How America's Friends Are Building China's Military Power

Report International Economies

How America's Friends Are Building China's Military Power

November 5, 1997 21 min read Download Report
James Anderson
Visiting Fellow

The October 29 summit between President Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin took place amid growing international expectations that China will become a major power in the next century, both economically and militarily. Increasingly, even though the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is largely an obsolete force, Beijing is seeking to use China's growing wealth to advance its military modernization program by obtaining sophisticated Western weaponry and advanced military technology.

Several friends and allies of the United States, including Russia and Israel, are selling such advanced weaponry and military technology to China, and several European countries, among them France and Britain, also are interested in tapping this market. This is a dangerous strategic development. For example, China could use increased military technology and hardware to build survivable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with which to target the United States. It could build new long-range cruise missiles and, possibly, a power-projection air force. And it could increase its naval capabilities with new submarines and supersonic anti-ship missiles. With such capability, the PLA would pose a realistic threat to U.S. forces and to allies like the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. Or it could sell this technology to rogue states which are less interested in diplomacy. Indeed, China's drive to become a great military power is one of the most important challenges facing the United States in Asia.

The PLA, to be sure, will face great difficulty in absorbing any new military technology, in addition to which budget constraints will affect procurement decisions. This paper, therefore, while examining a broad range of current capabilities and possible acquisitions with respect to weapons systems and related technologies, acknowledges that real-world acquisition decisions will be shaped by cost considerations, political decisions, and foreign policy choices.

Nevertheless, China continues to make substantial efforts to modernize its military, including efforts to obtain and utilize foreign military technology to increase the capabilities and reach of the People's Liberation Army. For America's friends to contribute to this buildup should be unacceptable to both the defense and policy communities in Washington, especially in view of China's potentially hostile intentions toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea. The Clinton Administration, however, has made only modest and ineffective attempts to convince U.S. allies and friends involved in facilitating China's military modernization that they should halt this dangerous weapons-related traffic.

A Looming Threat
The threat this military buildup portends is anything but minor. By improving its missile forces, China could target opponents--including the United States and neighboring Asian countries--more accurately and threaten them with nuclear and conventional warheads. Smaller long-range cruise missiles could be launched from ground, air, and surface ship or submarine platforms. Top-of-the-line combat aircraft with modern missiles, controlled by airborne warning and control (AWACS) aircraft and extended by aerial tankers, would allow the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) to conduct long-range air superiority and interdiction missions. Only the U.S. Navy would be capable of countering China's future supersonic anti-ship missiles.

Such capabilities could pose a serious threat to peace in Asia. Both the economic well-being of Asia and the 4 million U.S. jobs sustained by trade with Asian countries depend on maintaining the freedom of the seas. With more powerful military forces, China could seek to enforce its claims in the South China Sea or to force Taiwan into submission; and it should be remembered that the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires a U.S. military response to military threats against Taiwan. Since the interests of Russia, Israel, and the nations of Europe are not threatened directly by a more powerful PLA, these countries need focus only on the short-term benefits of selling military technology to China to support their domestic arms industries. It is time for the Clinton Administration to engage America's friends and allies and convince them not to sell advanced military technology or weapons to China.

A Better Strategy
The most effective strategy for the Administration and Congress would be to:

  • Sustain the U.S. arms embargo with China. The United States should continue to set an example by not selling its weapons to China unless Beijing peacefully settles its differences with Taiwan, controls the proliferation of dangerous military and nuclear technology, and subjects its strategic weapons to inspection and negotiations that will lead to limitations. Washington should not follow Europe's example by relaxing its 1989 embargo on arms to China, or Russia's and Israel's by selling advanced military technology to China.

  • Wage a campaign of public diplomacy to deter arms sales to China. The United States should not just engage arms suppliers to China in private and allow them to escape public scrutiny. The Administration must confront these allies and friends publicly and demand that they stop selling dangerous technology to China.

