When a senior defense expert recently testified before a US Congressional commission on China's military capability, he detailed the extraordinarily robust weapons program the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has been pursuing. He pointed particularly to the PLA's increasing number of short, intermediate and even long-range ballistic missiles. But the expert concluded that, despite the alarming number of missiles, they did not constitute a "buildup."
Baffled by that conclusion, the members of Congress began asking one question relentlessly: if the existing PLA missiles did not constitute a "buildup," then what number of missiles would? The inability to answer this question clearly exorcised and angered both the defense expert and the committee.
But this episode illustrates a fundamental and frustrating problem -- the more we know about what is going on in China the less we are sure about whether China has actually become a threat. We know China has doubled and redoubled its defense budget for, among other things, a massive weapons development program, including modernizing a deterrent and second-strike nuclear capability. Yet we cannot decide whether this build-up is menacing.
The prevailing consensus is not to regard China as a threat. But there are several serious conceptual flaws in this reasoning. It fails, for example, to take into account the hostile strategic culture against the US -- and against US strategic goals in the Asian and Pacific regions -- that has long been ingrained within the PLA.
A cursory glance at the PLA's readiness training, research and development, weapons acquisition and indoctrination programs shows that Chinese officials are preparing to fight future wars not only against regional powers, but against a superpower. Its preparations focus not on parity with the US' modern weaponry, but on the development of "asymmetrical warfare" theory and capability. As the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the US brutally reminded us, a lethal threat need not come from equivalent military hardware.
The PLA has spent an inordinate amount of its rapidly growing resources in areas that give it an asymmetrical advantage, such as electronic warfare and human intelligence. Such tactics are aimed at confronting an enemy that is armed with the most advanced weapons systems, but is vulnerable to sabotage and asymmetrical attack, even latter-day guerilla warfare.
Throughout the PLA's history, a chief tactic has always been to launch asymmetrical attacks on an enemy's command and communication centers, thus obviating direct confrontations where parity in technological development would determine a clearer definition of victory and defeat. The PLA has never been deterred or become less aggressive when confronted with an enemy possessing more advanced hardware. This was true of Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) guerrilla war against the Japanese occupation, the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) Nationalists, the Korean War against the US and even the Vietnam War, where China backed the North.
More recently, PLA officials have been among the most interested observers of the two US-led Gulf wars. They have been im-pressed by US technology and remote firepower, but they have also been searching for US military weaknesses in such a context. While awed by American hardware, some PLA brass are convinced that if former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had been a better commander, the battle for Baghdad could have been, to quote Zhang Zhaozhong of the Chinese National Defense University, "George Bush's Stalingrad."