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Myths and Realities of China's Military Power.

Given the atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that so often characterizes U.S.-China relations, it is vitally important that Chinese foreign policy and military capabilities be calmly and carefully assessed. Unfortunately, images of China as a potential threat tend to dominate in public discussions of China policy. Negative images of China stem in part from memories of the Tiananmen massacre that still loom large in the minds of most Americans. The alleged spy scandals and accusations of theft of American nuclear secrets are also factors. China is widely seen as taking a hard line in its relations with the U.S. on such issues as human rights and arms sales. Although Chinese military capabilities have improved recently, these advances are modest, and China will remain a weak military power for a long time.

Despite the worst-case scenario painted by the Cox report two years ago, China remains a small nuclear power with only minor capabilities. There is no evidence that it has tested--let alone integrated--any stolen American technology into its nuclear forces. China has only about 20 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)--each armed with only a single warhead--that can reach the continental United States, and its one nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine has apparently been nonoperational for several years.

In recent years China has purchased a variety of weapons systems from the Russians. Representing a significant improvement over most Chinese equipment, these weapons include advanced SU-27 fighters and SU-30 ground attack aircraft, S-300 SAM antiship missiles, Kilo-class submarines, and Sovremenny-class destroyers. China has also introduced new weapons systems of its own design, including tanks, short-range ballistic missiles, and the Song-class submarine.

China, however, continues to rely on outdated technology to equip most of its armed forces. The SU-27s and SU-30s are China's first fifth-generation, modernized combat aircraft. But most of the Chinese Air Force's combat aircraft are obsolete. China has about 30 SU-30s but relies on over 1,500 J-6 and Q-5 ground attack planes and some 700 J-7s. These designs date back to the early 1950s and 60s. Although older planes are being phased out, it will be more than a decade before Chinas Air Force reaches the current technological level of Taiwan's combat aircraft.

The bulk of China's armored forces still features tanks based on Soviet designs from the 1950s. The Sovremenny-class destroyers are designed to attack American aircraft carriers and are far more advanced than anything else in the Chinese Navy. China has only two such destroyers, and the rest of its navy remains technologically backward.

China is at least two decades away from being able to deploy a fully functional carrier with aircraft. The new Kilo and Song submarines are indeed a significant improvement for the Chinese Navy, but it will be years before China finishes replacing its older, less advanced submarines. Moreover, the Chinese armed forces continue to suffer from significant deficiencies in training and recruitment standards. The Chinese have yet to conduct a full-scale combined arms training exercise that would allow them to fully integrate the new weapons systems that they have acquired. Although worrisome, the 17.7% increase in Chinas 2001 defense budget is more of a political signal to the U.S. and Taiwan than an indication of substantially improving Chinese military capabilities.

Except for a brief skirmish with Vietnam over a disputed South China Sea islet in 1988, China has not resorted to the use of force since its disastrous attack on Vietnam in 1979. By and large, China has acted as a satisfied power, having increased economic ties with all its neighbors and negotiated border agreements with most neighboring countries. Only in the case of Taiwan is there a real danger of conflict. Beijing has been quite clear that it is willing to use force if Taiwan declares its independence. However, China lacks the amphibious assault capabilities it would need to land a sufficient force on Taiwan (where there are only a few, easily defended places to land troops). Taiwan's Air Force is far smaller but much more modern than China's.

China could place a naval blockade on Taiwan or use its growing arsenal of missiles to try to coerce Taiwan into surrendering, but neither approach would guarantee success. Although China's M-9 and M-11 missiles look threatening, they lack the precision needed to knock out all of Taiwan's defenses, and China's submarine force is still in the early stages of modernization. A military and economic siege would take months to succeed. The cost to China itself would be immense, and the U.S. would have plenty of time to consider how to react. In sum, impressions of the Chinese threat are exaggerated, with respect to both China's capabilities and its intentions.

Key Points

* Despite a 17.7% rise in its defense budget in 2001 and recent arms purchases, China's military capabilities remain limited and will be limited for some time to come.

* China is reacting to what it sees as a much more aggressive foreign policy from the United States. The Chinese view themselves as being threatened. Bullying China is counterproductive and fuels mutual misperceptions.

* There is a danger that the U. S. and China could easily stumble into a confrontation that neither wants.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bickford, Thomas
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:Apr 30, 2001
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