  • Stress to China's arms suppliers that a more powerful PLA could threaten peace in Asia as well as their own interests. The United States should make sure that the Israelis understand that Chinese weapons could be re-exported to rogue states in the Middle East and remind Moscow that China could revive its old claims to territory now controlled by Russia. U.S. friends and allies must understand that if, by selling their weapons to China, they create a larger threat to peace in Asia, the United States might not be able to meet future military requirements in either the Middle East or Europe.

  • Maintain the deterrence capabilities of U.S. forces in Asia. The United States must move ahead with plans to deploy missile defense systems in Asia and better protect U.S. satellites in space. It also must ensure that modern combat aircraft like the F-22A are fully capable of prevailing in combat, and should develop an inexpensive defense against supersonic anti-ship missiles.

Who Is Selling Weapons to China?

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, both the United States and the European Union embargoed the sale of weapons to China. This was a change in policy from the period of anti-Soviet cooperation during the 1980s. At that time, the United States, Israel, and several European countries sold their weapons and military technology to China to help it defend its borders against Soviet aggression. By the early 1990s, however, China had turned to Russia to purchase advanced weapons to modernize the People's Liberation Army. Russia remains China's major source of fighter aircraft, air-to-air missiles, ground attack missiles, submarines, and supersonic anti-ship missiles. Furthermore, Russia has become increasingly dependent on sales of weapons to China to support its own financially strapped military research and development sector, and it is not clear that Moscow exercises strict control over its military technical relationship with China, which has deep access to Russian design bureaus and engineers who are selling their data to China.

Israel seeks to support its defense industries through sales to China as well. It continued its military technical relationship with China despite the Tiananmen Square massacre and today is China's second most important source of advanced military technology. Israel has sold its fighter aircraft technology, air-to-air missiles, and (reportedly) cruise missile technology to China.2 A deal in the works also will provide an advanced Israeli airborne radar to China. Some Israeli officials claim the sale of military technology to China will secure Beijing's agreement not to sell specific weapons to Israel's enemies in the Middle East,3 which seems not unlike paying China for "protection."

Europe's arms industries also are under growing financial pressure, and some countries like France and Britain are working to end the 1989 European Union arms embargo. By early 1996, Britain had revised its interpretation of the embargo to permit the sale of military technology except that which explodes or delivers explosives. In 1996, Britain sold China a reported six to eight airborne early-warning radar systems.4 France reportedly has discussed with China the selling of advanced fighter aircraft, aircraft engines, and even an aircraft carrier.5 There are doubts that China could afford to buy many European weapon systems. However, Europe's re-entry into the China arms market could very well increase pressure from U.S. arms manufacturers to seek relaxation of the U.S. arms embargo as well.

How Foreign Technology Could Increase PLA Capabilities

China seeks to modernize its largely obsolete military forces by purchasing foreign weapons and technology. In some cases, weapons go directly into frontline units; but in other cases, the foreign systems are being used to upgrade or build new Chinese weapons. China's purchase of foreign military technology does not necessarily mean that PLA capabilities will increase. China must master logistic, training, and doctrinal challenges associated with each new system. The following discussion suggests how Beijing could use foreign technology to upgrade its missile, air, and naval forces. Documentation for military purchases mentioned in this section may be found in the appendix to this paper.

Missile Forces

China's strategic missile force is a distinct service called the Second Artillery. China is seeking foreign technology to build better intercontinental missile systems and to develop highly accurate short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles. China may have a long way to go to absorb such foreign technologies and produce new missile systems, but it is working diligently toward this goal.

In addition to an unknown number 6 of ICBMs known as DF-5s, the Second Artillery is developing the 5,000-mile range DF-31 and the 8,000-mile range DF-41, which may enter service in the next decade. At this range, both of these missiles could target some or all of the United States. Both types will be solid-fueled and road-mobile. Although China lacks multiple, independently targetable warhead (MIRV) technology for its ICBMs, it may try to obtain MIRV and other guidance technology by purchasing the large Russian SS-18 ICBM technology. In addition, China reportedly has at least one Russian intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) transporter, the MAZ 547V.7 Larger versions of this transporter now give mobility to larger Russian ICBMs like the SS-25. By obtaining a Russian transporter, China could use its technology to design and build a more effective transporter for newer and larger ICBMs. Such mobility would make the task of finding and destroying these ICBMs more difficult.

