Since the Korean war in the 1950s, the emergence of China's vast but ill-equipped armed forces as a global or even a regional threat has been more of a concern for futurologists than for serious military planners. Not any more. Policymakers in Washington are questioning the assumption that a Chinese challenge to US military dominance of the Asia- Pacific region lies decades in the future.
Each year, says a senior US defence official, the Pentagon has "a very sobering experience" when it prepares the annual report on China's military power required by the US Congress. "The breadth, the quantity, the quality, the level and sophistication of the modernisation is an increasing concern," the official says. "The conclusion is inescapable: that we have a very broad [Chinese] modernisation that continues in every year to outstrip our projections as to where they will be in the year ahead."
Admiral William Fallon, new head of the US Pacific Command, told the Senate armed services committee last month that he was particularly concerned about the strength of the Chinese navy, including its expanding fleet of submarines. "It's disconcerting to see this build-up," he said. "It's more than might be required for their defence." Porter Goss, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has warned that China is tilting the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. John Tkacik, research fellow at the Asian Studies Centre of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington, says the concern at the Pentagon is in sharp contrast to the "unjustifiably indulgent" view of China at the State Department during the first administration of President George W. Bush. "The Defence Department, as they see this capacity growing and growing, are becoming progressively alarmed," he says.
Mr Tkacik believes that US diplomats will take a tougher line on China under Condoleezza Rice, the former national security council adviser and expert on Soviet affairs during the Cold War era, who has replaced Colin Powell as secretary of state of the world's remaining superpower. But concerns about Chinese military power have already spread beyond the Pentagon and the CIA. With Iraq and the Middle East no longer the only topic of conversation in Washington, policymakers and analysts from members of Congress to career diplomats are already talking about the "China threat" more than at any time since 2001.
Even State Department doves who support engagement with China insist that does not mean ignoring Beijing's military build-up. One senior State Department official says the US is monitoring Chinese procurement of military equipment, for example from Russia, and watching China's response to Taiwanese aspirations for independence. The Taiwan Strait is regarded in Washington as the most dangerous flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific - more sensitive for now than North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
China has threatened to seize Taiwan by force if the island formalises the de facto independence it has had since 1949: the hundreds of Chinese missiles pointed in that direction have long been seen as a crude message to Taipei not to risk such a move. However, the US is starting to fear that the Chinese build-up is the prelude to an eventual attack, not just a warning signal. "They have got much more than they need to send that message," says the State Department official. "It really is over the top considering the nature of Taiwan's military capabilities."
In spite of intelligence estimates, quoted by members of Congress, that the Chinese may have as many ships as the US Navy within a decade, US officials are confident that the quality of US ships and high-technology battle systems will maintain US military superiority for years to come. The highest estimates of the annual Chinese defence budget are less than a quarter of the Pentagon's budget of more than $400bn. Even so, the fast-growing Chinese economy and the country's rapid industrialisation are giving Beijing previously unimaginable financial and technical resources to improve its armed forces. This year's Chinese budget proposes a 12.6 per cent rise in defence spending to the equivalent of nearly $30bn, but the budget numbers are opaque and exclude most of what China buys from abroad. The real defence budget is believed by US officials to be up to three times the official figure.
US planners are concerned not so much by the money as by the way it is targeted. Although China's ruling Communists insist their country is engaged in a "peaceful rise" to power, US defence officials say the Chinese are focusing on procuring and developing weapons that would counter US naval and air power, especially in the Taiwan Strait. The US is committed to assisting the island under the Taiwan Relations Act, the 1979 law that accompanied the US switch of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
One reason for US anxiety is that Chinese leaders, although they deny any intention of using force abroad, reserve the right to use violence at home to keep China intact - and they say pointedly that Taiwan is inside Chinese territory. The National People's Congress, the tame parliament controlled by the Communist party, last month brushed aside US and Taiwanese objections to pass an anti- secession law, which enshrines Beijing's threat to use force to stop Taiwan becoming formally independent.
The other cause for concern is that China is known to be strengthening the forces that would be used in any attack on Taiwan. According to the US, China has more than 700 missiles near its south-eastern coast aimed at Taiwan and has recently accelerated its build-up, adding 70-75 missiles each year, compared with an annual 50extra a few years ago. China is also improving the accuracy of its missile force.
