The China Problem

Oct. 1, 1995
When the US relationship with China plunged to its lowest depth in years last summer, alarm spread through Washington that Beijing’s truculence reflected serious new military tensions, not merely the assertiveness of a late-blooming economic superpower.

Sino-American relations spiraled downward so fast it was hard to track the strains. Talk of military containment, Cold War–style, surfaced anew.

No less an authority than Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and architect of Sino-American détente, warned that Washington and Beijing were “on a collision course” that could prove “extremely costly to both sides.”

China’s words and actions raised serious questions about the long-term intentions of the world’s most populous nation, especially regarding its ambitious military buildup fueled by an explosive, two-decade-long economic expansion.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former CIA expert and assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, warned, “Capabilities, for sure they’ll grow. Intentions, we don’t know.”

Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, saw the start of serious trouble for the United States in China’s military modernization, defiance on human rights, and high-handedness on a wide range of regional disputes. He even raised the specter of a fourth US war in the Pacific.

“Within a short period of time,” he warned, “we may be in a major conflict, or that region [the Far East] may be involved in a major conflict that we are sucked into.”

Outside Washington, concerns also mounted. David Shambaugh, University of London professor and the editor of China Quarterly, predicted that the United States would face “a very uncooperative regime” in China in the near future. Mr. Shambaugh emphasized that the tension was not based on trivial matters. “This is a systemic struggle,” he said.

Likewise, the director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Susan Shirk, warned that the US would now encounter “conspicuous intransigence” from Chinese leaders. Embarked on a post–Deng Xiaoping transition of power, the leaders are driven to “signal strength” to a Chinese domestic audience.

Like the Kaiser’s Germany

Writing in Time, columnist Charles Krauthammer detected “an old-style dictatorship” in China, not on a messianic mission but “just out for power.” The result, he said, was a nation “like late nineteenth century Germany, a country growing too big and too strong for the continent it finds itself on.”

The diplomatic turn of events was so swift, dramatic, and threatening that experts began taking a new and careful look at China’s military and the course of its ongoing buildup.

The Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, headed by Andrew W. Marshall, ordered up a Rand Corp. analysis of China’s defense activities. The study concluded that China’s spending on the People’s Liberation Army tops $140 billion a year—twenty times Beijing’s official estimate. (“PLA” is used to denote all of the nation’s military forces.)

Congress asked the General Accounting Office to take its own look at China’s efforts. The resulting report, “National Security: Impact of China’s Military Modernization in the Pacific Region,” warned that China’s “official” defense budget grows at four percent per year and that it was “impossible to determine” the true rate of the spending increase because of secret spending on foreign arms imports and uncertainty about the PLA’s revenue-generating commercial enterprises.

The Air Force, for its part, commissioned a second Rand report, “China’s Air Force Enters the 21st Century,” prepared and written by Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krumel, and Jonathan Pollack. The three authors warned that Beijing’s fleet of 5,200 military aircraft—the third largest in the world—could eventually emerge in the next century as a force to be reckoned with.

The danger is not immediate, they said. The authors maintained that China’s air fleet still relies heavily on Russian technology for state-of-the-art subsystems and equipment and that it “does not constitute a credible offensive threat against the United States or its Asian allies today.”

The Rand study also found the logistical support system to be so rudimentary that fighters were unable to generate more than one training sortie every four or five days. Pilots got little of the training that USAF pilots considered routine; the Chinese take off three months of each year and rarely get more than 110 hours of annual flying time.

However, the report noted that Beijing nonetheless was intent on modernizing its air force. China, it said, had bought twenty-six of Russia’s advanced Su-27 “Flanker” multirole fighters, some 100 RD-33 jet engines to power China’s indigenously produced F-7 fighter, and ten Il-76 medium- to long-range transport aircraft suitable for use as aerial refuelers or platforms for electronic warfare.

That was just the start. Beijing has pursued co-production arrangements with Moscow to build a new-generation MiG-31 fighter for the Chinese inventory.

Still a Decade Away

Rand estimated that it would probably take another decade for China’s Air Force to turn itself into “an appreciably more formidable player.” However, sometime after that ten-year span, “Chinese airpower could emerge as a much more potent force,” provided that the Chinese Air Force continues to reform itself, develops its aerospace industrial infrastructure, and acquires more resources.