China already is using navigation satellite data from the U.S. Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) constellation to increase the accuracy of its 360-mile-range DF-15 missiles, which were used near Taiwan during exercises in 1995 and 1996. In addition, China may be using Israeli and Russian technology to develop a family of long-range, land-attack cruise missiles. The U.S. Department of Defense has indicated that it expects China could field these new cruise missiles early in the next decade.8

China reportedly is funding the development of a new land-attack variant of the Israeli Delilah anti-radar drone, although it may already have access to this technology or to the missile itself. 9 Sources in Taiwan note that Russia tried to sell China its 180-mile cruise missile, the Raduga Kh-65SE. This missile needs only extra fuel to equal the capability of its sister, the 1,800-mile range Kh-55 strategic cruise missile.

To increase its ability to target new missiles, China is seeking foreign radar satellite and imaging satellite technology. Radar satellites are especially helpful in penetrating bad weather and finding naval formations at sea. China has a domestic radar satellite program but is known to be seeking Russian and European radar satellite technology to help with this project. As China tries to build better imaging satellites, it also seeks greater access to commercial satellite imaging services. It already has a downlink for France's SPOT imaging satellite, and it may seek access to new commercial satellite imaging companies in the United States and Israel that soon will launch a satellite with one-meter resolution--the standard for useful military missions.

Because it realizes that it may have to contest control of outer space, China also is developing its anti-satellite and anti-missile systems. Russia could offer its own anti-satellite systems for sale. China has purchased the Russian S-300PMU surface-to-air missile and could modify it to give it a limited anti-missile capability. It also may be trying to buy the Russian S-300V system, which has a clear anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM) capability.10 Possessing both these Russian missiles could help China build its own anti-missile systems. China also seeks to develop laser weapon systems, and Russia is a likely source for advanced military laser technology.

Air Forces

Today, the PLA Air Force is comprised largely of 1950s-era Soviet-designed aircraft that pose little threat to China's neighbors or to U.S. forces in Asia. However, aircraft, missiles, and radar from Russia, Israel, and Britain are helping China to build a far more capable air force. Again, by absorbing foreign technology, China could field an air force that is much more capable of achieving distant air superiority and conducting interdiction missions by the end of the next decade.

In the early 1990s, China purchased 50 Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighters; and in 1996, it reached an agreement to co-produce at least 200 more. The Su-27 is an advanced fighter that in some respects is better than the U.S. top-of-the-line F-15 fighter jet. According to sources interviewed at the 1997 Moscow Aerospace Salon air show, a third batch of 21 Su-27s will be equipped with a better radar and will be capable of firing new Russian missiles, such as the 56-mile range R-77 air-to-air missile that is self-guiding like the U.S. AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM). The new radar also can guide the Russian Zvezda Kh-31 supersonic anti-ship missile reportedly being purchased by China.11 Both these missiles are very sophisticated and difficult to counter. Finally, China reportedly is trying to purchase the Su-30 fighter, an attack version of the Su-27 which can carry a wide array of precision-guided bombs and missiles.12

Israel is helping China to build its J-10 fighter, which will utilize technology from the canceled Israeli Lavi fighter, a project that was subsidized by about $1.4 billion in U.S. aid. Although the J-10 program is encountering some difficulties, it could result in a fighter that enters service in the middle of the next decade. Israel also is reported to be trying to sell China its new Python 4 air-to-air missile, the best air-to-air missile now in use.13 This missile uses an Elbit helmet sighting system. (The Elbit company also is helping the United States to develop a helmet-mounted sight for its new AIM-9X air-to-air missile.)