China, furthermore, has been increasing the number of sorties by its modern, Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-27 fighter aircraft in the Taiwan Strait. On one day last October there were more than 30 sorties, a move that succeeded in scaring everybody, according to one Washington-based analyst.
The navy of the People's Liberation Army, meanwhile, has been steadily modernising its surface and submarine fleets. In November, Japanese forces detected and chased a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine found in Japanese territorial waters not far from Taiwan. The submarine was presumed to have been on a reconnaissance mission.
US and Taiwanese strategists believe that Beijing wants to be able to launch a lightning "decapitation" strike against Taiwan, using accurate missiles and other weapons to disable the government, disrupt communications and force Taiwan to the negotiating table within hours - before the US Navy has time to come to the rescue.
The first US policy to counter this Chinese strategy involves persuading Taiwan to arm itself with US weaponry, as foreseen in the Taiwan Relations Act, so that the island can defend itself, at least for a time. US lawmakers, including those who support Taiwan and its democracy, have been dismayed by a steady decline in Taiwanese defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product over the past decade and by the stalling in Taipei's parliament of a proposed arms procurement package.
Tom Lantos, the senior Democrat on the international relations committee of the US House of Representatives, notes that Taiwan, like other Asian countries, has accumulated tens of billions of dollars of foreign exchange reserves in recent years. "If you expect us to come to your aid," he says, "to quibble over an $18bn package is an outrage." David Lee, the de facto Taiwanese ambassador to the US, says he thinks Taiwan's legislature will approve the package this year, although President Chen Shui-bian's opponents control the assembly and are likely to insist that the arms purchase is trimmed.
Mr Lee denies suggestions that Taiwanese resolve would crumble before a Chinese attack in the same way that Kuwait succumbed with hardly a shot fired to the Iraqi invasion of 1990. "We are relatively lucky because we have the 100-mile Taiwan Strait to separate the two sides," he says. "Also we have better determination to defend ourselves by our troops."
The second American move to counter Chinese ambitions in the Taiwan Strait is to boost military co-operation with Taiwanese forces and with Japan, the biggest US ally in the region, to ensure co-ordination in the event of a conflict. Officials are reluctant to divulge details and the Pentagon has tried to play down the significance of its closer links with Taiwan, partly because publicity can be exploited by pro-independence Taiwanese politicians. But in Washington and Taipei, there is agreement that mutual military ties have been improving since the late 1990s.
"The buzz-word in the Pentagon is 'inter-operability' between the US and Taiwan," says Derek Mitchell, an Asian security expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former defence official. "We're doing planning together, we're really getting inside the Taiwan military to work out how we would work together should it come to that, should China attack." He says the co-operation is "really coming close to re-establishing the alliance" that existed between Taiwan and the US before Washington switched its recognition to Beijing. Mr Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation says there is "far, far more than meets the eye" and that Japanese and Taiwanese forces exchange intelligence via the US Pacific command. "Japan doesn't want to admit it. The US doesn't want to admit it," he says.
Joint military exercises remain out of the question, but the two sides are said to have improved their communications networks, exchanged personnel in plain clothes and conducted training and war games together via computer. "It's low profile, not expensive, but hugely useful," says one person acquainted with the activity.
The third US method of blunting the China threat is to try to stop it acquiring or making the modern military systems it needs. This explains why the US, backed by Japan, has so vehemently criticised the European Union's plan to lift its arms embargo on China. Although China buys military hardware from Russia, Israel and eastern Europe, the US fears western European components, sub-systems and technology could ultimately help Beijing bring its command-and-control systems and military information technology dangerously close to US levels. Lifting the EU embargo, the Bush administration warns, would not just open the door for EU suppliers but might remove whatever inhibitions the Russians, the Israelis and others might have about selling their best equipment to China.
Even if it were not for the unresolved issue of Taiwan, China's rivals would be watching its rapid military modernisation with concern. In recent weeks, US military commanders and officials including Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, have expressed their concerns in hearings on Capitol Hill. The US Quadrennial Defence Review is expected to raise yet again the US assessment of China's military might when it is completed later this year.
"There is uniform concern throughout the government on this issue," says the Pentagon official. "If Taiwan did not exist, we'd still have to be dealing with a modernised People's Liberation Army that's much more capable."
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo
Purchases are intended to defend a ‘lifeline’
While China’s growing military power can look threatening to regional neighbours, to Chinese officials it is as natural and essential to the country’s development as greater trade and higher living standards.
