July, 2009

The emergence of the United States in Central Asia following the 9/11 attacks altered the balance of power in the region. As the situation stands now, the stage will be set sooner or later for the US and China to face rising tensions with each other as a result of the Taiwan dispute as well as separatist movements in Xinjiang province.

Today China has the second largest economy based on purchasing power parity and in military terms, has in its possession solid fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles and the submarine launch JL-2 (CSS-N-2) with MIRV warheads. Essentially, China appears to be willing to keep the US, which seeks a stronger hold in Central Asia despite Russia and China’s influence, in check.

China, which consumes 7% of the world’s oil production output, meets almost all of its thirst through imports. With a 9% annual growth in its economy, China is likely to take additional measures to increase its influence in its periphery as it seeks to diversify its energy resources, much like the US. Therefore, China’s aim in this strategic expansion is to reach the Central Asian Turkic Republics, which also happen to be on the US list.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization and China

Under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Beijing combats separatist movements, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, arms smuggling and drug trafficking in cooperation with Russia. For now, China defends its interests through this political organization.

Although China did not take part in the global alliance against terrorism directly, it did nonetheless take or support certain measures to aid the US in the fight against terrorism. The help came in the form of allowing the establishment of an FBI bureau in the US Embassy in China; supporting Pakistan in its relations with the US; and forming a joint “terrorism combat bureau” with the US.

But while China endorsed measures taken to combat terrorism by the United Nations, it failed to garner support for the inclusion of developments in Xinjiang province, Tibet and Taiwan within the scope of these proposals. However, with US backing, China did succeed in its bid to include the separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization in August 2002, signaling that China was able to negotiate certain concessions from the US.

Red Lines in China-US Relations

Despite some level of cooperation between the US and China, there remain important disputes that define bilateral relations:

1- The US is committed to Taiwan’s goal of independence and it will not give concessions to China on issues regarding Taiwan.
2- The US will not back down from the ballistic missile defense system that will be deployed with the help of Japan and cover the entire Northeast Asia.
3- In March 2002, the US declared that it will consider the use of nuclear force as an acceptable option in case of a conflict at the Formosa Straits between China and Taiwan.
4- In March 2002, then Vice Secretary of the US Department of State, Paul Wolfowitz, assured the Taiwanese Minister of Defense that in the event of a war between China and Taiwan, the US would take every measure to protect Taiwan.
5- The Middle East, Northeast Asia and especially the Bengal Gulf and the Sea of Japan are sources of instability. The US will likely be prepared to establish military bases in these areas to support long-term operations and secure the protection of its allies with a view to use them against China’s growing influence, as was the case with Taiwan.

From China’s point of view:

1- Against the threat of US hegemony, China will persistently push forward in Southeast Asia and refuse to give up its aspirations to become the regional superpower.
2- China will use North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as leverage against US security guarantees to Japan and South Korea via diplomatic channels.
3- China is likely to step up its effort to increase the SCO’s influence in Central Asia against the US presence (like Iran and Pakistan).

Military Power

As Western experts point out, the modernization of the Chinese Armed Forces is moving ahead swiftly and even two years ahead of schedule. New aircrafts, ships and tanks are deployed to the army faster than expected and China has been spending significant sums for the training of new pilots and naval crew. Although the level of training has not matched Western standards, it is not where it was just a few years ago. An increase in the defense budget by around 10%-15% is a sign of the emphasis placed on China’s growing appetite for military power. Taiwan, which China claims to have a right to and pursues, has much to do with this. According to Pentagon reports, the People’s Liberation Army has surpassed the Taiwanese Army, which has serious and sophisticated systems in its own right, since 2008. Furthermore, the Chinese Army is preparing to become a renowned military force around the world in 10 to 15 years. China, which has surpassed all of its neighbors
in military technology, is preparing itself for possible warfare, especially for the day when Taiwan declares full independence from the mainland. The re-election of Chen Shui-bian as the President of Taiwan and the possibility to change the 2006 Taiwan Constitution in order to pave the way for independence is unacceptable for China. Without a doubt, a war between China and Taiwan would force the US to firm up its position and become a party to the conflict. At this point, the US is concerned that China, which has the most populous army in the world, may use high-tech weaponry acquired from the EU against the US in any possible confrontation with Taiwan.

