The country’s very name—“Chung Kuo”—means the “Middle Kingdom,” a concept holding that China is superior to all other nations. That principle endured even as Mongols, Manchus, and Westerners successively overran China. More than 40 years ago, John King Fairbank, among the most prominent scholars of modern China studies in the United States, foresaw the emergence of a new Middle Kingdom. China’s communist rulers, he said, “are the heirs of the imperial tradition of the Middle Kingdom.”
China’s most recent white paper on national defense, published in December, laid out China’s strategic objectives more clearly than had its previous biennial reports. At times, it did this with subtlety, at other times with stark clarity.
Directly, the white paper said: “The United States is accelerating its realignment of military deployment to enhance its military capability in the Asia-Pacific region.” Moreover, it went on, “The United States and Japan are strengthening their military alliance in pursuit of operational integration,” and Japan’s “military posture is becoming more external-oriented.”
In response, Beijing is moving to expand its security sphere. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) says China is pushing its defense perimeter outward from what it calls the “first island chain”—along a line running from the Kurile Islands southward through Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines to Indonesia—to a “second island chain.” This second chain lies some 1,800 miles east of China’s coast and runs from Japan through the Marianas and Guam to the South Pacific.
China’s modernization seeks to build a powerful and fortified national defense establishment. The nation intends to “lay a solid foundation” by 2010, to “make major progress” by 2020, and to be able to win high-tech wars by midcentury.
The People’s Liberation Army (the PLA comprises all of China’s armed forces) is aggressively pursuing power-projection capabilities. Specifically:
Intelligence officers in the Pentagon have analyzed the white paper, Liang’s speech, and other Chinese pronouncements and asserted that China’s publicly stated intentions are vague. The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military power, released in May, said its vagueness “may reflect a deliberate effort to conceal strategic planning, as well as uncertainties, disagreements, and debates that China’s leaders themselves have about their own long-term goals.”
The most opaque element is defense spending. The official Chinese figure for 2006 is $36 billion. Beijing, moreover, has announced that the 2007 budget will rise by 18 percent.
It is clear from every statement out of Beijing that the immediate target for China’s new might is Taiwan, the island off the southeastern coast that Beijing considers a breakaway province. Beijing has vowed to stop any Taiwanese move for formal independence, with military force if necessary. This threat has generated much speculation on how China would do this.
The threat of Chinese attack on Taiwan also shapes up as the most likely source of hostilities between China and the United States. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, adopted by Congress after President Jimmy Carter switched US diplomatic recognition from Nationalist China (Taiwan) to communist China, governs American policy on Taiwan.
US war plans are secret, but heavy bombers and submarines operating out of Guam, fighters and other warplanes from Okinawa, and aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific are the most likely first responders to a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
China has no shortage of possible flash points around its periphery, either.
To the north lies China’s long border with Russia, the control of which has caused occasional armed clashes. In the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, or Manchuria, the PLA has deployed a large force to keep North Korean refugees from flooding into the country as a possible result of war on the Korean Peninsula. In the East China Sea, China has a dispute with Japan over several uninhabited, but possibly oil-bearing, islands.
2.3 Million StrongIn 1985, 1997, and 2003, China announced it would cut the size of the PLA by one million, 500,000, and 200,000 troops, respectively. By the end of 2005, stated the white paper, China had completed reducing the PLA by 200,000 troops. It added that the military currently has 2.3 million in the force.
US intelligence officers say that the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy aviation have 2,300 operational combat aircraft, plus 450 transport aircraft, 90 reconnaissance airplanes, and 470 older systems in flight schools and research units.
The Chinese have organized an interlocking defense of aircraft, 100 surface-to-air missile sites, and 16,000 anti-aircraft guns. The SAMs include three batteries of modern SA-10s imported from Russia, each missile possessing a range of 60 miles. Older SA-2 SAMs produced by China from a Russian design have a range of 30 miles. Some 220,000 troops are assigned to anti-aircraft duty.
The unnamed adversary is clearly the United States.
To build up its anti-access defenses, China has steadily modernized with 400 Sukhoi Su-27, Su-30, and Su-33 fighters, bought from Russia. The Su-27 is a twin-engine fighter designed in Russia in the late 1970s to counter the US Air Force F-15 and US Navy F-14. The Chinese have one-seat and two-seat versions; Su-27s are also built in China under license as the J-11.
The Su-27, however, was designed principally for air-to-air combat and could perform attack missions only with “dumb” bombs. It is this deficiency that has led China to purchase the multirole Su-30 fighter.