Israel, Russia, and Britain are competing to sell China AWACS aircraft, which are essential in controlling offensive and defensive air combat missions. Earlier this year, Israel and Russia joined forces to build an AWACS aircraft for China that combines the 200-mile-plus range Israeli Phalcon airborne radar with the Russian Beriev A-50 airframe. China reportedly could buy up to eight of these if it likes the prototype, which could be ready in three years. In 1996, Britain reportedly sold China six to eight of its lightweight Searchwater airborne radar that could be fitted to a Chinese transport aircraft. Russia has sold China its Il-76 heavy transport aircraft and is trying to sell the Il-78, an aerial tanker that could extend the range or patrol time of the Su-27 or other fighter aircraft.

Naval Forces

The PLA Navy (PLAN) would like to purchase aircraft carriers, but it is not clear whether China's political leaders are ready for the great expense that this would involve. In the meantime, China is purchasing Russian technology to build better submarines and surface warships. By the end of the next decade, while China may not be able to project naval power much farther than land-based air cover, it will have a greater ability to deny control of the seas to U.S. forces in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, as well as to mount blockade operations against Taiwan.

Russia sold China four Kilo-class conventionally powered attack submarines. These are far more modern than any other submarine in China's navy. The last two will be the version (Type 636) that the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) says is as quiet as the improved version of the U.S. Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarine--which until recently was the best in the U.S. Navy. Russia also is assisting China in building its next class of nuclear attack submarine, which ONI notes may be as quiet as the Russian Victor II nuclear attack submarine--an impressive capability if China succeeds. These submarines eventually could carry long-range land-attack cruise missiles.

In 1997, China also purchased two Sovremenniy-class missile destroyers that may be delivered by the year 2000. These will be the most capable ships in the PLA Navy, with advanced radar and defensive electronics, a very fast surface-to-air missile, and China's first dedicated anti-submarine warfare helicopter. Most critically, however, these will be armed with the SS-N-22 supersonic anti-ship missile.14 The U.S. Navy may be able to counter this missile with its Aegis air-defense system, but Asian navies (like Taiwan's) that lack this system will be vulnerable. Russia also is marketing a lighter weight supersonic anti-ship missile, the Yakhont, which could be fitted to more of China's existing warships and, in the future, to Kilo submarines.

The Dangers of Selling Advanced Technology to China

Sales of advanced weapons and technology to China by Russia, Israel, and some European countries are creating potential challenges to peace in Asia. But they also are creating dangers to the selling countries. These dangers include the likelihood that:

  1. China will gain more military tools with which to pursue its goals
    With a stronger PLA, Beijing may be tempted to rely more frequently on military force instead of diplomacy to achieve its regional goals. China may decide to use more capable air and naval forces to enforce its claims to most of the South China Sea, which contains sea lanes critical to the prosperity of Asia. It also may be tempted to use military force to pressure Taiwan into a diplomatic accommodation that could derail that quickly developing democracy. Both eventualities would compel the United States to respond with force, engaging in conflicts that most Americans would prefer to avoid.

  2. Additional pressure will be put on the United States to increase its military capabilities in Asia
    In order to maintain its strategy of deterring conflict in Asia, the United States will have to devote more of its scarce defense resources to modernizing its own anti-missile defense, aircraft, and ship defenses there. Failure by the United States to respond to these growing PLA capabilities by selling advanced weapons to America's Asian friends and allies could undermine deterrence and tempt China to challenge U.S. interests in Asia.

  3. The United States will be forced to chose between regional interests
    It is doubtful that the U.S. Congress will fund aircraft carriers, B-2 bombers, or F-22 fighters that are more expensive than those already in the plans. Therefore, the rise of a more capable PLA may mean that the United States will have to shift its defense resources from region to region as potential conflicts arise, leaving the United States at times unable to protect its interests in the Middle East or Europe. In part, these choices may be imposed on the United States by what the Russians, Israelis, and Europeans sell China today.

