Sat, Aug 06, 2005 - Page 8 News List

No simple answers to threat posed by China

By Richard Halloran

Surely the most pressing security question confronting the US in Asia and the nations of Asia themselves is: "Will China become a serious military threat in the western Pacific?"

The search for an answer has lately picked up steam. RAND Corp researchers have recently issued a study assessing China's considerable financial resources devoted to its military power. The Pentagon says "China is facing a strategic crossroads." And the Japanese Self Defense Agency's new white paper contends that China's military modernization needs to be closely monitored.

Regrettably, no one seems to have a nice, neat appraisal of the potential threat. Maybe Chinese leaders themselves don't know what that might be, because they are challenged by so many domestic troubles.

Nonetheless, Beijing has vigorously objected to these evaluations. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) was quoted by the Xinhua news agency as asserting that the US was not "qualified to carp and cavil on China's defensive defense policy." The official China Daily called the Japanese white paper "impertinent."

The review by the RAND Corp, the California research institute funded by the US Air Force, recited a familiar litany of the reasons for China's military modernization -- to conquer Taiwan, to persuade or force the US to withdraw its armed forces from Asia, to ward off a possible rebirth of Japanese militarism, and to project power into the sea, particularly the South China Sea.

The RAND study, entitled Modernizing China's Military, focuses on the connection between China's surging economy and its improving military forces. The researchers estimated that in 2025, "China's economy would be about half the size of the US economy."

They further estimated that the maximum Chinese military expenditure 20 years from now would be the second-largest in the world, surpassing that of Russia, Japan and the major European nations. At nearly US$200 billion a year, however, China's military budget would still amount to only one-third of US defense spending.

RAND posits four factors bearing on China's ability to finance the expansion of its military forces: First, economic growth. Even though some Western analysts think that China's economic growth rates have been exaggerated in recent years, RAND says "continued strong growth in the economy and the [military] budget is likely."

Second, taxation. In a masterpiece of understatement, RAND says "the Chinese government has not been extraordinarily adept at collecting taxes." That reduces the government's ability to channel funds to military spending.

Third, competing demands. The government will have to balance, "higher expenditures on pensions, health care, education and more public investment in infrastructure against increased military spending."

Fourth, the defense industry. The RAND study says China's "arms industry either is not able or finds it very difficult to produce modern equipment" and must be reformed to become effective.

The Pentagon's recent report on Chinese military power had a somewhat different tone, but came to a similar conclusion: "Secrecy envelops most aspects of Chinese security affairs. The outside world has little knowledge of Chinese motivations and decision-making and of key capabilities" in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Even so, the writers of the Pentagon report asserted that, for now, "China's ability to project conventional military power beyond its periphery remains limited." They continued, however, to say: "Over the long term, if current trends persist, PLA capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region."

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