The aircraft is fitted with electronic countermeasures and surveillance suites for target acquisition.
Citing Russian sources, Sinodefence reported that China has bought up to 50 Su-33 fighters, another variant of the Su-27, to begin delivery this year to the Chinese Navy. The first two Su-33s will be tested on an airfield and then on a carrier.
The J-10 is fitted with Chinese-made Doppler fire-control radar capable of tracking 10 targets simultaneously while the aircraft attacks four targets simultaneously. The maximum detecting range is estimated at 70 miles. The fighter has 11 hardpoints for weapons and drop tanks, including a Chinese-made radar-homing air-to-air missile. For ground attack, the aircraft can carry laser guided bombs and has rocket launcher pods.
Six MissionsFor transport, China has 14 Russian-made Il-76 aircraft and approximately 250 Y-8 and Y-7 Chinese-made turboprop airlifters.
The PLA has three divisions of paratroopers, with 10,000 troops each, belonging to the Air Force. PLA ground forces do, however, operate roughly 550 helicopters, the most significant being 200 Russian-made Mi-17 transports and about 225 Chinese-made Z-9 multipurpose helicopters.
The PLA “appears engaged in a sustained effort to develop the capability to interdict, at long ranges, aircraft carrier and expeditionary strike groups that might deploy to the Western Pacific,” the Pentagon believes. China seeks precision strike capabilities that could hold at risk critical US air bases, ports, and surface combatants arrayed in the western Pacific.
The PLA Navy has been phasing out Russian-built diesel-electric attack submarines. By 2010, estimates Global Security, a research organization, China will have 35 diesel-electric 2,000-ton submarines of the Ming, Song, and Yuan classes built in China, plus eight Russian Kilo submarines.
An intriguing question: When will China’s Navy acquire an aircraft carrier? Speculation has been churning for 25 years, or ever since Adm. Liu Huaqing was Chief of the Chinese Navy. “To modernize our national defense and build a perfect weaponry and equipment system,” the Chinese admiral once wrote, “we cannot but consider the development of aircraft carriers.”
Chinese missiles cover the spectrum from conventional short-range missiles to nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Second Artillery has command over most of the missiles, and nuclear and conventional weapons are often deployed side by side to complicate US target planning.
Further, China is developing land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles and precision munitions for artillery. The Pentagon report said, “China is believed to have a small number of [air-to-surface munitions] ... and is pursuing foreign and domestic acquisitions to improve airborne anti-ship capabilities.”
Also being developed is the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, to be deployed aboard the nuclear-powered Jin boat. In addition, China possesses about 325 CSS-6 missiles with a range of 360 miles and 600 CSS-7s with a range of 180 miles.
Beijing late last year published a space report that made little mention of military activities. The military newspaper Jiefangjun Bao noted in April, however, that the US had relied on 52 satellites in the Gulf War, 86 satellites in Kosovo, and more than 100 in the second Iraq War. Another article reported that Chinese leaders knew that US forces in Iraq relied on satellites for 100 percent of navigation, 95 percent of reconnaissance, and 90 percent of communications.
Chinese leaders have laid out a large-scale space plan for the next five years. It calls for improving the reliability of “Long March” rockets, starting a high-resolution Earth observation system, and developing a remote-sensing ground system. The plan includes putting satellites into geostationary orbit, improving “BeiDou” navigation satellites, and launching new scientific and technology-testing satellites.
In the words of the recent Pentagon assessment, China will “take until the end of this decade or later to produce a modern force capable of defeating a moderate-size adversary.” China’s leaders emphasize “asymmetric strategies” to gain greatest leverage from China’s advantages.
First, other countries could underestimate the extent to which Chinese forces and capabilities have improved.
The US holds a definitive military advantage over China in the near term. But one cannot rule out new Chinese assertiveness or old regional tensions leading to a military miscalculation, involving a rising power, in a region packed with US allies and interests.
Running through most pronouncements on China’s military is an awkward term, “informationization.”
The PLA is “taking mechanization as the foundation and informationization as the driving force,” behind improved firepower, more effective assaults, and increased mobility, according to China’s most recent defense white paper.
The Liberation Army Daily stated that “to get the upper hand of the enemy in a war under conditions of informationization” requires that China be “capable of using various means to obtain information and of ensuring the effective circulation of information.” Conversely, effective information war also requires that China be “capable of applying effective means to weaken the enemy side’s information superiority and lower the operational efficiency of enemy information equipment.”
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