The PLA, the Pentagon, and politics
By David Isenberg

China is rapidly modernizing its military with the goal of countering US power in the Pacific and pressing Taiwan to accept unification, according to a Pentagon study released last Friday. Yet there are few new revelations in the report, whose real aim may be to bolster the already well-known attitudes toward China held by President George W Bush's conservative Republican administration.

The Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China, released pursuant to congressional legislation, is the first assessment of the Chinese military under the Bush administration. It addressed Chinese strategy, Chinese military forces, China's arms acquisitions from the former Soviet Union and the security situation in the Taiwan Strait. But the last section received the most attention, as exemplified by the headline in the Wall Street Journal, "China buildup is a threat to Taiwan, US says" and "Chinese buildup targets Taiwan" in the Washington Times.

However, despite major strides in improving its armed forces, China would still have trouble invading Taiwan, according to the report. In discussing the success of an invasion scenario, it stated, "Beijing would have to possess the capability to conduct a multi-faceted campaign, maritime area denial operations, air superiority operations and conventional missile strikes. The PLA [People's Liberation Army] likely would encounter great difficulty conducting such a sophisticated campaign throughout the remainder of the decade."

Interestingly, the report does not analyze other scenarios such as a phased invasion, one that ratchets up the level of offensive operations, staged from the Peng Hu Islands (formerly the Pescadores) that sit astride the invasion routes across the Taiwan Strait. Such a scenario was the subject of an article in the Autumn 2001 issue of the US Naval War College Review.

But actually the report is more nuanced than most press reports suggest. The report begins with an acknowledgement that there are "gaps in US knowledge about Chinese military power".

Among the key developments in Chinese military capabilities identified in the report are a doctrine of pre-emption and surprise in the opening phase of a campaign, as part of a coercive strategy to bring Taipei to terms quickly; improvements in training and joint operations that increasingly focus on the United States as an adversary; an increase in its short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) inventory; the acquisition and integration of fourth-generation fighter aircraft into its operational units, such as the Su-30 and Su-27, advanced guided Sovremenny missile destroyers and Kilo diesel-electric submarines from Russia; and improvements in both its command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. None of this, however, is new.

The report states that China's defense budget now totals as much as US$65 billion a year, more than triple the $20 billion China publicly reported in March. That confirms the estimates long made by independent analysts. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the level of China's total military expenditure during the 1990s was consistently about 70-80 percent higher than its official defense budget.

In regard to the SRBMs, China has located all of its 350 short-range missiles in a province near Taiwan and its buildup threatens not only the island, but Japan and the Philippines as well.

The report also stated that China is replacing all 20 of its older CSS-4 intercontinental ballistic missiles, also known as the Dong Feng 5, with longer-range versions known as CSS-4 Mod 2s, that will be deployed by "mid-decade".

"In addition, China is developing three solid-propellant ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles]," the report said. "Development of the DF-31, a mobile, three-stage, solid-fueled ICBM with an estimated range of 8,000 kilometers, is progressing, and deployment should begin before mid-decade. China also is developing two follow-on extended-range versions of the DF-31: a solid-propellant, mobile ICBM and a solid-propellant submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM)."

Yet according to the latest annual survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, even with the modernization of its strategic nuclear forces China still has the least advanced nuclear arsenal of the five declared nuclear-weapons states. The Chinese doctrine is centered on the maintenance of a "minimum nuclear deterrent" capable of launching a retaliatory strike on a small number of countervalue targets (such as cities) after an adversary's nuclear attack.

Although China has the world's largest military "it lacks the technology and logistical support to project and sustain conventional forces much beyond its borders", according to the Pentagon report.

While the report notes China's recent multibillion-dollar purchases of advanced Russian warships, submarines and fighter jets - seen by the US as hardware capable of blockading Taiwan - it does not note that Taiwan has sought similar weapons from the United States.

The fact that the Pentagon increasingly sees China as a future adversary is hardly news. Last year, as part of the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, it was widely leaked to the media that Andy Marshall, head of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, recommended a shifting away from Europe toward Asia, especially to counter China. In fact, many of the report's findings are similar to assessments completed under the Bill Clinton administration, although the new report is more alarmist in its analysis of China's ambitions in the region and potential threat to the United States. The report's harsher tone is also in keeping with the Republican Party's conservative wing, which denounced Democratic president Clinton and congressional Democrats for being soft on China. In many respects, the study preaches to the converted - the US Congress, a place where Taiwan has many supporters across the political divide.

It may also serve to justify the Bush team's increased arms sales and a range of other overtures to Taiwan, but a range of analysts believe it does not herald a sweeping departure from America's "one China" policy.

While China may not have articulated a "grand strategy" as the Pentagon report asserts, it has been somewhat open about its military ambitions. Its strategy paper China's National Defense in 2000, published in October 2000, listed policy and restructuring priorities for the next five years. The principle rationale for change is given as the need to respond to the strengthening US-Japan alliance, US weapons sales to Taiwan, and concerns about US missile defense plans in the region. A specific requirement is for strategies to combat US carrier groups. The purchase from Russia of Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with SS-N-22 missiles indicates that this need is being addressed.

According to the Pentagon report, China calculates that US efforts to develop missile defenses will challenge the credibility of its nuclear deterrent and eventually be extended to protect Taiwan, degrading the coercive value of its growing conventional theater ballistic missile capability opposite Taiwan.

According to Lawrence Korb, formerly assistant secretary of defense in the Ronald Reagan administration, the United States should understand that Beijing's ambition to build a powerful military to complement its growing economy and strategic positions in Asia is not necessarily to America's detriment. In an article in the current issue of Insight magazine, he writes: "China remains and will remain too weak to challenge US power even in its own neighborhood. Consider the gap between China's acknowledged $20 billion defense budget (or even the estimated $45 [billion] to $150 billion) and the US defense budget of about $400 billion. And this does not even take into account the immense and growing technological gap between the militaries of the two countries or the strength enjoyed by the United States because of its multiple alliances. China is not, and is extremely unlikely to be, a strategic military threat the way the Soviet Union once was."

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Jul 18, 2002


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