The Economist – 2007-08-04 22:59:39
BEIJING & TIANJIN (Aug 2nd 2007) — The sight is as odd as its surroundings are bleak. Where a flat expanse of mud flats, salt pans and fish farms reaches the Bohai Gulf, a vast ship looms through the polluted haze. It is an aircraft-carrier, the Kiev, once the proud possession of the Soviet Union. Now it is a tourist attraction. Chinese visitors sit on the flight deck under Pepsi umbrellas, reflecting perhaps on a great power that was and another, theirs, that is fast in the making.
Inside the Kiev, the hangar bay is divided into two. On one side, bored-looking visitors watch an assortment of dance routines featuring performers in ethnic-minority costumes. On the other side is a full-size model of China’s new J-10, a plane unveiled with great fanfare in January as the most advanced fighter built by the Chinese themselves (except for the Ukrainian or Russian turbofan engines—but officials prefer not to advertise this). A version of this, some military analysts believe, could one day be deployed on a Chinese ship.
The Pentagon is watching China’s aircraft-carrier ambitions with bemused interest. Since the 1980s, China has bought four of them (three from the former Soviet Union and an Australian one whose construction began in Britain during the second world war). Like the Kiev, the Minsk (berthed near Hong Kong) has been turned into a tourist attraction having first been studied closely by Chinese naval engineers. Australia’s carrier, the Melbourne, has been scrapped.
The biggest and most modern one, the Varyag, is in the northern port city of Dalian, where it is being refurbished. Its destiny is uncertain. The Pentagon says it might be put into service, used for training carrier crews, or become yet another floating theme-park.
American global supremacy is not about to be challenged by China’s tinkering with aircraft-carriers. Even if China were to commission one—which analysts think unlikely before at least 2015—it would be useless in the most probable area of potential conflict between China and America, the Taiwan Strait. China could far more easily launch its jets from shore.
But it would be widely seen as a potent symbol of China’s rise as a military power. Some Chinese officers want to fly the flag ever farther afield as a demonstration of China’s rise. As China emerges as a trading giant (one increasingly dependent on imported oil), a few of its military analysts talk about the need to protect distant sea lanes in the Malacca Strait and beyond.
This week China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as the armed forces are known, is celebrating the 80th year since it was born as a group of ragtag rebels against China’s then rulers. Today it is vying to become one of the world’s most capable forces: one that could, if necessary, keep even the Americans at bay. The PLA has little urge to confront America head-on, but plenty to deter it from protecting Taiwan.
The pace of China’s military upgrading is causing concern in the Pentagon. Eric McVadon, a retired rear admiral, told a congressional commission in 2005 that China had achieved a “remarkable leap” in the modernisation of forces needed to overwhelm Taiwan and deter or confront any American intervention. And the pace of this, he said, was “urgently continuing”. By Pentagon standards, Admiral McVadon is doveish.
In its annual report to Congress on China’s military strength, published in May, the Pentagon said China’s “expanding military capabilities” were a “major factor” in altering military balances in East Asia. It said China’s ability to project power over long distances remained limited. But it repeated its observation, made in 2006, that among “major and emerging powers” China had the “greatest potential to compete militarily” with America.
Since the mid-1990s China has become increasingly worried that Taiwan might cut its notional ties with the mainland. To instil fear into any Taiwanese leader so inclined, it has been deploying short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) on the coast facing the island as fast as it can produce them—about 100 a year. The Pentagon says there are now about 900 of these DF-11s (CSS-7) and DF-15s (CSS-6). They are getting more accurate. Salvoes of them might devastate Taiwan’s military infrastructure so quickly that any war would be over before America could respond.
Much has changed since 1995 and 1996, when China’s weakness in the face of American power was put on stunning display. In a fit of anger over America’s decision in 1995 to allow Lee Teng-hui, then Taiwan’s president, to make a high-profile trip to his alma mater, Cornell University, China fired ten unarmed DF-15s into waters off Taiwan. The Americans, confident that China would quickly back off, sent two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the region as a warning. The tactic worked. Today America would have to think twice. Douglas Paal, America’s unofficial ambassador to Taiwan from 2002 to 2006, says the “cost of conflict has certainly gone up.”
The Chinese are now trying to make sure that American aircraft-carriers cannot get anywhere near. Admiral McVadon worries about their development of DF-21 (CSS-5) medium-range ballistic missiles. With their far higher re-entry velocities than the SRBMs, they would be much harder for Taiwan’s missile defences to cope with. They could even be launched far beyond Taiwan into the Pacific to hit aircraft-carriers. This would be a big technical challenge. But Admiral McVadon says America “might have to worry” about such a possibility within a couple of years.
