Today's date:
Winter 2004

China's Might: Deterrent or Threat?

Jehangir Pocha, a Beijing-based Indian essayist, wrote about the rising "soft power" of India and China for the Winter 2003 issue of NPQ.

Beijing -- The rearming of China, once billed as the most significant threat to United States power and world order, receded from world attention with the dual wars against terrorism and Iraq.

But last November, even as US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood shoulder-to-shoulder in London to denounce terrorism as the greatest danger to the world, Wang Zaixi, the Chinese vice minister at the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), rattled governments and stock markets by warning that war with Taiwan "may become unavoidable" if the island continued to pursue independence from mainland China.

It was one of the most direct threats ever thrown at Taiwan, and by extension the US, its perceived guarantor. And it reminded the world of the jingoistic nationalism underpinning Chinese thinking, making it hyper-sensitive to sovereignty and prestige issues at a time when it is enmeshed in serious territorial disputes and has embarked upon a self-declared mission to become a world power.

Initially, Wang's belligerence was passed over as old rhetoric from a new mouth. Beijing has a long history of making aggressive statements over Taiwan; the last time was in March 2000 when China's then Premier, the usually measured Zhu Ronji, spewed similar invective. But as Taiwan moved closer to holding a referendum that many saw as a step towards independence, the threats from Beijing became more strident.

President George W. Bush's surprising response, essentially a chastisement of Taipei, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Washington was largely driven by the administration's eagerness to keep Beijing on its side as it tries to de-tooth North Korea and by the desire to avoid another global crisis.

What must have made China's warnings particularly disconcerting in Washington was that no person or agency seemed sure of whether it had the will or the ability to carry them out.

"The problem is (the Chinese) don't share any information about their forces," said a defense attaché in Beijing. "This makes people nervous...every day I ask myself, 'What does China really want?'"

The question has never been more poignant. China is in the process of extensively modernizing its military -- both its equipment and its thinking. Western intelligence estimates say China is spending up to $60 billion, almost three times its declared defense budget, on its military, and that by 2010 the People's Liberation Army (PLA), as China collectively calls its armed forces, will be the world's second-largest conventional fighting force.

Though both the US and European Union still maintain the arms embargos they levied against China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says China has been purchasing so much military hardware from Russia and Israel that it has consistently been among the world's top three arms importers over the last decade. And it is likely to remain so for the next one.

At a time when terms such as "non-state actors" and "informal networks of terrorists" are the security mantras in vogue, a national military adding bulk is causing little alarm in most governments.

Dr. Song Do Xing, a military scholar at the People's University in Beijing, says this is how it should be for "the world has nothing to fear from China."

"China's main focus is to protect its territory and stabilize its borders," he said. "The strategic objective (of the modernization) is limited to being able to fight a small-scale, high-tech war...China has no aggressive military goals or ambitions."

Reassuring words, except that in Chinaspeak "protecting borders" is a euphemism that includes keeping Taiwan from declaring independence. And Taiwan aside, the scale of the modernization is stupefying.

By 2010, the PLA Air Force's (PLAAF) will replace its aging fleet of roughly 4,500 1950s-era fighter planes with about 600 Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 nuclear-capable fighter-bombers. Most will be manufactured under license from Russia.

About 300 units of the indigenous J-10, based on Israel's shelved Lavi fighter, are also being inducted into the service. The lower grade "Super 7" fighter, jointly developed with Pakistan, may also enter the force in similar numbers. And China is also said to be developing a stealth fighter, currently called the J-X.

Significantly, the PLAAF is also acquiring sophisticated force multipliers such as aerial tankers, airborne early warning and control aircraft, intelligence collection platforms and electronic countermeasures platforms.

This transformation will shrink the PLAAF by 75 percent, but will give it a lethality it never had with new all-weather interception, extended-range and powerful ground-strike capabilities.

At sea, China has pursued its dream of developing a blue-water navy with the acquisition of four Russian 6,000 ton Sovremenny-class ships, which are designed to counter US carrier groups. Five indigenous Lu Hu- and Lu Hai-class destroyers are also under construction and will join the other 83 fighting ships the PLA Navy (PLAN) already operates by 2010.

China is also acquiring eight of Russia's eerily silent Kilo-class submarines and is replacing its five aging nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) with the new Model 093 SSNs. Sources say the PLAN is also replacing its solitary nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) with two new Model 094 SSBNs. The acquisition or construction of two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers is also being considered.

On land, President Hu Jintao's recent move to reduce the 2.5-million-man army by about 10 percent is not designed to diminish it, but to turn it into a leaner and meaner force.

Special Forces, such as China's two airborne units, the 15th and 16th Corps, are being expanded and new special mission units are being created for anti-terrorism enforcement, behind-the-lines operations and intelligence gathering. New "state-of-the-art" weapons systems, such as the new Type 88 tank, various armored personal carriers, self-propelled artillery and missile systems, are also entering service in large numbers. For the first time in its history, the army is also acquiring its own transport planes and attack helicopters.