The People’s Liberation Army reduced its force by 500,000 soldiers in the 1990s because of the increased preference for quality rather than quantity and changing global conditions. Now, China is preparing itself to reduce the numbers to 2,150,000 soldiers. Although the gap between China and the US Army is 20 years in technological terms, China has already caught up with Japan, India, South Korea and Russia. The People’s Liberation Army, which is transforming itself into a more modern and professional army, has emphasized the development of weapon systems like ballistic and cruise missiles-made possible when China increased its defense budget to 60-80 billion US dollars.

Problems with China’s Military Industry

China has the oldest military industry among developing states, however, it has the capability to produce a range of weapon systems like light weapons, armored vehicles, warships, submarines, nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Although China tries to maintain and produce a wide range of weapon systems through technology it acquired over the last 50 years, the Chinese military industry still relies on technology that dates back to the 1970s and 1980s. China is especially backward in microelectronics, computer, avionics, sensor technologies, jet engines and aircraft technology; thus China has serious problems in transforming systems integration, theory and design into operable weapon systems.
Many of the problems faced by today’s military industry are manifestations of China’s Communist system and translate into weak organization, low efficiency, solid hierarchical structure, bureaucratic red tape and a centralist system.

Aware of these setbacks, the Chinese government initiated the reorganization of the military industry in accordance with free market principles and founded 10 new defense groups. In 2001, the defense electronics group was added to this list. The main goal of the reshuffling was to enable greater competition between these groups, while encouraging progress and innovation. A further step came when personnel employed in the military industry, which numbered 3 million, was cut back by 30% for need of efficiency.

But steps to improve China’s military industry have not yielded the desired results. Nonetheless, arms exports have increased by 20%, in parallel to the increase in the defense budget, and profit was made in missile and warship exports.

New Weapon Systems

China has succeeded in producing the HQ-9 high altitude surface-to-air missile, 4th generation fighter plane J-10, Song class sophisticated diesel powered submarine and stealth 052C type destroyer. But despite these relative achievements, China is backwards in conventional weapon system technologies, and thus needs EU states to acquire new technologies. On the other hand, China may be potentially more successful in the development of weapons of mass destruction, their related technologies and export.

According to defense experts, China has more than 400 nuclear warheads; 250 of these are various strategic weapons and 150 are tactical. Since China lacks a sophisticated air force that could deliver nuclear warheads, it has focused on the development of ballistic missiles systems and harnessed successful results. It is claimed that China has the capability of 20 ballistic missiles to deliver nuclear warheads.

Improving Chinese Missile Systems

China initiated its missile program in 1956 and has become successful in developing long-range missiles since 1981. Chinese technocrats insisted on the development of solid fuel missiles for a number of reasons, mainly their high mobility, which made it difficult for the enemy to locate and strike, and because they require short preparation time for launch. Consequently, China deployed medium range missiles as well as DF-21, DF-31 and currently develops DF-41 intercontinental missiles with mobile launching systems. Furthermore, China continues to develop MIRV capable missiles in order to bridge the gap with the US and Russia in the number of ballistic missiles.

Table 1. People’s Liberation Army Missile Systems

Type Range (km) Description
DF-5 15.000 Intercontinental missile
DF-31 8.000 Intercontinental missile
DF-41 12.000 Intercontinental missile
DF-21/21A 1.800/2.400 Solid fueled – Similar Scud
M-9 600
M-18/MI-B 400
DF-15 600
DF-11 300
XW-41 1.800 CEP less than 2m – Cruise missile
C-802 120 Similar to French Exocet – anti-ship missile
CAS-1 Kraken
(J-6, JY-611) 90 Anti-ship missile
JL-1 1.700 Submarine/Sea-Launch Ballistic Missile (SLBM)
JL-2 8.000 SLBM
CAA-2 Similar to Israeli Pyton-3, infrared, ballistic air-to-air missile CSA-4 and CSA-5 Similar to Crotale – solid fueled SAM

