China Stands Up

Aug. 1, 2007
Sun Tzu would be pleased. Some 2,500 years ago, the great Chinese strategist wrote: “The art of war is of vital importance to the state.” Today, communist China, with a rapidly if unevenly expanding economy, has turned to building a world-class military force and mastering the art of modern war, all part of its quest to become the predominant power in Asia.

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.”

Beijing’s rulers intend to acquire unequaled political, diplomatic, economic, and military power—what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power.” They seek to become so strong that no other Asian nation can contemplate any major step without first gaining China’s consent, a contemporary form of tribute that China’s emperors once demanded of vassal states.

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.

The white paper said the world is “moving toward multipolarity”—away from superpower dominance of the United States. The paper obliquely asserted that some nations (read, US) have accelerated the acquisition of “high-tech weaponry to gain military superiority” and that “hegemonism and power politics remain key factors undermining international security.”

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.”

Chinese leaders have complained repeatedly that those moves and others by Southeast Asians, South Asians, and Europeans are intended to “contain China.”

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.

These lines are conceptual; they establish a planning objective. If realized, the second island chain would push China’s defense perimeter well east. China seeks to acquire sufficient air- and sea power to deny US forces access to the area behind that line. Superquiet US submarines could penetrate it, but land-based aircraft from Guam and Okinawa would have to fight their way in, and surface warships such as aircraft carriers would have even more difficulty.

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:

  • The Air Force intends to accelerate its “transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations.”
  • The Navy aims for “gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defense operations.”
  • The Army aims to move from regional defense to “transregional mobility,” featuring long distance maneuvers, rapid assaults, and special operations.
  • The so-called “Second Artillery,” which commands China’s nuclear arms, plans to acquire additional missiles, both nuclear and conventional.

The Chief of Staff of China’s forces, Gen. Liang Guanglie, reinforced those points in a March address. Liang set out several objectives: “From start to finish, keep the protection of national sovereignty and national security in first place. Step up the effort to prepare for military struggle. Put great effort into building up combat forces, personnel development, and battlefield construction.”

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.”

Military Spending Puzzle

The report, however, quoted the Liberation Army Daily newspaper as saying the PLA is striving “to construct a military force that is commensurate with China’s status.”

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.

Outside of China, however, few if any accept the official figure. Unofficial estimates vary wildly. Defense Intelligence Agency analysts put Chinese military spending between $85 billion and $125 billion. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London comes in at $75 billion, while the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates $140 billion when adjusted for purchasing power parity, which measures actual local costs. Using the same method, John J. Tkacik Jr. of the Heritage Foundation in Washington asserts that China spends $430 billion.

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.

A missile attack combined with a naval blockade is the most likely scenario. That might be followed with a combined airborne and amphibious assault, but China today lacks sufficient air transport and amphibious shipping for assured success.

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.

The act all but obligates the US to help defend Taiwan, saying the US would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” to be of “grave concern.” The act requires the US “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States” to resist the use of force or “other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people 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.

Though Taiwan is the current focus, China is assembling a force able to project air and naval power into what it calls the “Blue Frontier,” the deep Pacific that is now the domain of the United States Air Force and United States Navy. To the south, China is preparing forces to operate in the South China Sea, whose waters and islands are claimed as Chinese territory. The PLA Navy is also assembling the capabilities needed to protect China’s freedom of action in the Malacca Strait, through which passes 80 percent of China’s imported oil.

China has no shortage of possible flash points around its periphery, either.

The nation’s relations with Vietnam to the south have been testy for more than one thousand years; in 1979, the two fought a brief war, with China suffering an embarrassing bloody nose. China fought a border war with India in 1962, and Beijing still views India as a rival for influence in Asia.

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.

To meet its perceived security needs, the PLA has been undergoing a broad-based buildup, reducing ground forces in favor of airpower, naval vessels, and a wide range of missiles, space assets, and tools for information warfare.

2.3 Million Strong

In 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.

China has made progress, the paper claimed, “towards the goal of being proper in size, optimal in structure, streamlined in organization, swift and flexible in command, and powerful in fighting capacity.”

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.

Some are capable of aerial refueling, and China is working on airborne warning and control system aircraft along the lines of the USAF E-3 AWACS. Recently, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the US Air Force Chief of Staff, reported that China is now operating indigenous tanker aircraft.

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.

“PLA air defense has shifted from point defense of key military, industrial, and political targets to a new … modern, integrated air defense system and offensive and defensive counterair operations,” DOD reported. “These operations extend beyond the defense of Chinese airspace to include strikes against an adversary’s bases (including aircraft carriers) and logistics to degrade the adversary’s ability to conduct air operations.”

The unnamed adversary is clearly the United States.

In training, says an American pilot with access to the relevant intelligence reporting, “the Chinese are flying more now than they used to but are still not up to the standards of the US or Japan.”

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, which can fly at Mach 2.35, is the first Chinese fighter capable of competing with Western fighters. In US-Russian mock battles, according to Sinodefence, a private Web site in Britain, the Su-27 outperformed the F-15C Eagle.

