September 29, 2009
By Dean Cheng
Perhaps the most prominent event marking the 60th anniversary of
the founding of the People's Republic of China will be a massive
parade showcasing the People's Liberation Army's newest
technologies. Chinese and Western reports indicate some 52 weapons
will be unveiled, including intercontinental and medium-range
ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, long-range cruise
missiles and the domestically produced J-10 fighter plane.
In some respects the big guns will be a distraction. The
lower-profile command, control and communications systems, such as
airborne early-warning and control aircraft and
satellite-communications devices, more accurately reflect the
comprehensive challenge of China's expanding military capabilities.
These systems might not look that special while in a parade, but
they evince the increasing sophistication of China's strategic
thinking and technology.
China isn't aiming to match the United States weapon-for-weapon.
Instead, China is pursuing an "asymmetric" approach. It is a view
of future warfare, expounded in PLA analyses, that focuses more on
enabling the PLA to gather, transmit and exploit information while
denying an opponent that same ability.
China's knowledge of how to use its newly acquired advanced
systems to counter more efficiently American strengths poses the
biggest challenge. Space systems are crucial to this effort. Not
only do they occupy the "high ground" essential for garnering
information superiority, but they have been a key part of the
American way of war-as evidenced in Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan and
Less noticeable, but arguably even more important and worrisome,
is a coherent doctrine and improved training regimens. PLA training
efforts also include extensive exercising of command-and-control
capabilities, employing forces that cross military region
boundaries, and "conducting training in complex electromagnetic
environments," a reference to both electronic warfare and
In this light, what will be on display on China's National Day
is only the tip of the iceberg. Detecting and understanding China's
approach, including the less visible aspects, will require a
sustained effort. This poses several challenges to the U.S.
national security establishment.
For instance, America needs long-term, in-depth analyses of
Chinese capabilities that go beyond the "bean count" of new systems
to look at logistical capabilities and training regimens. This will
require extensive examination of Chinese-language materials such as
PLA reference volumes, textbooks and other official publications,
because much of this will involve reshaped doctrine and adjusted
metrics rather than physical systems. This entails expanding the
ranks of analysts familiar with Chinese military publications and
capable of assessing their authoritativeness.
Addressing changes to Chinese strategy also will require
maintaining a substantial force in the East Asian region. While
there is a focus on the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
there remains the potential for conflict in East Asia. Conventional
forces and capabilities in the area, long the American strong suit,
must be maintained, both to reassure American allies and to signal
to China continued American commitment to the region. This is
especially true when it takes 20 years to develop and deploy a new
fighter aircraft and seven years to build a new aircraft
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for American policy makers
will be interacting with members of the PLA itself. There is
arguably no better means of learning about changes within that
military than by talking with its members, observing their
exercises, and even going to its academies and institutions of
higher military education. These benefits must be balanced,
however, against potential lessons that the PLA might also learn
from the Americans when the Chinese side inevitably seeks
reciprocal visits and interactions. Neither side is likely to
sustain a program that is seen as primarily benefiting the other.
Washington must make clear to the Chinese leadership that it is as
much in Beijing's interest as it is in Washington's to clarify
Chinese intentions toward the region.
The U.S. is clearly the dominant military power in the
Asia-Pacific region today, but China is gaining fast. China's
expanding range of national interests and military capabilities
suggest there will be greater likelihood of brushing up against the
U.S., both inside and outside Asia. It is important that the two
sides reduce the opportunity for misunderstanding or
miscalculation-be it of capabilities or of intentions. This is
impossible unless U.S. analysts can get beyond the bean count and
focus on China's growing operational capabilities.
Mr. Cheng is a research fellow in Chinese political and
security affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Wall Street Journal
Perhaps the most prominent event marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China will be a massive parade showcasing the People's Liberation Army's newest technologies.
Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
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