  4. There will be long-term threats to China's current arms suppliers
    China's low-tech weapons exports are declining. But with foreign technology, China could develop new fighter aircraft, missiles, and submarines that it could then sell to rogue countries. For example, to keep its market in Iran, China may be tempted to sell Iran the Israeli-assisted J-10 fighter or Python-derived air-to-air missiles to compete with Russian aircraft. In addition, China's growing population pressures may force it eventually to covet Russian Far East territories. With a stronger military, Beijing could press demands for greater economic access and eventual control over those Russian territories.

So long as China seeks to control vital sea lanes in the South China Sea or threatens to use military force against Taiwan, the United States must view with caution the prospect of a more modern and capable Chinese military. The United States defense community should devise a more effective strategy to engage China's current arms and military technology suppliers and convince them to curtail sales as long as Beijing pursues goals that could destabilize peace in Asia. Those who sell arms to China today for the most part do not have the global strategic obligations that are borne by the United States. Russians, Israelis, and Europeans can afford Asian policies that are separate from Washington's because they have little to defend. In addition, they require exports to fund their defense industries during this age of declining defense spending. The challenge for Washington is to convince them that their narrow goals of selling arms to China could well have unfortunate global consequences.

So far, the Clinton Administration has preferred to downplay this issue or to confine it to private diplomacy.15 This past spring, when the House of Representatives voted three times to reduce U.S. economic aid to Russia if Moscow sold SS-N-22 supersonic cruise missiles to China, the Administration helped to defeat the legislation. In addition to demonstrating a lack of leadership by the Administration, this stand did not help to defend U.S. interests or U.S. military personnel in Asia.

A Better Strategy for Engaging China's Arms Suppliers

A strategy to engage China's arms suppliers should include efforts by the Administration and Congress to:

  • Sustain the U.S. arms embargo against China. To make it clear to Russia, Israel, and Europe that the United States opposes the selling of their advanced military technology to China, Washington must sustain its 1989 embargo on arms sales to China. The United States also must formulate a policy that sets standards for resuming arms sales, including (1) a change in China's militaristic approach to settling its disputes over the South China Sea, (2) a peaceful accommodation with Taiwan, (3) a demonstrated willingness to make its military plans more transparent, and (4) a sincere effort to limit its proliferation of dangerous military technology and to control its strategic weapons.

  • Wage a campaign of public diplomacy to deter arms sales to China. The United States should not allow China's arms suppliers to hide behind private diplomacy. At a recent Heritage Foundation symposium, former Reagan Administration defense official Dr. Dov Zakheim called this approach "cynical."16 He noted that when this matter is confined to private discourse, the friends and allies of the United States are less likely to take U.S. concerns seriously. The Clinton Administration and Members of Congress should raise the issue of arms sales to China with every high-level Russian, Israeli, British, and French official who visits Washington. Congress also should direct the Department of Defense to produce a detailed public study of the effect of foreign military technology on PLA modernization and the challenges this poses to U.S. interests.

  • Stress to China's arms suppliers that a more powerful PLA could threaten peace in Asia as well as their own interests. The Administration, on a regular basis, should explain to these Russian, Israeli, British, and French officials how a more powerful PLA could threaten peace in Asia and their own economic interests in Asia as well. The Administration also should explain why it is essential that China and Taiwan settle their differences peacefully to avoid the possibility of U.S. military intervention in defense of Taiwan. The United States should stress to Israel that selling advanced military technology to China could lead to the sale of more effective Chinese weapons to Iran--thereby increasing Iran's threats not only to Israel, but to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. The United States should emphasize to Britain and France that their interests are not served by instability in the Middle East. This instability could be stoked by sales of advanced Chinese weapons to that region. The United States also should make certain that Russia understands that a more militarily powerful China could revive old claims to territory now under Russian control. Both Israeli and European leaders should be told that a stronger China may force the United States eventually to decide between competing regional interests in times of crisis. This may mean that the United States will lack the military resources to defend a European or Middle Eastern ally during a time of multiple tensions.