In recent reviews of Chinese military capabilities, the experts and officials devoted considerable attention to Beijing’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems.

“China appears determined to upgrade its strategic nuclear capabilities despite the end of the Cold War,” said GAO’s report to Congress. The agency further noted, “It has been the only country to continue nuclear testing during the past two years,” a period in which other nations—the US included—have observed an unofficial worldwide moratorium on testing.

China continued its development of the nuclear-weapons-carrying B-7 supersonic bomber, first flown in 1988. The bomber would augment the Chinese Air Force’s nearly 180 1960s-vintage nuclear-capable aircraft, which have ranges of up to 1,900 miles.

Upgrades to China’s nuclear missile force also were under way. China was working to replace its modest arsenal of liquid-fueled landbased ballistic missiles with more reliable quick-launch solid-fuel systems. More important, China was working to equip its missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs).

Paul Dibb, a specialist in Pacific and Asian defense at the Australian National University, claimed that China in a few years will have deployed up to seventy MIRVed, solid-fuel ICBMs, each of which would have a range of some 7,500 miles.

Beijing-based Western diplomats reported in June that China test fired the newly developed Dongfeng-31 ICBM, with a range of about 5,000 miles.

At sea, according to Navy analysts, China deploys one Xia-class ballistic-missile-firing submarine equipped with twelve ballistic missiles. Mr. Dibb said it planned to acquire a total of six more ballistic missile boats within the next fifteen years.

Perhaps the most problematic development in Chinese military affairs has been Beijing’s preparation of a go-anywhere, anytime rapid reaction force, which would pose an obvious danger to other nations in the region. Mr. Dibb, one of the foremost authorities on Chinese defense affairs, said that the 2.2 million member ground force has been putting “heavy emphasis” on modernizing rapid deployment forces equipped with highly accurate weapons.

Strengthening the “Fist”

China’s so-called “Fist” units, assigned to rapid deployment duties, acquired a “higher priority in the allocation of equipment and funding for training in order to maintain a high level of operational readiness,” reported Mr. Dibb, who added that Chinese capability to mount airborne and amphibious assaults was being “considerably enhanced.”

He warned, “Countries that share land borders with China will be concerned about its numerical land force superiority and its increased emphasis on rapid reaction troops and training for combined arms operations.”

The GAO report echoed this assessment. “If only the modernized ‘Fist’ units are considered,” it stated, “China still enjoys a substantial size advantage over most of its neighbors. With an emphasis on combined arms training exercises, China’s ‘Fist’ units will enhance China’s power projection capabilities.”

Naval affairs experts maintain that China is striving to construct a blue-water fleet and that the Chinese Navy is likely to put to sea an aircraft carrier by 2010 and deploy as many as three by 2015. Naval officers point out that it takes many years to master carrier operations and that no one should expect China to match US naval aviation prowess anytime soon. However, the capability will be large and threatening by regional standards.

China’s ongoing buildup leaves American planners facing the age-old dilemma of how to respond to the military capabilities of a potential adversary when the nation’s intentions are uncertain and the actual correlation of military forces has not yet been seriously disrupted.

Mr. Nye urged China to “allay neighboring Asian nations’ concerns over the buildup” with a series of discussions to “increase transparency [of Chinese military actions] and confidence in the region so that the worst-case assumptions will not be made.”

American specialists focused immediate concerns on the festering dispute between China and six other Asian nations over the Spratly Islands, a potentially oil-rich chain of 200 largely barren islets, reefs, and shoals scattered across nearly 150,000 square miles of the South China Sea.

James Lilley, a former ambassador to Beijing and one-time CIA station chief in Asia, said there was little doubt that China was staging “a creeping take-over” of the South China Sea.

“It’s going to happen—not in this century perhaps but in the next century,” Mr. Lilley told Congress last summer. “They are modernizing their military with this objective in mind.”

China’s officials appear to be waging a war of nerves with its neighbors. For example, China two years ago issued a new map bearing a mysterious dotted line encircling the Spratly Islands and Indonesia’s Natuna gas field, site of a $35 billion joint enterprise between Exxon and Pertamina, the Indonesian state oil company. Despite numerous requests, China has refused to clarify the significance of the marking.

