Monday, November 13, 2006
China's military buildup accelerates...
China is beginning to reap the rewards of an intensive and very costly military modernization program designed to turn its armed forces into a streamlined and integrated force.Over the past decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been engaged in an ambitious and concerted effort to become a modern, war-fighting organization, one that can project its military power well beyond China’s borders.Taiwan is the immediate focus of the army’s strategy, but the PLA is also taking a longer-term view and is upgrading its capabilities to become a world-class fighting force. However, during its transformation, it has to deal with the obsolescence of old equipment as it tries to acquire new arms.
The balance of power across the Taiwan Strait is tipping in China’s favor, but Beijing has to contend with the United States and Japan, allied powers that want to contain the PLA’s expansion and deter any adventurism on its part toward Taiwan.The PLA will want to test its capabilities against the most modern fighting forces it can, the most cooperative being Russia. It cannot count on Moscow to provide the most up-to-date military hardware, but it will secure some level of technology to carry modernization forward. However, Moscow appears willing to engage in regular military exercises, and there is likely to be an increase in activity here.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the PLA has deployed between 650 and 730 ballistic missiles near the Taiwan Strait. The army is also understood to be building an arsenal of at least 200 Hong-Niao cruise missiles within the next year.Taiwan’s long-standing superiority in the cross-strait military balance has been erased by China’s rapid build-up. However, the PLA still does not have sufficient firepower to be confident of launching a successful invasion against the island, at least until the early part of the next decade.The United States has been boosting its military support and arms sales to Taiwan while trying to thwart the pace of China’s military transformation. One of Washington’s diplomatic priorities is to dissuade the European Union from lifting an arms embargo on China that has been in place since the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests.Chinese military planners assume that the United States, with logistical support from Japan, will intervene militarily against China in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. A key element of the PLA’s military preparations against Taiwan has consequently been to execute a quick and decisive victory against Taiwanese forces while deterring or holding off an effective U.S. military response.
To achieve such an objective, the PLA would need to execute what has been classified as 'The Assassin's Mace strategy.' First blinding US satellites, then jamming the joint US-Japanese’s communication apparatus. Finally, centering on the neutralization of Taiwan’s civilian and military command-and-control apparatuses, hitting vital infrastructure and communication facilities and targeting its key military capabilities.Japan and the United States have been closely monitoring China’s military modernization efforts. Last December, the Japanese government issued a national-program outline to guide the country’s defense and security policies over the next 10 years. This pointed out that China was a potential threat and its military modernization efforts, especially the development of its naval, air and missile forces, needed close monitoring.
The United States has been strengthening its naval presence around the Taiwan Strait in the face of the Chinese buildup. The U.S. Navy has established a forward deployment base in Guam for its nuclear attack-submarine fleet. In response, Chinese submarines have become increasingly active in waters around Japan and Guam. Last November, a diplomatic row flared up between China and Japan after a Han-class nuclear submarine was detected in Japanese waters.China is trying to expand its security ties with Russia to balance any efforts by the United States and Japan to contain its military buildup.
In August, the Chinese and Russian armed forces held a weeklong series of military exercises on the Liaodong Peninsula in northeast China. Although officials described them as counterterrorism exercises, the participation of airborne assault forces, marines, Tu-22M strategic bombers and other major military assets allowed the PLA a rare but invaluable opportunity to test its improving capabilities against a major military power. These are critical war-fighting capabilities that the PLA would employ in the event of conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Both countries have indicated that these exercises could become an annual event.The PLA wants to accelerate the already rapid pace of military transformation within the new 11th five-year defense plan, to begin in 2006. While the specifics of the plan remain secret, civilian and military leaders have highlighted key priorities for the PLA and the industrial defence base to focus on in the medium-to-long term.
China’s leaders have given strong backing to the PLA’s transformation and regeneration efforts, with hefty and sustained increases in military spending over recent years. The official defense budget has risen by an annual average of 15 percent over the past five years, from 121 billion renminbi ($15 billion) in 2001 to 220 billion renminbi last year. The real purchasing power of the defense budget has been further boosted by a benign inflationary climate during this period.
At the March National People’s Congress, defense spending for 2005 was budgeted at 247 billion renminbi, representing a 12.6 percent increase over 2004. These published figures represent between one-third and one-half of actual military expenditure.Balancing the costly demands of the military while meeting the needs of the country’s fast-paced economic development will test Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and State President Hu Jintao, who took over from Jiang Zemin as commander in chief of the armed forces in September last year. Hu will have learned from his predecessor that to win the confidence and loyalty of senior officers he must ensure that the PLA benefits from a rising share of the country’s growing prosperity.As long as overall economic growth remains robust, Hu should be able to satisfy the military’s budgetary demands. However, if the economy were to falter — a possibility if recent concerns over economic overheating were to trigger a hard landing — the hefty increases in official and off-budget defense spending might prove unsustainable.
With little previous experience in operational military matters, Hu has been focusing most of his attention on overseeing political issues centered on party-army relations and ensuring the continued political loyalty of the military rank and file. While he will leave professional and war-fighting issues to the higher levels of personnel, the deepening tensions in cross-strait issues may require him to spend more of his time on military issues than his predecessors.With strong political support and steadily rising defense budgets, China’s defense transformation will continue at an accelerating pace over at least the next few years. Chinese defense chiefs will become increasingly confident they can project their military power far from the country’s shores. However, the PLA has not been involved in actual combat for the past 25 years, and its newly acquired war-fighting capabilities and skills are untested.