It is claimed that China is working on developing air-to-surface missiles like the Russian Kh-59ME electro-optical-guided and Kh-31P anti-radiation and the Israeli Popeye. Also, China is allegedly working on the development of laser guided and anti-radiation anti-ship missiles.
While China is working on the development of the above weapon systems to catch up with Western military power, it also focuses on the development of sophisticated anti-missile systems like the American Patriot and Russian S-300. Consequently, China has made serious progress on the development of the Hongqi-9 (HQ-9) air defense missile. Technology behind the S-300P, procured from Russia, and the Patriot, allegedly procured from Israel (although Israel denies such a transaction), was incorporated to develop the HQ-9. It is claimed that China has successfully developed the ship-based version of this high altitude and long ranged platform.

Chinese Contemporary Armament Program

Despite China’s relatively good relations and high volume of trade with the West, we should not forget that it is still governed by an authoritarian communist regime. Although it is not aggressive, it has the most serious armament program of the post-Cold War era. Pragmatist China would use every option to survive, gain in power and stature, and feed its population of 1.5 billion people. This includes the use of force as an acceptable option. In the early 1990s, the People’s Liberation Army implemented a defensive doctrine because in those years its inventory consisted of modified Soviet technology of the 1950s. However, like other sectors in China, military technology and arms production have made strides in parallel to the increased defense budget. Thus, today, the Chinese army is capable of conducting joint operations and employing precision targeting and attack-it has emerged as a modern military power.

China has started to use the increasing power of the People’s Liberation Army as a strategic threat and a tool of pressure. The People’s Liberation Army is in a position to use its nuclear arsenal not just for deterrence purposes but also as a means for exerting political sway. General Zhu’s threat towards the US a few years ago is a clear sign of the maturation of this new found potential. In the future, this threat will not only be directed against the world’s superpower, but send a strong message to other states as well.

The rapid increase in Chinese land and sea based nuclear missiles also proves the above point. Furthermore, the developments in anti-satellite missiles, computer systems, intelligence, reconnaissance and reconnaissance capable new attack submarines and improvements in domestically produced FB-7 and new generation Jian-10 (J-10) (which was allegedly developed through reverse engineering of a F-16, bought from Pakistan, and an attempt to mimic the Israeli Lavi). China also procured a Russian Su-30MKK multi-role fighter plane. In addition, China has succeeded in the production of the HQ-9 long-range SAM, Song class sophisticated diesel powered submarines and stealth 052C type destroyer.
Precision guided munitions, cruise missiles, air-to-air, air-to-surface and anti-radiation munitions, either procured from foreign sources or produced domestically, are geared for offensive purposes. Another interesting Chinese project involves turning hundreds of old fighter planes into unmanned aerial vehicles.

China-US-Taiwan Relations and Possible War

China, which aims to balance American presence in the region, plans to deploy around 2000 ballistic and Cruise missiles against Taiwan until 2010 in order to realize its goal of unification. 200-300 all-weather capable Sukhoi and Xian fighter-bomber planes would support this force. China is not ready to fully reach its goals where Taiwan is concerned for the time being. But in the near future, China could reach the point where it could mount a surprise attack on Taiwan, leaving no time for the US to defend it; thus China would deploy all of its nuclear and conventional weapons in such a scenario. Such an operation may involve all of China’s conventional and non-nuclear force, and possibly nuclear weapons as well. The main objective of the information centric operation would be the Taipei region targeted by airborne troops and marines, supported by special ops and remote controlled platforms.

The People’s Liberation Army’s interest in Taiwan cannot be explained only by the political objective of re-unification with the mainland, but also the strategic significance of the island, which can be used as a spring board for possible operations against Japan, India, Southeast Asia and Australia when needed. Furthermore, Taiwan stands as an obstacle for China’s access and control of the seas.

