A potential attack on Taiwan has been a “motivating factor” behind China’s military modernization, a new report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission says.
The report cites the development of four major Chinese weapons systems: Yuan-class diesel-electric attack submarines, SC-19 anti-satellite systems, Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles and Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter aircraft.
“China’s military priority since the early to mid 1990s has been to maintain a strategic advantage over Taiwan’s military forces and — if it should ever feel compelled to initiate military operations against Taiwan — in deterring and countering any US intervention,” it says.
“This driver for PLA [People’s Liberation Army] force modernization was given particular impetus following the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996,” the report adds.
In this crisis, the report says, the PLA brass was “humiliated” by the dispatch of US Navy aircraft carriers to the vicinity of Taiwan in reaction to PLA saber-rattling exercises that were intended to “intimidate Taiwan’s populace in the midst of island-wide elections.”
Titled Indigenous Weapons Development in China’s Military Modernization, the report concludes that the 1996 incident “catalyzed investment in the long-term modernization and professionalization of China’s armed forces.”
It adds that as a result of the Taiwan Strait Crisis, the PLA accelerated its efforts to acquire modern submarines, missiles and third and fourth-generation aircraft “that could keep American forces at bay.”
The report says that the development of the anti-ship ballistic missile could be especially important because it is designed to target US aircraft carriers and that anti-satellite weapons are also a priority in a Taiwan contingency.
The report says that the US has underestimated the growth of China’s military because policymakers have taken public statements at face value or failed to understand Beijing’s thinking.
It said the US had a mixed record on predicting the rising power’s new weaponry, including largely missing the emergence of more advanced submarines.
As for the speed of military modernization, the study found “identifiable cases of miscalculation,” with China developing anti-ship ballistic missiles and stealth fighter jets earlier than the US expected.
US analysis could have been improved if more experts read Chinese or even looked at open publications such as academic technical journals, it said.
The study said that US experts “may have failed to fully appreciate the extent to which the Chinese leadership views the United States as a fundamental threat to China’s security.”
The study said that US experts assumed in the late 1990s that China would never catch up militarily with the US and would put a low priority on its defense industry compared with other parts of the economy.
“A decade on, it is now clear that much of the conventional wisdom about China dating from the turn of the century has proven to be dramatically wrong,” it said.