The Chinese Buildup Rolls On

Sept. 1, 1997

China has embarked on a major military buildup that the Pentagon views as a potential threat to regional stability in the Far East and to US influence in the Pacific and the world. This threat could become reality in 10 to 15 years, DoD officials maintain.

The People’s Liberation Army, as the Communist Chinese military is called, is developing six distinct types of fighters-more than any nation-and a new mobile strategic missile that Air Force Intelligence calls a “significant threat” to US forces in the Pacific and portions of the continental United States.

China’s recent weapons purchases from Russia comprise advanced warplanes, two guided-missile destroyers, and top-of-the-line artillery. The Office of Naval Intelligence reported that Beijing’s leaders are committed to deploying a 40,000-ton-class aircraft carrier by 2010.

US defense officials are reluctant to openly characterize China as a threat, or even potential threat, but China’s march to acquire sophisticated weapons, combined with a raft of troubling statements issued by Chinese military officials, has raised new concerns about the world’s most populous nation.

Facts and Figures on the China Military Machine

Armed Forces


2.9 million


1.2 million


2.2 million

Air Force






The head of US Pacific Command, Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, maintained that US forces are far superior to anything fielded by the Chinese PLA. However, he said he is under no illusions about the potential dangers that a rearmed China could pose in another decade or so. “Our overall strategy is to deal with China from a position of strength,” said Prueher, “but we also are focusing on … China’s interests … and respecting those interests.”

China’s strategic intentions “are part of every discussion we have with every nation in the theater,” he added.

Prueher maintained that Beijing is not now a threat but could well become one through vigorous weapons development and military modernization programs. He said, “In my estimation, China is about a decade and a half away with its training and equipment before they can put it all together.”

New Truculence

The buildup coincides with disturbing instances of truculence in Beijing, especially toward the breakaway nation of Taiwan. In July 1995, following the visit of Taiwan’s President to the United States, an angry China carried out a series of ballistic missile test firings whose aim points were only 85 miles off the coast of Taiwan. All the missiles were modern, mobile, and nuclear-capable. These exercises resumed in August 1995 and continued for several months.

The latest in a series of intimidation moves took place in early 1996, just before Taiwan’s first Presidential election was held on March 23. Beijing massed troops in China opposite Taiwan and lofted hints that it might attack. For 18 days, Chinese forces carried out menacing war games and imposed a virtual blockade of Taiwan with a series of four short-range-missile tests bracketing the island. US officials said the actions, taken together, could be viewed as a “contingency scenario for an invasion of Taiwan.” It was a blatant attempt to influence the election.

The exercises prompted a major show of US force: the deployment of two aircraft carrier battle groups near the island. According to US officials, dispatch of the battle groups shocked Chinese military leaders, who had questioned American resolve to defend what they regard as a breakaway province. Prueher would say only, “We and the other nations are very much committed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”

For Prueher, the Pacific commander, the long-running crisis in the Taiwan Strait was a highly significant event; he said that the world should take it as a wake-up call and ominous reminder that even hoped-for friends can become potential enemies.

Arthur Waldron, a leading China specialist at the US Naval War College, sees troubling signs in China’s arms buildup, which is aimed at projecting power far from the mainland’s shores, and in recent signs of “aggressive intent,” not only over Taiwan but also with respect to the Spratly Islands, in conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

Ross H. Munro, coauthor of a much-discussed new book with the ominous title, The Coming Conflict With China, says many US intelligence and policy officials play down the Chinese military threat, comparing China’s arsenal with superior US counterparts. “That is a very misleading way to look at rising Chinese military power,” he says. “Even today, Chinese military power is much greater than that of Iraq, but Iraq was able to create very serious problems for us.”

Beijing’s top leaders, in an effort to expand Chinese influence, are making claims to national boundaries that extend 1,000 miles beyond those recognized by most of its neighbors and reach as far south as the southern rim of the South China Sea, says Waldron. “It’s illusory to think they can achieve that by military force, but it’s a goal, and they are attempting to structure their forces with that as a target,” he says. “That is something that must cause us concern.”