Humiliations from the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century to brutal Japanese invasion and occupation from 1931-45 have helped to forge a determination to develop more capable armed forces.
“China’s national defence policy is one of self-protection,” Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, said at the close of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, or parliament, this month. “Over the past 100 years, China has always been bullied by others. China has never sent a single soldier to occupy even an inch of another country’s land.”
Beijing’s desire for a more powerful military is also fuelled by increasing vulnerability to external events. Once largely self-reliant, China is ever more dependent on imports of oil and raw materials. Men Honghua, an expert on strategic studies at the influential Central Party School for Communist party cadres, noted in a recent essay that China’s “lifeline” ran through the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, Malacca Strait and Indian Ocean all the way to the Arabian Sea.
“China has to strengthen its naval forces to guarantee the security of its access to shipped resources and should actively develop a large shipping fleet capable of operating in distant oceans,” wrote Prof Men.
Such concern for international supply routes makes the People’s Liberation Army Navy a focus of China’s military modernisation. Beijing wants to turn the navy from a coastal defence force into a true “blue-water navy” capable of independent operation. To help it do so, China has acquired from Russia powerful Sovremenny-class destroyers equipped with supersonic anti-ship missiles and quiet Kilo-class diesel submarines - platforms that analysts say could be a challenge even to US naval forces.
Russia has also been supplying the most impressive weapons in the expanding armoury of the PLA Air Force, which has been buying and deploying advanced Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-27 fighters in large numbers.
Israel is another source of modern arms, although US pressure blocked sales of Phalcon reconnaissance aircraft in 2000 and appears to have ended Israel’s plans to upgrade anti-radar unmanned aerial vehicles that it sold to Beijing in the 1990s.
Some observers are sceptical about the utility for China of even successful deals, stressing the difficulties the navy and air force face in operating and maintaining Russian-bought arms and Moscow’s reluctance to sell its best equipment. Much of China’s armed forces remains very basic by international standards.
But Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, says it would be näve to underplay the significance of such purchases. “China’s efforts to develop its capabilities through the acquisition of these platforms and systems tells us where they are trying to go - and in all likelihood they are going to get there. The only question is whether they are going to get there in five years, or 10, or 15.”
Beijing is also working hard to develop its indigenous arms industry, in part by pushing Russia to share more technology but also by commercialising weapons suppliers and introducing market forces to procurement strategy.
Given such efforts, Beijing leaders’ oft-repeated insistence that China is a “peace-loving nation” alone will hardly be enough to reassure Washington, Tokyo or Taipei. Indeed, Mr Wen’s version of recent Chinese history is partisan. China sees its invasions of India and Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s as defensive actions to secure its borders, for example, but former foes take a very different view. Many Tibetans would argue that the Himalayan region has been under effective military occupation since the People’s Liberation Army marched in in 1950.
China has a host of border disputes - most worryingly over island groups also claimed by Japan - and Mr Wen’s commitment to peace is explicitly limited when it comes to Taiwan.
After last month enshrining in law the threat of force that backs China’s claim to sovereignty over the island, he took sharp aim at the suggestion that the US might support Taiwan in the event of conflict.
“We do not hope to see any foreign interference, but we are not afraid of any foreign interference,” the prime minister said.
Such words smack of bravado, since most analysts are highly doubtful that China could yet successfully invade Taiwan even if the US stood by.
Mr Wen’s comments are also a reminder of the risks that China’s effort to become a regional military power could threaten ties with the US - a vital market and source of investment and business expertise.
Some Chinese commentators are already aware of the dangers. Shi Yinhong, an expert on international relations, warns that growing military power could be the “critical issue” in transforming US perceptions of China from economic partner to potential threat. Prof Shi says the US still has a “baseline tolerance” toward China’s military modernisation - but that it may be undermined if Beijing acquires the ability to project power far from its borders. “If this trend continues, some day opinion in the US towards China might change,” he says.
By Mure Dickie
MILITARY STRENGTH IN EAST ASIA
Navy 55,000 (including 10,000 marines and 26,000 in naval aviation)
96 missile craft
Air Force 400,000
1,900 combat aircraft
Navy 45,000 (including 15,000 marines)
59 missile craft
Air Force 45,000
479 combat aircraft
US regional deployment
(part of Pacific Command)
Army 25,000 (US expected to cut by 7,000)
Marine Corps 180
Air Force 8,900
Air Force 2,100
Sources: IISS; FT (Includes some estimated figures)
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