As always, the US Department of Defense's 2017 report on military and security developments involving China carries some of the all-too-familiar biased interpretations of China's actions and intentions.
Portraying Chinese moves regarding its South China Sea territories and approach to related disputes as "coercion", for instance, it ignores Beijing's endeavors to ease tensions, and its latest consensuses with the Philippines and Vietnam on dispute management and bilateral consultations.
The accusation that China supports its modernization via "cyber theft, targeted foreign direct investment, and exploitation of the access of private Chinese nationals" to foreign technologies is also included as usual.
But that might well be all that can be said of the concerns China's growing presence elicits. Because although the Department of Defense openly identifies China as one of the US' "potential adversaries" — along with Russia, Iran and Democratic People's Republic of Korea — in its "Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request", the report appears genuine about the non-aggressive nature of Chinese military progress.
Despite being obvious, though unspoken, worries about the logistics base the Chinese navy is building in Djibouti, and likely new ones elsewhere, it acknowledges: "A greater overseas naval logistics and basing footprint would better position the PLA to expand its participation in non-combatant evacuation operations, search-and-rescue, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and sea lines of communication security."
No country can afford to leave its economic lifelines unprotected. In China's case, these span from the East and South China seas through the Strait of Malacca and Indian Ocean to Africa and Europe. And to every country concerned, China's participation in anti-piracy patrols and escort missions in the Gulf of Aden are an essential public service.
As the report observes, "China's expanding international economic interests are increasing demands for the PLAN (PLA Navy) to operate in more distant maritime environments to protect Chinese citizens, investments, and critical sea lines of communication". And as the inclusive, expansive Belt and Road Initiative proceeds, further overseas security guarantees will be required.
One critical, yet oft-omitted or distorted, aspect of the narrative of Chinese military developments is about purpose. The drafters of the report conclude "China's leaders remain focused on developing the capabilities to deter or defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party intervention — including by the United States — during a crisis or conflict". In other words, China's leaders are preoccupied with defense.
Since, as the report concedes, China's "military modernization program has become more focused on supporting missions beyond China's periphery, including power projection, sea lane security, counter piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief", there is a question to be answered: Why is China considered a potential adversary?