Still Waiting

“We have asked what the dotted line is, and we are waiting for an answer,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. “We do not know for sure what China is actually claiming.”

The Philippines accused China of building naval support structures on Mischief Reef, claimed by Manila. Beijing planted its flag on the site while dubbing the structures ad hoc construction by Chinese fishermen.

In the face of ill-defined Chinese intentions, the Clinton Administration deepened its interest in the dispute. Instead of merely reciting appeals for Beijing to work peacefully with other nations to resolve conflicting claims, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Winston Lord, told Congress in July that China’s interest in the Spratlys had become “a major concern” to the Administration.

The Defense Department put China on notice that the US will not tolerate any interference with freedom of navigation in what it considers international waters. The US Seventh Fleet recently joined forces of the Philippines for military exercises near the islands.

The US-China tension over Taiwan was revived last summer when President Clinton approved a brief US visit by the Taiwanese president. Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian sparked concern with his tough statement in late July that China could use force to “settle the Taiwan issue” in the face of attempts by “foreign forces” to “interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

The People’s Liberation Army retaliated against Taiwan with psychological warfare, ordering the 90,000-strong missile forces to launch short-range, surface-to-surface missiles at a target zone within eighty-five miles of the northern tip of Taiwan as part of the “Blue Whale Five” exercises in July. “The basis for bilateral relations [with the US] has been shaken,” warned Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Chen Jian. “This is no trivial matter.”

John W. Lewis, a China expert at Stanford University, returned from meetings with Chinese military leaders to warn that the PLA’s top brass had ordered a comprehensive review of military contingency plans for preventing Taiwan from declaring independence.

In a more general sense, China’s growing military has major implications for US military strategy, which calls for retaining a force capable of fighting two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts. The strategy has tended to focus on such potential foes as North Korea, Iraq, or Iran—local powers all. More recently, however, the Pentagon began to put emphasis on planning for a larger conflict with a so-called “large peer competitor”—a euphemism for such nations as China and Russia.

Flash Points

US government analysts had no difficulty locating possible sources of a clash with China. They pointed to the danger of war on the Korean peninsula, with the prospect of the US and China on different sides. Russia, Japan, India, and Vietnam all have dormant but still unresolved disputes with Beijing. Pakistan and Iran have been receiving shipments of advanced weapons, including missile components, from China.

The Pentagon began quietly taking Chinese developments into account. The Defense Department’s blueprint for Asia strategy, “United States Security Strategy for the East-Asia Pacific Region,” released in February 1995, said, “Although China’s leaders insist their military buildup is defensive and commensurate with China’s overall economic growth, others in the region cannot be certain of China’s intentions, particularly in this period of leadership transition.”

The Pentagon study, prepared by Mr. Nye’s staff, went on to say, “China’s military modernization effort is in an early stage and its long-term goals are unclear. Absent a better understanding of China’s plans, capabilities, and intentions, other Asian nations may feel a need to respond to China’s growing military power.”

The Clinton Administration abruptly halted planned post–Cold War force cutbacks across Asia and froze deployments at 100,000 troops in the wake of the DoD study.

“Our presence in Asia will remain strong enough to address regional requirements and to enable us to respond to global security contingencies,” said Mr. Nye’s report.

Mr. Lord, the State Department’s top Asia hand, remarked that China will be “a major power whether we wish it to be or not.” The best strategy remained integrating Beijing into the worldwide system of economic and political ties to help stem “any adventurous impulses, if there are any.”

Adm. Richard C. Macke, commander in chief of US Pacific Command, told Congress that China posed no “near-term threat to the US or to our interests in Asia,” but he added that he would have to revise that benign assessment immediately “if we choose to isolate—rather than engage and reassure—China.”

When Sino-American diplomatic ties hit bottom, the Clinton Administration enlisted Mr. Kissinger as go-between to try to patch up the damage. Little came of it immediately. Washington did restate its commitment to a “one China” policy, writing Taiwan out of the official picture. Two-way trade continued to boom. Underneath the surface, however, pressures continue to build.

Stewart M. Powell, White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered national and international affairs in Washington and London. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “A Forecast of the Arms Trade,” appeared in the September 1995 issue.