On the Line

Washington has committed itself to a “one China” policy but has pledged to prevent reunification by force and would surely be drawn into the confrontation if China tried to seize Taiwan. Prueher says China’s actions toward Taiwan in the crisis prompted unified resistance from the United States, and many nations in the region are committed to seeing that China and Taiwan resolve their differences peacefully, he says.

China is making territorial claims to the Spratlys and Paracel Islands that have angered its Asian neighbors. Waldron views the actions as part of a Chinese strategy of challenging US influence in the Pacific by taking actions that are aggressive but which do not necessarily prompt action on the part of the United States.

One of the few US military assessments to be produced recently is a Pentagon study, “Selected Military Capabilities of the People’s Republic of China,” released in April by the House National Security Committee. It expresses uncertainty about China’s ultimate military aims but states flatly, “As an emerging great power, China will probably build its military power to the point where it can engage and defeat any potential enemy within the region with its conventional forces and can deter any global strategic threat to China’s national security.”

According to the report, China has embarked on a deliberate effort to strengthen itself in seven military areas:

  • Sea denial, meaning the ability to prevent another naval power, such as the US, from achieving sea control.
  • Advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
  • Accuracy of ballistic and cruise missiles.
  • Stronger command and control networks.
  • Advanced unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • Rapid deployment forces.
  • Enhanced precision targeting and strikes.

China, aided by infusions of Russian technology, now has the industrial capacity to produce as many as 1,000 new ballistic missiles within a decade even as it continues developing new land-attack cruise missiles that are a high priority for “theater warfighting and attack.”

Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.), the chairman of the House National Security Committee, criticized the Pentagon for couching the bad news in the report in “careful bureaucratic language.” He warned that the wording cannot mask real fears about China’s ultimate aims. “Chinese leaders have said that we are the enemy and stand as the major roadblock checking their desire to dominate East Asia,” Spence said, noting that the report “admits as much.”

Without Peer–For Now

The Quadrennial Defense Review, completed in May, came to the conclusion that the US will face no “global peer competitor,” such as the old Soviet Union, for some time. The QDR also stated the view that no regional power or coalition will be able to amass sufficient conventional military strength in the next 10 to 15 years to defeat US armed forces in a theater war, once the full military potential of the United States is mobilized and deployed to the region of conflict.

Whether the United States will remain the world’s sole superpower is less certain, according to the QDR. After 2015, it said, “there is the possibility that a regional great power or global peer competitor may emerge.” Russia and China are two candidates to be such competitors, but their futures are “quite uncertain,” the review says.

The Pentagon has no doubts, however, that China is engaged in an across-the-board effort to buy and develop advanced weapons that will permit the PLA to challenge US military power in the Pacific. “We aren’t trying to portray China as an enemy,” a senior military intelligence official says, but “the trend that we see in China-arming itself with strategic capability-is not positive.”

China’s military buildup includes a range of new and modern weapons that US officials say are directed at countering US airpower, surface warships, and submarines.

