United States Unsure of Chinese Military's Modernization Aims

By Boese, Wade | Arms Control Today, September 2005 | Go to article overview
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United States Unsure of Chinese Military's Modernization Aims

Boese, Wade, Arms Control Today

Beijing's military capabilities are growing but with what end remains unclear to the United States, according to an annual Pentagon assessment of China's armed forces. The report's release coincided with conflicting Chinese statements about whether it would ever initiate the use of nuclear weapons against the United States.

Mandated by Congress, the Pentagon's July 19 report details China's longtime effort to modernize its military, ranging from acquiring advanced fighter aircraft and developing more survivable long-range ballistic missiles to improving its armed forces' joint operational capabilities. The report paints a picture of a country that is slowly but steadily obtaining the accoutrements of a modern military but is still trying to put all the pieces together.

The report underscores that "secrecy envelops most aspects of Chinese security affairs," making judgments about China's long-term strategy and policy goals speculative. Indeed, infighting about China's intentions within the Pentagon and among other senior administration officials reportedly delayed the report's release by several months. It was supposed to be completed by March 1.

The report offers more definitive judgments about China's short-term military aspirations. The Pentagon says China's immediate interest is in preventing Taiwan from asserting its independence and dissuading other countries, namely the United States, from rushing to the island's defense if a military conflict occurs in the Taiwan Strait. China considers Taiwan a rebellious province that should be brought under the mainland's control, if necessary by force.

The Pentagon assesses that China is sparing few expenses toward this mission. Although China claims that it spends some $20 billion annually on its military, the Pentagon contends Beijing expends about two or three times as much, possibly as much as $90 billion. This high-end estimate is dwarfed by current annual U.S. military spending of more than $400 billion, but it would rank China as Asia's biggest spender.

Beijing has objected to previous U.S. estimates of Chinese military expenditures. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao described U.S. claims June 8 as "totally groundless." Liu explained that China's military budget "has witnessed a slight increase, the bulk of which is used for improving the living conditions of military officials and soldiers."

In contrast, the Pentagon report emphasizes the new weapons systems that China is procuring. In recent years, China has indigenously produced or imported combat aircraft, destroyers, submarines, and anti-aircraft missiles. One ongoing deal involves the acquisition of eight Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines from Russia to supplement the four China had previously imported.

Russia is China's major arms source. Key weapons sold by Moscow to Beijing over the past decade include more than 150 advanced combat aircraft, two destroyers (with two more on tap), and more than 1,000 various missiles, including air defense missiles with ranges greater than the 160-kilometer-wide Taiwan Strait.

In a departure from earlier reports, the Pentagon identifies Israel as China's other top weapons supplier. A 2001 Israeli transfer of Harpy unmanned aerial vehicles to China and subsequent maintenance work on the drones in 2003 and 2004 has strained the normally close U.S.-Israeli military relationship. seeking to mend relations, U.S. and Israeli officials recently concluded an agreement to ease U.S. concerns about Israeli arms sales (see page 34).

Washington bristles over its allies supplying China with arms and technologies that the Pentagon fears could be used against Taiwanese or U.S. forces. In its report, the Pentagon reaffirms U.S. opposition to the 25-member European Union lifting its 1989 arms embargo against China. The consequences of such a move would be "serious and numerous," the Pentagon states.

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