About 350 CSS and S-3000 short-range ballistic missiles are also being deployed across the country, most of them along the coastline with Taiwan. And at a strategic level China is replacing its land-based nuclear arsenal of about 20 DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles with an estimated 60 multiple-warhead versions of the DF-5, which will be capable of reaching the US, by 2010.

Song says out that even after the modernization is complete "China's armed forces are still small compared to its geography and the might of other world powers." He points out that India, with about a third of China's size, has closely followed, sometimes even led, China in the SIPRI list.

Dr. Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies in Beijing, says calculations and comparisons between the armed forces of China, the US and other nations misses the real dynamic behind their relations.

"I would say US-China relations have never been better...China cannot compete with the US and it knows this. It needs the US and now (in North Korea) the US needs China," he says.

Critics say such thinking represents only half -- mostly the public half -- of China's strategic thinking.

Robert Karniol, the Asia Editor of Jane's Defense Weekly and a grand sage of Asian military affairs, says China's military modernization may not pose an immediate threat, but it is driven by a determination to achieve deterrence against the US, both as a means to defend itself and as a way to project itself as a global power.

More than military might, analysts say it is this intent, which is driven by the chauvinism that has taken root in China as it has developed, which makes China an unpredictable military factor.

As Orville Schell wrote "a murky reading of the past has left China an aquifer of residual sentiment and inchoate but powerful feelings of weakness, insecurity, inferiority and wounded national pride."

Chinese students are still taught that China endured "150 years of humiliation" at the hands of imperial and colonial powers -- especially the British in the 19th century, and the Japanese, who seized control of northeastern China in the 1930s, and at whose hand some 20 million Chinese died.

The Chinese Communist Party now holds out the promise of reversing this -- restoring lost prestige, retaking lost territory and rebuilding lost economic and military might -- as the raison d'etre for its staying in power.

Deng Xiaoping's "four modernizations," which set out to regenerate China's industry, agriculture, science and military were meant to be the pillars of China's renaissance.

Karniol says China's military modernization was further spurred by the ?rst Gulf War, where the effectiveness with which the US used high-tech weaponry against the Iraqis awakened China to the fact that the Maoist idea of the "people's war," where an endless stream of infantry would subdue an opponent, was obsolete.

It also highlighted its own vulnerability. Now "China wants the high-tech tools and equipment to be able to foil any attack...its idea of defense is to be able to throw a security cordon of 500 or 1000 km around China and strike at anything that comes within that range," says Karniol.

Like many other analysts Karniol says China's military preparations for this should not be mistaken as a direct threat to anyone else. "If I had to define its strategy I wouldn't call it aggressive but aggressively defensive," says Karniol.

A new report by defense analyst Nicholas Berry, which studies the patterns of China's arms purchases, strengthens this view.

"Except for ballistic missiles, China is buying all its big-ticket military hardware from Russia," writes Berry. "(This) indicates that China has no plans to fight a protracted, overseas war (because) no country in modern times has initiated a major war without the ability to manufacture or acquire the weapons necessary to sustain that war."

Despite murmurings to the contrary from Berlin and Paris, the European Union and the US show no signs of lifting the arms embargos against China. Beijing's corresponding arms dependence on Russia and Israel substantially reduces China's ability to fight a war, particularly one that involves the US directly or indirectly.

"In the event of Chinese aggression supplies from (Russia and Israel) would instantly cease," said one source.

Berry also notes that China's unwillingness to invest more substantially in an indigenous arms industry reveals that "its top priority must lie elsewhere."

The frenzied rate at which glass and steel towers are mushrooming in Chinese cities and the number of massive infrastructure projects underway indicate that China's real obsession is development.

"Only poor students and idiots join the army," said Peter Li, 21, a student at the People's University. "The best do business or join the government."

Apart from the polished boots and gleaming rifles that mark the PLA's public displays, such as the raising of the national flag at the Forbidden City, much of China's military has acquired a faded look.

The ability to embrace rapid change that has allowed the rest of China to morph from Communist behemoth Asian Tiger has eluded the military. The PLA has been unable to replicate the commercial sectors' innovativeness and manufacturing expertise into defense. Programs to produce Russian products under license and indigenous weapons are said to be failing. Performance of the awkwardly engineered "Super-7" fighter is so dubious that the PLAAF is resisting inducting them.

Even with most of China's weaponry directed against Taiwan, Jane's Karnoil says China is unlikely to start a war against Taiwan "because it cannot be certain of winning that war...and the Communist Party is not going to risk its future over a war it may loose."

Despite China's defense spending sprees and reactionary nationalism, its military is woefully unprepared to take on any ambitious campaign.

"The ultimate test of any military is combat," Karniol said. "And the last time the Chinese fought a war (against Vietnam in 1979) they got thrashed."

A senior Asian military official smirks as he says an important secret of the obsessively secretive PLA is how backward and incompetent it has been allowed to become operationally.

Last August, when China invited defense officials from 15 countries to Inner Mongolia to witness PLA military maneuvers for the first time, the observers returned struck by the beauty of the steppes but stunned by the obsolescence of the PLA's equipment and tactics.

