- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002


China's long-running efforts to revamp its military are taking on new urgency amid a changing strategic problem: It is surrounded by U.S. troops deployed in the war against terrorism, Russia and India are growing closer to Washington, and Beijing is nervously eyeing Japan's emerging military reach and coming economic collapse.

How Beijing adjusts its security posture to deal with these concerns will shape U.S.-China relations, regional security and perhaps the Chinese regime and nation's very ability to survive.

It is in this context that Finance Minister Xiang Huai-cheng announced last week a $3 billion increase in military spending, telling the National People's Congress the 17.6 percent boost was needed to upgrade the country's defenses.

China's strategic planners are facing a new challenge in the form of the U.S. war against terrorism. On one hand, Washington has stopped crying "China threat" and is focusing instead on a much more immediate enemy. On the other hand, Beijing's fear of a unipolar world one dominated by the economic, political and military power of the United States appears to be materializing before its eyes.

China now finds itself surrounded: U.S. forces are in Central, South and Southeast Asia, Russia is sidling up to Washington and Japan is rapidly shifting the role and reach of its heretofore purely defensive Self Defense Forces. Complicating matters are Japan's ever more apparent financial troubles, which threaten to draw the rest of Asia including China into another economic crisis.

The dilemma Beijing faces is whether to focus its security resources on the potential regional instabilities and the threats to energy supplies posed by U.S. deployments, or to bolster internal security before economic and social pressures tear China apart.

For years, Beijing has been trying to modernize its armed forces, with measures ranging from reducing the size of the People's Liberation Army to requiring additional education for officers. The goal has been to streamline the bloated forces and narrow the widening gap between China's technological abilities and those of the United States. How China reshapes its military in the coming years will have a great impact on its relations with the United States, on regional security, and ultimately on the very ability of the current regime and perhaps even China itself to survive.

Underlying all of China's strategic planning is the basic objective of the armed forces to ensure the nation's security and stability. This is more complex than it appears. The military is tasked with protecting the authority of the Communist Party, maintaining social stability and defending 13,000 miles of land borders with 14 other countries. It must protect China's maritime territory, including its contested sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, and maintain sufficient capabilities to fulfill China's standing threat to retake Taiwan by force, a task complicated by Washington's relations with Taipei.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War which left Chinese military planners with few realistic fears of a major state-to-state conflict in the near future there has been relative freedom in Beijing to debate and experiment with force structures and military doctrine. Nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, North Korea's attempted satellite launch and Washington's wars in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan have added some urgency to China's strategic planning, but much of this has been channeled into accelerating the technological training and equipping of a smaller, better-educated military.

In recent years the modernization program has focused on three main elements:

•First, Beijing has developed combined rapid-reaction forces, capable of operations ranging from amphibious assaults to disaster relief.

•Second, updating and expanding the navy has become a priority, as seen in the acquisition of Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia and the development of tactics for extending the operational range of the predominantly coastal fleet.

•The third element has been an attempt to raise the technical level of equipment and personnel across the board. The military has accelerated this by focusing on a core of soldiers and officers who receive training and the latest technology.

The main tensions in military planning and budgeting, then, have been traditional competition between the ground forces, the navy and the air force. A key aspect of the modernization program has been to create a force structure capable of projecting China's military power.

This focus has given the navy and air force greater leverage in the competition for resources with the more powerful ground forces. Yet competition does not mean resource reallocation, and all three services as well as China's missile forces have been included in the development of power-projection capabilities.

The focus on force projection has affected China's ability to deal with internal threats. In the past, the military supplemented the People's Armed Police, which is a branch of the armed forces. That arrangement played a part in the military's intervention in the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. But as the government reshapes the military, the ground forces have taken the bulk of personnel cuts.

Correspondingly, the government has enlarged the police force by integrating former soldiers into it, developing anti-riot squads, deploying additional command-and-control equipment and providing more training for police. The police force also has issued new uniforms, doing away with the old military-green and adopting a more internationally recognized civilian blue and gray. These changes reflect both the underlying concern with internal stability and the desire to recast China's police forces as the agents of domestic security, leaving the military to deal with external threats.

With the U.S. reaction to the September 11 attacks in full swing, China's security planners have a new wrinkle in their threat forecasts.

U.S. forces now ring China with deployments in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines, along with the long-standing U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea. Russia is working closely with Washington, as is India, and the United States is talking to other Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam and Thailand, seeking permission to use naval and air facilities.

Besides being suddenly surrounded, Beijing has seen the U.S. military presence in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf balloon amid the global anti-terrorism campaign. Washington has given itself carte blanche to do whatever it deems necessary to tackle potential terrorist threats. With national-security priorities overriding diplomatic niceties, Washington's actions from the Chinese viewpoint threaten to destabilize the Middle East and, by extension, China's access to vital energy resources.

Meanwhile, Japan's economic outlook grows dimmer, threatening to lead the rest of Asia into a relapse of the 1997 economic crisis. The financial fallout will undoubtedly rock China, which was struck by the previous crisis to a much greater extent than Beijing let on.

With China's new membership in the World Trade Organization already straining the state's ability to contain social unrest, a major economic downturn could prove beyond its ability to withstand. Beijing's biggest fear is that foreign instigators could burst the social bubble, leaving the regime and even the nation shattered.

The problem is how to balance these security concerns effectively. On one side are those who argue that social and economic problems can be controlled with available political and security resources, even if it means a repeat of Tiananmen Square.

From this perspective, the greatest danger to China is the threat to energy supplies, coupled with regional competitors who feel emboldened by the U.S. presence.

The hunt for al Qaeda, according to this argument, is a cover for the deeper U.S. motive of collapsing or at least constraining China. The solution, then, is to accelerate China's ability to project force regionally and to the Middle East. This would involve an even greater integration of the armed forces, more naval and airlift capabilities, increased medium- and long-range missile stockpiles and better intelligence and command-and-control infrastructure, including a much-desired aerial-warning and control system.

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