China also plans to acquire the capability for show of force outside of its region via ongoing procurement of Russian T-22 Backfire and TU-95 Bear bomber planes and planned procurement of strong aircraft carriers. Furthermore, China has established Rapid Reaction Forces that could be used in limited operations in Central Asia and Xingjian province.

Special Forces Corps are being raised to help RRF in low-intensity wars and the main army in total wars. In addition, it is claimed that China is raising a new airborne group, consisting of three divisions, and plans to deploy them at Zhejiang Province that is close to Taiwan, which demonstrate the clear aim of targeting Taiwan. Thus, these forces can rapidly be deployed elsewhere. Furthermore, the People’s Liberation Army is planning to transform its military organization to become more compact and increase the mobility of the army.

The efforts of China to increase its military strength, coupled with its economic power, show that it has strategic goals extending beyond Central Asia, Taiwan and Xingjian province.

Developments in Chinese Military Doctrine

The most significant point in the “Chinese National Defense 2004” report published by Beijing in December 2004 is the People’s Liberation Army’s emphasis on “information technologies” and its perception as force multiplier. The Chinese Army seeks to materialize its joint operations capabilities and potential through modern integrated command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance networks.

In the past, weapons and vehicles built by the military were transferred to the civil sector with the aim of mobilizing the economy.

China aims to employ the lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq in its updated military doctrine, planning and procurement practices.
In addition, China aims to exert political pressure to convince the EU to lift the embargo on the export of high-tech weapon systems in effect since the 1989 Tiananmen events. Furthermore, China seeks to continue to procure the Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2, Sovremeniy DDG type missile destroyers, Kilo class submarines and improved SAM systems, from currently its only source for high-tech weapons systems, Russia. Additionally, China plans to buy IL-76 cargo planes and IL-78/MIDAS air tankers.

New Capabilities for the New Doctrine

Under its new defense doctrine, the Chinese Army, now a serious actor in international politics, aims to acquire weapons systems that have increasingly more sophisticated technologies and is developing new strategies to that end.

As a result,

 China seeks to achieve space operations capability and has reached a stage where it can develop high-tech nano- and even pico- technologies built upon the IRS procured from Russia, and their own ASAT satellite capabilities.
 Serious investments are being made on next generation weapon systems and missiles that have maneuver capability and can hit moving warships.
 The stockpile of intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles is expected to pass 100 by 2010.  The 094 type SSBN and JL-2 SLBMs have been successfully tested.
 It is expected that around 1000 Tomahawk type cruise missiles will be added to the army’s inventory by 2010, which are planned to be used against Taiwan.  China will likely procure 1300 short-range ballistic missiles by 2010.
 Notable improvements of the J-10 Chengdu and Xian JH-7A all-weather capable fighter planes are expected in the near future.
 Development programs for two AWACS planes to support the Air Force are in progress.
 Around 60 new nuclear and conventional attack submarines are planned to be bought by 2010.
 Warships that have stealth capability, modern electronic anti-aircraft systems and anti-ship warfare systems are planned to be developed with technologies acquired from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
 China allegedly plans to buy the Antonov 124, which has a larger cargo capacity than the American C-5, for its airborne operations.
China, which has seen itself as the dominant power in Asia throughout its history, is stepping up its efforts to consolidate this role in every sphere of influence. However, this is raising concerns not only in the US, but among China’s neighbors as well, namely Korea, India, Japan, Vietnam and Australia. Any US intervention in Central Asia and Taiwan against aggression by a serious regional power like China would be difficult at a time when the US military is weighed down by conflicts in Iraq and to a larger extent under the Obama administration, Afghanistan. China, which sees the period from 2010 onwards as a turning point in securing access to critical technologies, may rise to prominence as a military challenge to the US in as close as ten years. Should such a scenario materialize, Russia will choose to distance itself from both sides. The US will increasingly seek military cooperation with India and other states in the region to counterbalance China, and such a tactical trend is clearly already in the making.