Sat, Feb 05, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Beijing's military threat is escalating

By Richard Halloran

China is modernizing its military forces faster than anyone expected only a few years ago, escalating the potential danger to Taiwan, to US forces and bases in Asia, and to the overall balance of power in the region.

"China adheres to the military strategy of active defense and works to speed up the revolution of military affairs with Chinese characteristics," says the white paper that Beijing issued in December, pointing to "leapfrog development" in high-tech weapons for its missile units, navy and air force. Where many US and Asian analysts said before that China would be able to mount a credible threat between 2010 and 2015, now they are saying it will come earlier, perhaps by 2006 and certainly by 2012.

Beijing seems driven by a perception that Taiwan is drifting toward formal independence, that the US is becoming a greater menace as it realigns and strengthens its forces in Asia, and that, more distantly, Japan has begun to assert itself militarily.

Behind this military progress has been the rapid growth of the Chinese economy that pays for this growth in military power. China's defense budget is estimated to have ballooned to US$80 billion, the world's third-largest after the US and Russia, and almost double that of Japan, which has Asia's second-largest defense budget.

The Chinese, who had insisted on self-sufficiency, have bought weapons and technology from abroad, notably from Russia. China could afford those purchases because Beijing's foreign exchange reserves, the world's largest, rose to US$610 billion by the end of last year, more than 10 times their holdings of US$53 billion 10 years ago. To buy even more, China has been urging the EU to lift the arms embargo imposed after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Washington and Taipei oppose easing the restriction.

US military officers contend that the US has sufficient combat power, at sea, in the sky, and with nuclear weapons, to defeat China if hostilities should break out. Said one, however: "It sure complicates our planning."

This assessment of Chinese military power was drawn from the Chinese white paper, a recent defense report published in Taiwan, a Pentagon report to Congress and conversations with US and Asian analysts with access to intelligence reports.

The vanguard of China's military advance has been hardware. Military education and training has been improved as have logistics, but integrating the forces to invade Taiwan or to challenge the US has lagged.

China's missile force, called the Second Artillery, had been deploying 50 to 75 short range missiles a year; that has increased to more than 100 and next year it will have 800 missiles aimed at Taiwan. Accuracy has been doubled so that most missiles would hit within 18m to 27m of their targets. The missiles have also been made mobile to make them less of a target. In a training drill, a brigade moved 580km and was ready to fire in two days.

In the Chinese navy, submarines are leading the way. In the event of hostilities, they would be tasked with gaining control of the Taiwan Strait and fending off the US Navy.

China has bought eight Kilo class diesel-electric submarines from Russia and is planning to buy four more. It is building its own Song class of diesel-electric boats. Although these boats lack the range of nuclear-powered submarines, they are quieter and more effective close to shore. For long-range operations, China is building several nuclear-powered attack submarines.

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