Tue, Jul 17, 2007 - Page 8 News List

China filling up military power gap left by US

By Sushil Seth

While the US is over-stretched in Iraq and increasingly mired in domestic politics, China is systematically modernizing and expanding its military capability. Its defense budget has seen double-digit annual increases in recent years. It is working to develop anti-satellite missile capability, as well as a nuclear submarine fleet equipped with long-range nuclear missiles.

The images of China's new Jin-class nuclear-powered submarine have appeared on an Internet Web site. Reporting on this, Eric Rosenberg, of Hearst Newspapers, wrote: "The Jin-class submarine would be a big step forward for Beijing. It would allow China, which relies on land-based nuclear missiles as a nuclear deterrent, to broaden its arsenal to include a submarine fleet that is much harder for an enemy to locate and destroy."

Its development is proceeding fast, with the Pentagon reportedly saying the submarine and missile system could be ready for regular patrols before 2010.

This has consequences not only for the US but for the region. China might not yet be ready to directly challenge US military supremacy, but its military capability will increasingly make it difficult for the US to confront it without serious costs. In short, China's power is likely to progressively neutralize US military power.

Take Taiwan, for instance. China has hundreds of missiles targeted at Taiwan. This not only provocative for Taiwan, but also for the US, which is committed to defending Taiwan.

But the US gives the impression of being a helpless giant, cautioning Taipei against upsetting the "status quo" for fear of inviting Chinese military retaliation.

In other words, China has developed a veto of sorts on Taiwan's sovereignty. And with its military capability expanding steadily, one shudders to think what China might get away with.

Beijing wants to turn the Taiwan Strait into its "inland lake," where it will have the power to exercise total control if and when needed. With the development and deployment of its nuclear submarine arm in the next few years, it hopes to exercise that power against any US intervention to help out Taiwan. Will the US still be able to move its naval fleet as it did in the mid-1990s when Taiwan seemed under imminent Chinese attack?

North Korea is another example of where the US is progressively becoming a hostage to China's growing political and military clout. At the political level, China is subtly leading the US into a deal on the nuclear issue that North Korea had more or less accepted in the 1990s. This includes political and economic concessions, such as releasing North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank and delivery of oil supplies, on the part of the US. China will thus continue to have a determining role in how the entire cycle of US nonproliferation efforts with Pyongyang proceeds -- if they ever succeed.

At the same time the US will always be constrained in its military response to North Korea's on-off intransigence for fear of Beijing's involvement, especially now that China is steadily expanding its military power.

In the Asia-Pacific region, China is increasingly seen with a mixture of awe and admiration. Its rapid economic growth, its sheer size in economic and political terms and its growing military power appear to be overwhelming.

With much of world news concentrated on the perceived US debacle in Iraq and a sense of its declining power, China increasingly appears to be the new rising superpower. It is no wonder then that more and more countries in the region are accommodating themselves to this new "reality," while ignoring China's enormous social, economic and political problems and contradictions that make it very fragile.

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