  • At least three current-generation fighters: the license-built Russian Su-27 air-superiority fighter, the indigenous F-10 multirole fighter, due out in 2005, and an aircraft carrier aircraft (possibly a derivative of the F-10). The Chinese also are designing an advanced fighter with radar-evading stealth characteristics known as the XXJ, along with a new FB-7 light strike aircraft, an improved F-8 interceptor, and the FC-1, a light fighter based on the MiG-21 that the Chinese will export.
  • China currently has over 50 Su-27s, purchased from Russia, and by 2012 will have built or purchased over 250 of the fighters equipped with advanced radar and AA-11 radar-guided missiles capable of hitting targets beyond visual range.
  • At least one aircraft carrier with a displacement of over 40,000 tons that will be fielded by 2010.
  • Beijing recently concluded a deal with Russia to buy two Sovremenny-class destroyers that will be armed with SS-N-22 cruise missiles that were designed specifically to attack US AEGIS-class ships. Pentagon officials said the Russian destroyer purchase, part of a weapons purchase worth between $8 billion and $10 billion, was a direct response to the deployment of US aircraft carriers during the Taiwan crisis.
  • China is building a new version of the 8,000-mile CSS-4 nuclear missile and in 1995 conducted the first test of a new road-mobile ICBM believed to be similar in design to the Russian SS-25. The DF-31 will be deployed within the next three years. The DF-31, with a range of 5,000 miles, will be deployed on mobile launchers and submarines. Another new missile, the DF-41, will be deployed around 2000 and will have a range of up to 7,500 miles. China will be only the second nation in the world to field hard-to-find, road-mobile nuclear missiles.
  • China’s strategic force of some 17 single-warhead, land-based ballistic missiles will be equipped with multiple independently retargetable warheads. The strategic force also includes more than 70 medium-range nuclear missiles and one Xia-class ballistic-missile submarine with 12 CSS-N-3 nuclear missiles.
  • In addition to the Russian-made destroyers, which will be used to enhance Chinese naval technology, China is focusing vast resources on building several new types of surface warships, notably adding to the two Luhu-class guided-missile destroyers and five Jiangwei-class guided-missile frigates now in its fleet.
  • The conversion of five B-6 bombers into aerial refueling tankers was described in one Pentagon intelligence report last year as part of an effort to extend the range of Chinese aircraft over large areas of the Pacific. “By 1997, Chinese tanker and receiver aircraft probably will be able to perform some long-range escort, air-to-air, and ground-attack missions over the South China Sea or elsewhere in the region,” the report stated.
  • Development of new nuclear submarines to replace China’s aging diesel submarines. The first is a new attack submarine called the “Type 093” that is expected soon after 2000, according to DoD. The submarine will use advanced quieting, weapons, and sensors and will be equipped with torpedoes, antisubmarine warfare missiles, and a submarine-launched antiship cruise missile based on an advanced version of China’s C801, the ONI report states.

China also is building a new ballistic-missile submarine that DoD believes is part of China’s “announced long-term national goal of attaining a survivable nuclear retaliatory force.” The “Type 094” submarine will be built early in the next century, will be the largest Chinese submarine, and is expected to be armed with 16 JL-2 missiles, each with a range of 4,000 miles. “When deployed in the next decade, this missile will allow Chinese SSBNs to target portions of the United States for the first time from operating areas located near the Chinese coast,” the ONI report states.

  • Purchase of four new Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Two Kilos have been delivered and a third will be launched soon in St. Petersburg. According to ONI, the last two Kilos will be upgraded submarines that were described in a recent publication as “one of the quietest diesel submarines in the world.”

“In addition, Kilos are exported with a weapons package that includes both wake-homing and wire-guided acoustic homing torpedoes,” the report states. The Russian wake-homing torpedo is described by DoD as highly effective and designed to ignore acoustic ship defenses and evasive maneuvers.

  • China’s military is actively acquiring Western and US military technology. For example, a Chinese company last year obtained sophisticated US power transmission devices used in airborne missile guidance and fire-control radar, targeting systems, and navigation pods.
  • China is investing in advanced Russian and Western surface-to-air missile systems, including up to 100 of Russia’s SA-10 long-range SAMs used to protect major government and industrial centers. Beijing also is producing new shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles copied from Russia’s SA-7. The Chinese air-defense developments emphasize building weapons that are capable of detecting and eventually engaging radar-evading stealth aircraft and cruise missiles-all systems owned exclusively by the United States.
  • Purchase from Russia of 10 Il-76 aircraft transports, 24 Mi-17 assault helicopters, and some 50 T-72 tanks.

Military analysts are impressed not only with China’s drive to acquire advanced platforms but also with their weapons and support systems. For example, each of the two Sovremenny-class missile destroyers that Beijing is buying from Russia will be equipped with up to eight SS-N-22 Sunburn antiship cruise missiles. China also is buying Kilo submarines from Russia-as many as 10 vessels-and each could be equipped with up to 10 wake-homing torpedoes that are especially deadly and hard to counter.

