After detailing all of the problems China encountered in decades of effort directed at deploying a sea-based nuclear deterrent, Chase and co-author Benjamin S. Purser III note that there are “media reports in Taiwan” that “suggest” China “eventually may develop and deploy a follow-on SSBN and SLBM combination.” The USCC report removes all doubt and asserts China “is developing its next-generation SSBN and submarine-launched ballistic missile.” Chase and Purser paint a picture of slow, halting “gradual progress” in China’s nuclear-armed submarine program, not a rapid build-up. Moreover, the authors emphasize there are a number of “unanswered questions” about how China plans to deploy its nuclear-armed submarines when it finally “resolves its technical difficulties with the JL-2.” Chase and Purser cite several sources that question “whether the [Chinese Navy] will conduct routine peacetime deterrence patrols with nuclear weapons.” The USCC, however, makes it appear as if China is going to place the subs on armed patrols any day now.
The other sources in footnote 71 are the “Taiwan media reports” mentioned by Chase and Purser. The first is a February 2013 op-ed by Tseng Fu-sheng published on-line by WantChinaTimes.com, the English news website of the Taiwan based China Times News Group. Tseng leads with the claims about the new submarine and missile but gives no indication whatsoever about the source of these claims. The second is an 23 May 2011 article in the Taipei Times by J. Michael Cole, the same person identified earlier in the footnote as the subject of a USCC interview. In that article Mr. Cole calls into question a 2011 report from UCS on the status and evolution of China’s nuclear arsenal. Cole’s critique is essentially an interview with Richard Fisher, who has a long-term relationship with the USCC originating in his role as a senior staff member of same select House committee, chaired by Congressman Christopher Cox, that played a role in Byrd’s decision to create the USCC. Cole repeats the claims about the new Chinese submarine and missile but, as in the other Taiwan media report, gives no indication of the source.
The final citation in footnote 71 is an August 2009 report from the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. The USCC cites page 22 of the report, which is a graphic on noise reductions in Chinese submarines. But the Type 096 SSBN, which the USCC report claims will be quieter than China’s existing nuclear-armed submarines, does not appear on the graphic, or anywhere else in the ONI report.
Had the USCC been doing its job it would have tried to identify the source and credibility of what could be very important information about a new Chinese SSBN and SLBM. But it didn’t. It simply collected the sensational and unsubstantiated claims repeated by a pair of Taiwan-based journalists, mixed them in with a few citations of related works by serious U.S. scholars that, when examined, raise questions about those claims, and then released this unsubstantiated information in its annual report to Congress. Despite all the footnotes, the USCC conducted no original research that could help Congress evaluate these claims.
The Value of an Extra Hour of Effort
To see what useful information about this issue is available and could have been found by USCC researchers, I did a quick search on the internet. Here’s what I found in about an hour.
My search revealed the claims about the new Chinese SSBN and SLBM have been circulating for more than six years. A 3 March 2008 article on NTI’s Global Security Newswire (GSN) mentions the submarine claims and links them to a 29 February 2008 story by Andrei Chang, the editor-in-chief of the Kanwa Information Center (KWIC), a Hong Kong-based news service registered in Canada. The NTI article states China released pictures of the new sub but does not provide a link to the images. A Google search for the images returns a few drawings but no images linked to an official Chinese source.
I also found that Thomas M. Skypek, while working as a fellow for the National Review Institute, cited a 5 April 2008 article by Chang as his source for the submarine claims in a 23 November 2010 paper published by CSIS titled China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent in 2020: Four Alternative Futures for China’s SSBN Fleet. A Google search on the link provided by Skypek reveals that Chang’s claims about the new submarine and missile have been cited in numerous U.S. studies over the past six years that do not appear in footnote 71 of the USCC report. Curiously, when that same link is entered into the address line of a web browser it returns an empty page on the UPIAsia website. A search on the title provided by Skypek returns equally disappointing results. But after a little hunting and pecking I was able to find Chang’s oft-cited article, which was published a day earlier on UPI’s main website under a less alarming title that did not contain the word “rising” after the words “China’s nuclear stockpile.” Chang identifies the source of the images mentioned in the earlier GSN article as coming from “China Central Television,” but he does not provide a link to the source.
Politics Trumps Substance
China may be developing a new submarine and a new missile for it to carry, and understanding the details could be important. I plan to follow up on my initial hour of searching to see if I can locate the source of the six-year old claims about China’s new nuclear submarines, which appear to be based on a few pictures in an old CCTV news report. The Pentagon’s most recent Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China also asserted China is developing the new submarine but did not provide any supporting references. Curiously, the USCC failed to cite the Pentagon report in footnote 71. This could be due to the USCC’s original mandate, which was to provide reliable information to Congress that does not rely upon the executive branch. Or it might be a manifestation of the USCC’s historical origins in the acrimonious debates that have punctuated Congressional involvement in U.S. China policy in recent decades.
Whatever the reason, the USCC should work to correct the deficiencies in its research methods as soon as possible.