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    Greater China
     Aug 18, 2009
China's war games unnerve neighbors
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - War games launched last week by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) have alarmed China's neighbors and raised further questions about Beijing's military intentions. The games, dubbed "Stride-2009", are scheduled to stretch over the next two months. They involve only 50,000 troops from China's 2.3 million-member standing army - the largest in the world - but the sophisticated nature of the far-flung deployments has captured the attention of military experts all over Asia and beyond.

For the first time, forces from the four major regional military commands - stationed in the cities of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan and Guangzhou - will all be engaged in live-fire drills at least 1,200 kilometers from their bases. Some soldiers will reportedly be involved in maneuvers as far as 1,600 kilometers from home. Previously, military exercises had only been conducted by troops under a single regional military command. This has led military

 

analysts to speculate that one of the purposes of the war games is a test run for reforming the command system.

The official Xinhua News Agency described the exercises as a test of the PLA's "long-range force projection" that will involve high-speed civilian rail and air links in the rapid deployment of troops. This will be the army's "largest-ever tactical military exercise", the agency said.

What Xinhua failed to mention is how such elaborate, high-profile war games - on top of perennial double-digit increases in the military budget for most of the past two decades - are consistent with China's promise of a "peaceful rise". Certainly, China's regional neighbors seek constant reassurance on this pledge. And the United States, still by far the pre-eminent military power in the region, is also looking on with a wary eye.

The exercises, however, appear to be aimed more at bolstering the internal security of China, with its 9.6 million square kilometers in land and 1.3 billion people, than projecting military power abroad. Some analysts even see these games as a direct response to the recent riots in the western autonomous region of Xinjiang, which left nearly 200 people dead and more than 1,700 injured. But the war games were planned long before the ethnic clashes last month between Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi.

That said, separatist movements in Xinjiang and neighboring Tibet have long worried China's military leaders, and things seem to be growing worse, not better, in these restive regions. The Urumqi riots were this year's embarrassment. In March of 2008, as China prepared to host the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, the government crackdown on violent protests in Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas put a damper on Beijing's international coming-out party.

These internal trouble spots figure prominently in the rapid, long-distance deployments the PLA is now practicing. Disaster relief, however, is also important to military planners. Last year's magnitude eight earthquake in Sichuan province was a grave reminder of the devastating power of Mother Nature and of the folly of having no coherent national emergency plan in place. While the central government responded to the quake with unprecedented speed and openness - and PLA troops played a key role in the rescue effort - in the end the effort was hampered by lack of coordination and inefficiency.

The quake left more than 80,000 people dead and another 370,000 injured. A better plan, including a more rapid, coordinated response by the PLA, could have reduced the death and suffering.
The flawed rescue effort after Typhoon Morakot struck Taiwan on August 9 is another regional reminder of the perils of poor emergency planning. The island's president, Ma Ying-jeou, is now mired in criticism amid reports that more than 500 people may have died as rescue helicopters carrying relief supplies passed obliviously over villages buried in mudslides.

A US military C-130 transport aircraft has flown to Taiwan, the first American military deployment on the island since 1979, to aid in the relief effort, and two US military helicopters are also expected.
In southeastern China, Morakot forced the evacuation of 1 million residents of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, underscoring improved disaster relief as an imperative for Beijing.

Although internal concerns may be the primary motivation for "Stride-2009", China's regional rivals are increasingly uncomfortable with the nation's growing military prowess. India's military, which fought a border war with China in 1962, is particularly alarmed.

It probably doesn't help that the war games focused on projecting PLA power over long distances began less than a week after China-India talks resumed in New Delhi over the long-standing border dispute. A day before the games began, India's most senior military commander, navy chief of staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta, admitted that his country was now completely overmatched by China's armed forces and issued a stark warning.
"In military terms, both conventionally and unconventionally, we can neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force-for-force," the Hindustan Times quoted the admiral as saying. He added, "China is likely to be more assertive on its claims, especially in the immediate neighborhood."

But Mehta's comments pale in comparison to those made by former head of the Indian Air Force, Fali Homi Major, who before his retirement two months ago called China a greater threat to India than Pakistan.

The perceived China threat is one big reason India has chosen to cozy up to the US and thus been rewarded with a complex, painfully negotiated deal guaranteeing full civil nuclear cooperation between the two nations.

The Chinese goal of gaining access to ports and airfields in the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean and into the Persian Gulf - Beijing's so-called "String of Pearls" strategy - has the potential to jeopardize both Indian and US interests.

Elsewhere in the region, Japan, America's staunchest ally, will continue to rely on US might to ward off any challenge from China. As will Taiwan, whose possible eventual reunification with the mainland makes its traditional reliance on American military support appear more ambiguous.

In other words, this is a Sino-US face-off - although, all the apprehension over China's military expansion notwithstanding, on paper it still appears to be more of a face-down. Despite Beijing's more assertive posture - which has included refusing US warships entry to Hong Kong for the Thanksgiving holiday in 2007 and in March blocking a US surveillance ship in the South China Sea - China's professed military spending of US$70 billion for 2009 is dwarfed by the Pentagon's $500 billion budget. Even if, as many Western analysts insist, the Chinese figure is a gross underestimate, the discrepancy remains huge and US military power in the region unchallenged.

Nevertheless, China's military spending is now roughly equal to that of Japan, Russia and Britain, and the outgoing commander of US forces in Asia has identified North Korea and China as the Pentagon's chief concerns in the region. North Korea is the biggest worry because of its nuclear ambitions, Admiral Timothy Keating told the Voice of America (VOA) last month, but uncertainty about China's military aims was second on his list.

"We'd like to understand better their intentions, their military intentions," said Keating, who will be succeeded after his retirement in October by Admiral Robert Willard, current commander of the American Pacific Fleet.

"I'm not so concerned about China challenging our pre-eminence," Keating told VOA. "We enjoy significant capability, so China's not going to challenge our pre-eminence any time soon. That's not the concern. It's the notion that, absent [of] dialogue, there's the potential for lack of communication leading to confusion, leading to a crisis."

The admiral was speaking after China and the US agreed to resume military consultations, which Beijing had cut off last October over former president George W Bush's decision to sell US$6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan.

The current US administration under President Barack Obama hopes to increase communication and cooperation with Beijing on all fronts, including regular talks between the top military brass in the two countries. And, like his predecessor, Obama will need Beijing's diplomatic help to rein in North Korea.

But the first Pentagon report of the Obama presidency, issued in March, echoed familiar complaints. "The limited transparency in China's military and security affairs poses risks to stability by creating uncertainty and increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation," the report stated.

The report also expressed concern over Beijing's plans to build multiple aircraft carriers by 2020, its development of weapons for use in space and its enhanced capabilities in electromagnetic and cyber warfare.

Answering complaints about its lack of transparency, the PLA has launched something of a charm offensive. Foreign reporters were recently invited for a rare tour of an infantry base near Beijing during which they witnessed a counter-terrorism drill, and on August 1, the 82nd anniversary of the foundation of the PLA, the Ministry of National Defense launched a multi-media, bilingual website in English and Chinese. The site, unlike its staid predecessor, aims to be informative and user-friendly.

A ministry spokesman said the site signals the PLA's new "openness" and is intended to "increase understanding between countries and raise trust between militaries".

These are worthy aims, but it will take more than a flashy new website and a public-relations tour of an infantry base to achieve them.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

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