China is expected to field up to 250 Su-27s (NATO “Flanker”), including Russian-purchased jets, jets assembled in China, and those that eventually will be indigenously produced from scratch, said Naval Intelligence. The Flanker-the closest competitor to the F-15-is China’s only fourth-generation fighter and will be equipped with world-class AA-10 and AA-11 air-to-air missiles and beyond-visual-range, radar-guided missiles.

Michael Pillsbury, a China specialist and senior defense official during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, says the public debate on the China threat is healthy. “Chinese diplomacy since 1992 has succeeded in intimidating foreign specialists from even talking publicly about a China threat,” he says.

“Chinese purchases of Russian wake-homing torpedoes for their Kilo submarines, ECM pods for their Flankers, [and] Sunburns for their destroyers already escalate the challenge to US forces in Asia,” Pillsbury warns. “China’s new conventional missiles that can reach our bases in South Korea, Okinawa, Japan, and even Guam will have a chilling effect on future Presidents considering the use of force. China’s robust space program already possesses an inherent capability for a direct ascent, antisatellite missile of the type the Russians have had for two decades.”

Analysts contend that, despite China’s claims of benign intent, its military buildup can only be viewed as provocative. Sen. Jon L. Kyl (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “The kinds of things the Chinese are doing to enhance their military capability are both offensive in nature, in the sense they involve power projection, and also out of proportion to any threat. That’s the concern the policy-makers have.”

Military analysts said that the kind of weapons being purchased and developed include systems that seem specifically designed for attacking US ships and aircraft, including a deal with Moscow to buy two Russian warships with SS-N-22 antiship cruise missiles. The SS-N-22 is a high-speed missile that Moscow developed specifically to destroy US AEGIS-class ships.

“Significant Threat”

A recent report by the Air Force’s National Air Intelligence Center reveals that China’s new DF-31 mobile ICBM will be deployed around the turn of the century and “will narrow the gap between current Chinese, US, and Russian ballistic missile designs.” The report added, “It will be a significant threat not only to US forces deployed in the Pacific theater, but to portions of the continental United States and to many of our allies.”

Actual construction of a Chinese carrier has not begun, but US naval intelligence officials say the multibillion-dollar program is under way and will be a major step forward for a sea-and-air-oriented strategy of projecting power up to 1,000 miles from China’s east coast. Chinese success at operating a carrier, which requires unique tactical skills and special aircraft, is not certain. “This is a future kind of thing,” says a US Navy intelligence analyst. “We say it will be around 2010, or about 13 years away.”

A Pentagon specialist on China says the Chinese army, with some 2.2 million troops, is not modernizing as rapidly as is the case with its naval and air forces. The ground forces are likely in the future to be called on to maintain civil order in the western and northern regions rather than to defend borders. A key component of China’s ground force modernization is the purchase of Russian 120 mm self-propelled gun mortars. About 100 have been purchased so far and more are expected.

China has begun seeking high-quality, advanced-technology weaponry and has focused its military strategy on projecting power along its 10,000 nautical miles of coastline as part of a “Two Island Chain” strategy. The strategy calls for beefing up naval and air forces from China’s east coast to cover two sets of islands. One stretches south from Japan through Taiwan and all the way to Indonesia and Singapore. The other embraces a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean that includes all of Japan’s islands, areas beyond the Mariana Islands, and a line extending southward hundreds of miles west of the Philippines.

“The Chinese navy should exert effective control of the seas within the first island chain,” said Gen. Liu Huaqing, head of the PLA Navy. ” ‘Offshore’ should not be interpreted as ‘coastal’ as we used to know it. Offshore is a concept relative to the high seas. It means the vast sea waters within the second island chain.”

Whatever Beijing’s intentions, it seems clear that China won’t be able to go on too much longer without creating a major response from nations such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. As the report of the QDR put it, “China’s efforts to modernize its forces and improve its power-projection capabilities will not go unnoticed, likely spurring concerns from others in the region.”

Bill Gertz covers national security affairs and defense for the Washington Times. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Crowding In on the High Ground,” appeared in the April 1997 issue.