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 two-seat, twin-engine Su-30, the most capable fighter possessed by China today, began arriving in 2000. Another order brought 24 Su-30MKK2 fighters to the PLA Navy, which would send them from land bases to fly anti-ship missions. The Su-30 can deliver Russian-made guided air-to-ground weapons in all kinds of weather, day or night, and has advanced air-to-air weapons such as radar-homing missiles.

The aircraft is fitted with electronic countermeasures and surveillance suites for target acquisition.

The Mach 2 Su-30 was derived from the Su-27. The aircraft has two sets of flight and weapon controls and a combat radius of 960 miles. Refueled from the Russian Il-78 tanker, the fighter’s radius can be extended to 1,560 miles with one refueling, or 2,100 miles with another. Thus, with two refuelings, an Su-30 based inland could strike Guam or into the Indian Ocean, or loiter over the South China Sea.

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.

Perhaps the greatest leap forward in Chinese airpower occurred in January, when the PLA unveiled the first made-in-China fighter, the Jian-10, also known as J-10, and announced that it was now ready for combat. It is a single-engine, all-weather, multirole fighter developed by the 611 Aircraft Design Institute in Chengdu, under tight security. The prototype made its first flight in mid-1996, but it was not successful. Engineers redesigned it.

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.

With Chinese attention focused on multimission fighters, bombers appear to have less priority. The most advanced ground attack aircraft are probably 40 to 50 JH-7 two-seat fighter-bombers. The PLA has also resumed production of the 40-year-old H-6 medium bomber because it lacked a suitable successor aircraft.

Six Missions

For 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.

At sea, the PLA Navy is expanding with made-in-China warships and submarines and is buying from Russia.

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.

ONI has identified six missions for China’s Navy: Blockade, attacking sea lines of communication, land attack with missiles, anti-ship campaigns, protecting China’s sea transport, and defending China’s naval bases. The Navy has 70 destroyers and frigates, 50 amphibious ships, and 45 coastal patrol craft—but the heart of naval operations is the submarine.

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.

China is building nuclear-powered attack submarines with four 6,500-ton Shang boats to be added to five 5,000-ton Han boats by 2010. (The backbone of the US attack submarine force is the 7,000-ton Los Angeles-class boat.)

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.”

China wants a carrier for international prestige and actual power projection capabilities. It would not, however, need a carrier to attack Taiwan. Land-based aircraft and missiles would carry the brunt of any such assault, as the island sits just 100 miles off mainland China’s coast.

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.

US intelligence says China has 900 conventional missiles with a range of 600 miles deployed opposite Taiwan, with that force growing by 100 missiles a year. Moreover, the PLA has begun acquiring conventional medium-range ballistic missiles, apparently to increase to 1,800 miles the range at which China can strike with precision against US warships and bases.

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.”

In China’s nuclear missile inventory are 20 silo-based CSS-4s with a range of 8,000 miles and 16 to 24 older CSS-3s with a range of 3,300 miles. The CSS-4s have the range to hit the continental United States. Newer missiles are the solid-fuel, mobile DF-31 with a range of 4,350 miles and the DF-31A with a range of 6,760 miles.

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.

Sputnik II

In January, China fired a missile to destroy an old Chinese weather satellite. This watershed event punctuated the nation’s ambitions in space; Moseley described it as a “strategically dislocating event” on a par with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957. The Chinese have pursued an aggressive space program as an element of comprehensive national power, as a source of pride in self-reliance, and for both commercial and military use.

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.

China has thus shown it is keenly aware of the US reliance on satellites for military communications and intelligence. The January anti-satellite shot served notice that, in the event of Sino-US hostilities, China could seek to damage or even cripple America’s on-orbit systems.

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.

China’s military prowess is clearly on the rise, yet, despite the planning, training, and money invested in the PLA, US leaders contend that China does not yet constitute a peer threat to US armed forces. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates claims the United States is “simply watching to see what they’re doing.”

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.

The Pentagon’s report cautioned, however, that as PLA modernization progresses, “twin misperceptions could lead to miscalculation or crisis.”

First, other countries could underestimate the extent to which Chinese forces and capabilities have improved.

Second, China’s leaders may overestimate the proficiency of their forces by assuming that new systems are “fully operational, adeptly operated, adequately maintained, and well integrated with existing or other new capabilities.”

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.

Informationization Warfare

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 PLA is speeding up its own revolution in military affairs with Chinese features, the paper said, and is “enhancing in an all-around way its capabilities of defensive operations under conditions of informationization.”

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.”

Pentagon analysts believe the PLA is investing in electronic countermeasures, defenses against electronic attack (e.g., electronic and infrared decoys, angle reflectors, and false target generators), and computer network operations. DOD’s new China report stated that in 2005, the PLA began to incorporate offensive computer network operations into its exercises, “primarily in first strikes against enemy networks.”

Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, D.C., is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.