  • Maintain deterrence capabilities of U.S. forces in Asia. More modern Chinese military forces will compel the United States to develop and deploy the forces necessary to deter China from challenging U.S. interests in Asia militarily. To respond to developing PLA capabilities, the United States should proceed with its plans to deploy theater missile defenses in Asia. It also is important that the United States better protect its space reconnaissance and communication satellites. The United States should develop advanced air-to-air missiles to ensure that new fighter aircraft like the F-22A, the F/A-18E, and the future Joint Strike Fighter do not lose their superior edge. Finally, the United States must develop an inexpensive but effective defense against supersonic anti-ship missiles that can be sold to U.S. allies in Asia. If the United States cannot do so, it should consider selling conventional submarines to Taiwan so that Taiwan can deter Chinese naval forces armed with these missiles.


Despite increasing evidence that U.S. allies and friends are helping China to build a more powerful military force, the Clinton Administration has failed to develop an effective strategy to counter those sales. With the help of foreign military technology, China could build more capable missile, air, and naval forces by the end of the next decade. The Administration must formulate a strategy to convince Israel, Russia, and the European countries to halt the sale of advanced military technology to China until Beijing peacefully settles its differences with Taiwan, stops its proliferation of dangerous military technology, and engages in strategic arms control with the West.

Foreign Weapons that Already Are Possessed By or Soon May Be Acquired By the People's Liberation Army






1 This paper is based on a longer study by the author, "Foreign Arms Acquisitions and PLA Modernization," presented to the Conference on the People's Liberation Army, cosponsored by the Institute for Global Chinese Affairs at the University of Maryland and the American Enterprise Institute, September 15, 1997. The author would like to thank Thomas J. Timmons, manager of graphic design services at The Heritage Foundation, for his assistance in designing the graphics for this paper.

2 Douglas Barrie, "China Provides Cash for Israeli Cruise Missile," Flight International, May 17-23, 1995, p. 5.

3 Barbara Opall, "Israel Denies Charges on Tech Sales to China," Defense News, July 21-27, 1997, p. 56.

4 Barbara Opall and Michael Witt, "China Pits U.K. vs. Israel in AEW Quest," Defense News, August 5-11, 1996, p. 1.

5 Douglas Barrie and Paul Lewis, "China Considers Rafale/M88," Flight International, April 2-8, 1997, p. 6; Nayan Chanda, "No Cash Carrier," Far Eastern Economic Review, October 10, 1996, p. 20.

6 Estimates range from 14 to over 100 ICBMs.

7 Bill Gertz, "Missile-Related Technology Sold to Beijing by Belarus," The Washington Times, June 12, 1997, p. A9.

8 U.S. Department of Defense, Selected Military Capabilities of the People's Republic of China, Report to Congress Pursuant to Section 1305 of the FY 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, p. 4.

9 Barrie, "China Provides Cash for Israeli Cruise Missile," op. cit.

10 Author interview, Moscow Aerospace Salon, August 21, 1997.

11 "China and India Are Expected to Become...," Aviation Week and Space Technology, August 25, 1997, p. 17.

12 "China Expands Reach with Russian Destroyers," Jane's Defence Weekly, January 15, 1997, p. 5.

13 Douglas Barrie, "Russia and Israel Prepare for Dogfight over Chinese Missile," Flight International, September 24-30, 1997, p. 18.

14 For more on the sale of this Russian ship to China, see Richard D. Fisher, "Dangerous Moves: Russia's Sale of Missile Destroyers to China," Heritage Foundation Asian Studies Center Backgrounder No. 146, February 20, 1997.

15 For the case of Israel, see Bill Gertz, "Israelis Face Query on Sales to China," The Washington Times, June 19, 1996, p. A4.

16 Statement before Heritage Foundation symposium, "China's Strategic Challenge and the Russian Connection," October 7, 1997.


James Anderson

Visiting Fellow