"These guys do not have a clue about what they are doing," Karniol said bluntly. "Buying a Su-30 is the easiest part of building a modern air force. Operationalizing it, developing the right tactics and fighting skills, takes years."

Confidential Russian reports say that Chinese pilots who are used to flying obsolete F-6s remain wary of the avionics on board the Su-30s and that squadrons equipped with the new planes still use tactics from the 1970s.

One reason the PLA is so inefficient is that it has become a political force more than a fighting one.

As in any authoritarian state, the military is deeply intertwined in domestic politics and, well, maintaining authority. This has given the PLA significant influence over all aspects of the government and secured for it a privileged place in China's power structure.

In fact, the PLA functions as a government within the government.

The entire military apparatus is housed within the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is only loosely connected to the civilian administration.

Though the CMC is formally under the nation's president, de facto control of the armed forces lies with the commission's chairman. This March, when Jiang Zemin handed over the presidency of China and leadership of the Communist Party to Hu Jintao, he held on to the chairmanship of the CMC. Hu was made the vice chairman.

"So today we have the curious situation where Hu leads the country but is still subordinate to Jiang on military matters," said an Asian diplomat in Beijing.

Some analysts say that Jiang's decision to keep control over the military is his insurance against being sidelined, or worse, being put on trial for either corruption or crimes against the state.

Others say this was the Chinese Communist Party's unique form of creating checks and balances as it prevented Hu from accumulating too much power too soon.

Apart from political power, the PLA has also acquired significant business interests that are carefully guarded.

When dining at Beijing's plush hotels people like to joke that they are making their contribution to China's defense because so many of the hotels are owned by the PLA or senior PLA members and their families.

An Asian diplomat who has been following the PLA for years says its business activities have corrupted its ranks, and excessive politicization has made it unwieldy. Experts point out that the PLA's structure and its appointment of officers are designed more to protect vested economic or political interests than the country's borders.

For example, every unit of the PLA, from a company of 100 men to the armies divided across China's seven military zones, is jointly headed by two officers -- a military officer and a political officer.

Beijing insists this bizarre arrangement, seen in no other military worldwide, works. But sources say this two-headed leadership, with each head making different calculations, has sapped the PLA's decision-making ability and operational effectiveness.

The greatest casualty has been joint operations between forces and even inter-operability between different elements of the same service.

For example, an Asian military analyst says that part of the reason China recently decided to conduct joint naval exercises, first with Pakistan and then India, was that while "the PLAN knows how to sail a ship it does not know how to operate a battlegroup." The PLA's experience in joint operations is even lower, he says.

On the diplomatic front, China's efforts have been focused on reducing tensions with neighbors and would-be antagonists. Despite the rhetoric Beijing has worked closely with Taipei to build close economic ties and the $35 billion Taiwan has invested in China serves as a powerful reign on any radical ideas in both capitals.

Lingering tensions with Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia over China's claims in the Spratly's have also been smothered by growing economic ties. By 2010 China will sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). With Japan on track to do the same, Beijing and Tokyo are also increasingly focusing on what ties them together rather than what kept them apart.

Across the Himalayas, China's cold relations with India, with which it fought a brief but bitter war in 1962, are also thawing. As recently as 1998 Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes called China "India's No. 1 enemy" and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee pointed to China as the reason India went nuclear.

Since then, pragmatic moves by both Beijing and New Delhi has seen trade quadruple to reach $5 billion. Last November, in an unprecedented move, India and China also conducted their first ever military exercises, a naval maneuver off the coast of Shanghai.

Dr. Sun Shihai, deputy director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says relations between China and India are so firm that "it is quite possible to envisage a non-aggression treaty between them."

In this last rapprochement some also see the seeds of a new threat. Military observers worry that China and India's increasing closeness is a sign they are embracing the Russian-sponsored idea of a Russia-China-India alliance. Some even say the alliance could include Iran, and point to India's recent conclusion of a strategic agreement with that country as a sign of things to come.

Prof. Shi at The Center for American Studies says that while a formal Russian-Chinese-Indian alliance is unlikely, "the Sino-Russian and Russian-Indian military relationship will be coordinated in the future...because all three would like to check America's military influence while growing their own."

All three would also like to keep America out of Central Asia, secure Asia's trade routes and squeeze the US out of interfering in the messy secessionist movements they each face at home.

But Joe Nye at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School says it is highly unlikely that China, India or Russia, either alone or in concert with each other, pose any military threat. Instead, he says, "they have much more to gain from good relations with the West."

The complexities and contradictions inherent in ascertaining China's real, long-term intentions toward America, and indeed the world, make it almost impossible to reach any conclusion on China's long-term military ambitions. Only one thing is clear. Whatever the compulsions in Iraq or elsewhere "one cannot, one should not, take one's eye off the China ball," said a diplomat in Beijing.

"For now China is focused on economic development...I'd agree that it genuinely wants peace and stability," he said. "But what it will do 50 years from now when it is richer and more powerful -- that is the question."