- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

China's President Jiang Zemin may have launched a charm offensive, but the generals of the People's Liberation Army, in press releases and leaks over the past several months, have described how their forces are training to attack an aircraft carrier. And they leave no doubt the carrier they have in mind is American.

The PLA spent all summer conducting a huge military exercise. Their invasion army of more than 100,000 men, with extensive sea and air support, has been practicing amphibious landings on Dongshan Island, off the Chinese coast opposite Taiwan.

PLA officers have been candid about the purpose. Their main goal is to train for an invasion of the Pescadores, Taiwanese islands about 100 miles from the mainland, as a warm-up for the invasion of Taiwan itself. A secondary goal, according to the PLA, is to practice attacking foreign aircraft carriers that might come to Taiwan's aid.

In a July report in a Shanghai paper, the PLA exercise is described as having three phases:

• Phase one is information warfare, including electronic attacks on the enemy's telecommunications and command-and-control systems.

• Phase two is a series of coordinated strikes on airports and seaports, followed by amphibious and airborne assaults.

• Phase three is an attack on foreign warships that might try to intervene.

This exercise involved the combined use of the PLA's modern destroyers, SU-27 and SU-30 jet fighters, sea-based anti-ship missiles, nuclear submarines, and land-based missiles. Several articles cited the PLA as listing ways to "inflict heavy losses on aircraft carriers." First is to attack their aircraft warning (AWACs) planes with anti-radiation missiles, and then strike the carriers with anti-ship missiles launched by China's modern Russian jets. Saturation strikes by supersonic anti-ship missiles, the articles claim, could inflict heavy damage or even sink a carrier.

The plan is to conduct simultaneous attacks on a carrier task force by aircraft, surface ships, submarines approaching from different directions, and according to the Chinese press, even ballistic and cruise missiles launched from the mainland and guided by surveillance satellites. Also, mines would be laid to block foreign warships from the Taiwan Strait.

An article in a Beijing paper described in detail the capabilities of U.S. aircraft carriers, noting their powerful ability to attack land and sea targets with more than 50 modern aircraft. But the article then says it is very difficult to defend a carrier against the new supersonic anti-ship missiles that can change course in flight. A coordinated assault by a number of high-speed anti-ship missiles coming at the same time from the air, the land and surface ships, together with missiles and torpedoes from several submarines, could prove deadly for a carrier task force, the article claimed.

Recent press reports on the four-month long Dongshan Island exercise said China's two Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyers, which the Chinese call "aircraft carrier killers," had fired two Sunburn anti-ship missiles in the exercise. In phase three, the Chinese forces supposedly were "strongly resisting U.S. intervention."

Since the election in Taiwan last year of President Chen Shui-bian, who once called for Taiwan independence, PLA commanders have taken an increasingly hard line against Taiwan and U.S. support for the island. In July, the PLA announced it "reserves the right to fire" at any foreign aircraft or warship that provocatively approaches the Dongshan Island maneuvers. A Shanghai paper cited a PLA source as saying, "the PLA truly hoped a U.S. aircraft carrier would come close to the Taiwan Strait during the exercise, in which live ammunition was used, so it could use the ship in the exercise." But on Aug. 17, two U.S. carrier task forces with 14 warships and 130 aircraft, called the PLA's bluff by meeting in the South China Sea for what the Navy described as "an unusually large exercise," without incident.

Whether bluff or not, the PLA's aggressiveness is dangerous, as the forcing down of the Navy EP-3 plane showed. The PLA is the power behind China's civilian government. The generals keep the civilian leaders in power, and the civilians keep the generals happy. Beijing has increased military spending more than 10 percent each of the past 13 years, and 17 percent this year. But what the generals seem to want most is a free hand to blockade Taiwan and invade its offshore islands.

Today, China is ruled by more cautious civilians, who know it makes no sense to risk their huge economic gains by attacking Taiwan and the U.S. Navy. It also made no sense for Japan to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, but the Japanese military did so anyway. The charm offensive of China's civilian leaders should be listened to, but the threats of their generals should not be ignored. If they have their way, and begin to believe their own propaganda, they just might repeat Japan's mistake of sixty years ago.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.


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