Once the missiles have done their job, China’s armed forces could (so they hope) follow up with a panoply of advanced Russian weaponry—mostly amassed in the past decade. Last year the Pentagon said China had imported around $11 billion of weapons between 2000 and 2005, mainly from Russia.
China knows it has a lot of catching up to do. Many Americans may be unenthusiastic about America’s military excursions in recent years, particularly about the war in Iraq. But Chinese military authors, in numerous books and articles, see much to be inspired by.
On paper at least, China’s gains have been impressive. Even into the 1990s China had little more than a conscript army of ill-educated peasants using equipment based largely on obsolete Soviet designs of the 1950s and outdated cold-war (or even guerrilla-war) doctrine.
Now the emphasis has shifted from ground troops to the navy and air force, which would spearhead any attack on Taiwan. China has bought 12 Russian Kilo-class diesel attack submarines. The newest of these are equipped with supersonic Sizzler cruise missiles that America’s carriers, many analysts believe, would find hard to stop.
There are supersonic cruise missiles too aboard China’s four new Sovremenny-class destroyers, made to order by the Russians and designed to attack aircraft-carriers and their escorts. And China’s own shipbuilders have not been idle. In an exhibition marking the 80th anniversary, Beijing’s Military Museum displays what Chinese official websites say is a model of a new nuclear-powered attack submarine, the Shang.
These submarines would allow the navy to push deep into the Pacific, well beyond Taiwan, and, China hopes, help defeat American carriers long before they get close. Last year, much to America’s embarrassment, a newly developed Chinese diesel submarine for shorter-range missions surfaced close to the American carrier Kitty Hawk near Okinawa without being detected beforehand.
American air superiority in the region is now challenged by more than 200 advanced Russian Su-27and Su-30 fighters China has acquired since the 1990s. Some of these have been made under licence in China itself. The Pentagon thinks China is also interested in buying Su-33s, which would be useful for deployment on an aircraft-carrier, if China decides to build one.
During the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96, America could be reasonably sure that, even if war did break out (few seriously thought it would), it could cope with any threat from China’s nuclear arsenal. China’s handful of strategic missiles capable of hitting mainland America were based in silos, whose positions the Americans most probably knew.
Launch preparations would take so long that the Americans would have plenty of time to knock them out. China has been working hard to remedy this. It is deploying six road-mobile, solid-fuelled (which means quick to launch) intercontinental DF-31s and is believed to be developing DF-31As with a longer range that could hit anywhere in America (see map below), as well as submarine-launched (so more concealable) JL-2s that could threaten much of America too.
All Dressed Up and Ready to Fight?
But how much use is all this hardware? Not a great deal is known about the PLA’s fighting capability. It is by far the most secretive of the world’s big armies. One of the few titbits it has been truly open about in the build-up to the celebrations is the introduction of new uniforms to mark the occasion: more body-hugging and, to howls of criticism from some users of popular Chinese internet sites, more American-looking.
As Chinese military analysts are well aware, America’s military strength is not just about technology. It also involves training, co-ordination between different branches of the military (“jointness”, in the jargon), gathering and processing intelligence, experience and morale. China is struggling to catch up in these areas too. But it has had next to no combat experience since a brief and undistinguished foray into Vietnam in 1979 and a huge deployment to crush pro-democracy unrest ten years later.
China is even coyer about its war-fighting capabilities than it is about its weaponry. It has not rehearsed deep-sea drills against aircraft-carriers. It does not want to create alarm in the region, nor to rile America. There is also a problem of making all this Russian equipment work. Some analysts say the Chinese have not been entirely pleased with their Su-27 and Su-30 fighters. Keeping them maintained and supplied with spare parts (from Russia) has not been easy. A Western diplomat says China is also struggling to keep its Russian destroyers and submarines in good working order. “We have to be cautious about saying ‘wow’,” he suggests of the new equipment.
China is making some progress in its efforts to wean itself off dependence on the Russians. After decades of effort, some analysts believe, China is finally beginning to use its own turbofan engines, an essential technology for advanced fighters. But self-sufficiency is still a long way off. The Russians are sometimes still reluctant to hand over their most sophisticated technologies. “The only trustworthy thing [the Chinese] have is missiles,” says Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan.
The Pentagon, for all its fretting, is trying to keep channels open to the Chinese. Military exchanges have been slowly reviving since their nadir of April 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet hit an American spy plane close to China. Last year, for the first time, the two sides conducted joint exercises—search-and-rescue missions off the coasts of America and China. But these were simple manoeuvres and the Americans learned little from them. The Chinese remain reluctant to engage in anything more complex, perhaps for fear of revealing their weaknesses.
