This week President Barack Obama hosts a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss pressing issues, but they will likely side-step the most important – why the communist regime needs a sophisticated, assertive and global military.
The leaders will discuss economic and political issues, including tensions on the Korean peninsula and Beijing’s support for Iran. These issues contribute to escalating bilateral tensions but none more than China’s emergence as a security threat across Asia with a significant and growing global power projection capability.
Policy experts like Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, caution China’s growing armed capabilities and its assertiveness need not start a cold war. Rather, Kissinger warns in the Washington Post “…globalization and the reach of modern technology oblige the U.S. and China to interact around the world” and he advises the countries to develop an “overarching concept for their interaction.”
That is sound advice but at this point Beijing isn’t cooperative. Rather China is ravenously soaking up resources, manipulating its currency to favor Chinese companies, intimidating its neighbors over territorial disputes and growing its armed forces far beyond what it needs for regional security.
That is why Obama should use his summit to discern China’s true military intentions and then adjust our policy.
Last week China’s military alarmed the world. On January 11th, hours before U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sat down with President Hu in Beijing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a test flight of its secret fifth generation fighter. Gates, who previously predicted China was at least a decade away from such a test, mentioned the test to Hu and, according to Gates, Hu acted surprised by the news.
If Hu really did not know about the test, it suggests the regime’s grip on the military is slipping. After two decades of military modernization it appears the PLA is pushing a hard-line agenda and becoming more willing to voice its opinion on foreign policy issues. This is a worrisome development especially as the Chinese leadership, which includes new nationalistic-minded military commanders, takes command in 2012.
This leadership change accompanies China’s eye-popping military transformation. The fifth generation combat aircraft, dubbed the J-20, is the latest in a long series of sophisticated weapon system developments.
Last year Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified “China’s rapid and comprehensive transformation of its armed forces is affecting regional military balances and holds implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region.”
Willard cited China’s submarine force which is now virtually equal in number to the U.S. fleet and rapidly closing the technology gaps. This includes the newest Jin-class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine which can roam the globe with nuclear-tipped weapons.
The admiral was especially concerned about China’s anti-ship ballistic missile capable of targeting large ships, such as U.S. aircraft carriers. This weapon, the “D” version of China’s DF-21 medium-range missile, combined with China’s new integrated air-defense systems and new power-projection capabilities threaten “archipelagos” in Asia, such as Japan, the Philippines and beyond.
Admiral Willard expressed concern “that elements of China’s military modernization appear designed to challenge our freedom of action” such as its new aircraft carrier program. Beijing’s first aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang (a refurbished Russian Kuznetsov-class), is expected to begin operations this year. The Pentagon anticipates Beijing will build two more aircraft carriers by 2017 to patrol the South China Sea, Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
The PLA’s air force is the third-largest in the world with over 1,600 combat capable aircraft which includes bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles able to strike targets in Guam. It is also developing airborne early warning and control aircraft for expeditionary operations and has deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles.
China’s ground forces include 1.25 million soldiers augmented by 500,000 reservists and a large militia. Its expeditionary forces include three airborne divisions, two amphibious infantry divisions and seven special operations groups – equipped with the latest hardware.
China’s space and cyber capabilities are sophisticated. It is rapidly expanding its space-based systems including a proven anti-satellite capability to prevent the use of space-based assets by potential adversaries. Its cyberwarfare systems already effectively targeted U.S. government computer systems.
How does Beijing intend to use its modern military? The PLA’s white papers, the only official indication of its intentions, suggest its priorities include securing China’s status as a great power, which is not explained.
But the PLA’s menu of current operations may suggest future action. It will continue to conduct internal stability tasks and address natural disasters and accept more international roles. Since 2002 China assumed 22 United Nations missions beyond its borders to include peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations.
But perhaps the most troubling missions are those it identifies with its “core” national interests. China uses its military to intimidate its neighbors as well as U.S. warships operating throughout the region. In particular, Chinese warships staged confrontations in the South China Sea with U.S. vessels and over the Spratly and Paracel island groups and more recently it acted aggressive with Japan near the disputed Senkaku islands.
China continues preparing for Taiwan Strait contingencies and vigorously objects to U.S. arms sales to that democratic nation. Beijing’s military build-up opposite Taiwan includes 1,150 short-range ballistic missiles, amphibious forces, air wings and warships.
China, the world’s leading merchant, uses its forces to defend supply lines. That explains its desire to pursue the “string of pearls” strategy by securing forward bases along the sea lines of communication from China to the Middle East. Currently, China has facilities at Hainan Island, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and others in the Gulf of Aden and Iran are under consideration.
Beijing’s arms build-up appears to be intended for missions beyond disputed islands and supply lines. Perhaps that is why the Pentagon’s 2010 report states “The limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.”
China’s rapid militarization, its growing assertiveness, the questionable civil control of its military and the emergence of a nationalistic military leadership present a serious challenge for America. That is why Obama should use his summit with President Hu to clarify Beijing’s intentions and then prepare for the worst – the emergence of a militarized global peer competitor and bully.