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
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
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
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 [email protected]