The Russians have gained deeper insights. Two years ago the PLA staged large-scale exercises with them, the first with a foreign army. Although not advertised as such, these were partly aimed at scaring the Taiwanese. The two countries practised blockades, capturing airfields and amphibious landings. The Russians showed off some of the weaponry they hope to sell to the big-spending Chinese.
Another large joint exercise is due to be held on August 9th-17th in the Urals (a few troops from other members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a six-nation group including Central Asian states, will also take part). But David Shambaugh of George Washington University says the Russians have not been very impressed by China’s skills. After the joint exercise of 2005, Russians muttered about the PLA’s lack of “jointness”, its poor communications and the slowness of its tanks.
China has won much praise in the West for its increasing involvement in United Nations peacekeeping operations. But this engagement has revealed little of China’s combat capability. Almost all of the 1,600 Chinese peacekeepers deployed (including in Lebanon, Congo and Liberia) are engineers, transport troops or medical staff.
A series of “white papers” published by the Chinese government since 1998 on its military developments have shed little light either, particularly on how much the PLA is spending and on what. By China’s opaque calculations, the PLA enjoyed an average annual budget increase of more than 15% between 1990 and 2005 (nearly 10% in real terms). This year the budget was increased by nearly 18%. But this appears not to include arms imports, spending on strategic missile forces and research and development. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says the real level of spending in 2004 could have been about 1.7 times higher than the officially declared budget of 220 billion yuan ($26.5 billion at then exchange rates).
This estimate would make China’s spending roughly the same as that of France in 2004. But the different purchasing power of the dollar in the two countries—as well as China’s double-digit spending increases since then—push the Chinese total far higher. China is struggling hard to make its army more professional—keeping servicemen for longer and attracting better-educated recruits. This is tough at a time when the civilian economy is booming and wages are climbing. The PLA is having to spend much more on pay and conditions for its 2.3m people.
Keeping the army happy is a preoccupation of China’s leaders, mindful of how the PLA saved the party from probable destruction during the unrest of 1989. In the 1990s they encouraged military units to run businesses to make more money for themselves. At the end of the decade, seeing that this was fuelling corruption, they ordered the PLA to hand over its business to civilian control. Bigger budgets are now helping the PLA to make up for some of those lost earnings.
The party still sees the army as a bulwark against the kind of upheaval that has toppled communist regimes elsewhere. Chinese leaders lash out at suggestions (believed to be supported by some officers) that the PLA should be put under the state’s control instead of the party’s. The PLA is riddled with party spies who monitor officers’ loyalty. But the party also gives the army considerable leeway to manage its own affairs.
It worries about military corruption but seldom moves against it, at least openly (in a rare exception to this, a deputy chief of the navy was dismissed last year for taking bribes and “loose morals”). The PLA’s culture of secrecy allowed the unmonitored spread of SARS, an often fatal respiratory ailment, in the army’s medical system in 2003.
The PLA knows its weaknesses. It has few illusions that China can compete head-on with the Americans militarily. The Soviet Union’s determination to do so is widely seen in China as the cause of its collapse. Instead China emphasises weaponry and doctrine that could be used to defeat a far more powerful enemy using “asymmetric capabilities”.
The idea is to exploit America’s perceived weak points such as its dependence on satellites and information networks. China’s successful (if messy and diplomatically damaging) destruction in January of one of its own ageing satellites with a rocket was clearly intended as a demonstration of such power. Some analysts believe Chinese people with state backing have been trying to hack into Pentagon computers. Richard Lawless, a Pentagon official, recently said China had developed a “very sophisticated” ability to attack American computer and internet systems.
The Pentagon’s fear is that military leaders enamoured of new technology may underestimate the diplomatic consequences of trying it out. Some Chinese see a problem here too. The anti-satellite test has revived academic discussion in China of the need for setting up an American-style national security council that would help military planners co-ordinate more effectively with foreign-policy makers.
But the Americans find it difficult to tell China bluntly to stop doing what others are doing too (including India, which has aircraft-carriers and Russian fighter planes). In May Admiral Timothy Keating, the chief of America’s Pacific Command, said China’s interest in aircraft-carriers was “understandable”. He even said that if China chose to develop them, America would “help them to the degree that they seek and the degree that we’re capable.” But, he noted, “it ain’t as easy as it looks.”
A senior Pentagon official later suggested Admiral Keating had been misunderstood. Building a carrier for the Chinese armed forces would be going a bit far. But the two sides are now talking about setting up a military hotline. The Americans want to stay cautiously friendly as the dragon grows stronger.
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