March 14, 2007

March 14, 2007 | Commentary on Asia

Chinese Military Superpower?

On March 4, China's National People's Congress announced it would increase the country's military budget 17.8 percent in 2007 to a total of $45 billion. Though this was the biggest single annual increase in China's military spending, the Chinese government reassured the world this spending hike was normal and need not worry anyone. 

But the evidence suggests China's intent is to challenge the U.S. as a military superpower. Within a decade, perhaps much sooner, China will be America's only global competitor for military and strategic influence. National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell told the Senate Feb. 27 that the Chinese are "building their military, in my view, to reach some state of parity with the United States." 

Nor is this a revelation to Washington policymakers. Mr. McConnell's predecessor, John Negroponte, testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2006 that "China is a rapidly rising power with steadily expanding global reach that may become a peer competitor to the United States at some point." 

In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice observed that the United States must help integrate China into the international, rules-based economy before it becomes a "military superpower." Miss Rice, with a doctorate in Soviet studies and years of experience in the White House during the last days of the Cold War, would not use the term "superpower" lightly. 

Despite the Chinese Communist Party leadership's espousal of China's "peaceful rise," the unprecedented peacetime expansion of China's military capabilities betrays a clear intent to challenge the United States in the Western Pacific and establish itself as the region's predominant military power. With China's massive gross domestic product and military spending at an estimated 4½ percent of GDP, the resources Beijing now devotes to its armed forces surely make it a top global power. 

U.S. intelligence agencies can plainly see where the money is going. China is assembling a blue-water navy, with a fleet of 29 modern submarines, including 13 super-quiet Russian-made Kilo class subs and 14 Chinese-made Song and Yuan class diesel electric submarines. At least 10 more of these submarines are in China's shipyards, together with five new nuclear ballistic missile and attack boats. China's surface fleet is also undergoing a similar modernization. 

China's power in the air and in space is also on the rise. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has about 300 Russian-designed fourth-generation Sukhoi-27 Flankers and a number of Chinese-built Jian-11 planes and 76 Sukhoi-30 multi-role jets. With Russian and Israeli assistance, the PLA Air Force has acquired an additional 50 or so Jian-10 fighters based on U.S. F-16 technology, and reportedly plans to build 250 more. 

China's rocket forces are also expanding at an unprecedented pace, with production and deployment of short-range ballistic missiles targeted at Taiwan increasing from 50 per year during the 1990s to between 100 and 150 per year today. Presumably, output from Chinese ICBM factories is expanding at a similar pace. 

Most recently, China's Jan. 12 test of highly sophisticated direct-ascent "kinetic kill vehicle" technology, coupled with attempts to blind or laser-illuminate a U.S. reconnaissance satellite in 2006, are convincing evidence of the PLA's intention to neutralize U.S. military assets in space. 

Indeed, China's 2006 "White Paper" on national defense describes a China that is moving onto the offensive. The army aims at moving from regional defense to trans-regional mobility and improving its capabilities in air-ground integrated operations, long-distance maneuvers, rapid assaults and special operations. The navy aims at gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensive operations and enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritime operations and nuclear counterattacks. The air force aims to speed its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations, and increase its capabilities in air strike, air and missile defense, early warning and reconnaissance and strategic projection. 

The ultimate question must be whether Beijing's leaders have any purpose in assembling a military machine worthy of a superpower other than to have the strength to challenge the United States' strategic position in Asia. It is time to take China's military expansion seriously. 
     
John Tkacik a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune wire