Friday, July 22, 2005

This year’s Pentagon report on China’s military power is somewhat tougher than in previous years. Released Tuesday, the report concludes that China could threaten not just its smaller neighbors, like Taiwan, but in time “modern militaries operating in the region,” which is Pentagon-speak for the United States.

“The pace and scope of China’s military are, already, such as to put regional military balances at risk,” the Pentagon concludes. This report is a needed wake-up call following by a week the threat, since disavowed, by a ranking Chinese general that China would hit “hundreds” of U.S. cities with nuclear weapons if the United States should intervene if Beijing attacks Taiwan.

Most of the report specifies in cautious language the ways China is building the means to threaten its neighbors and the United States. First, China is bolstering its naval, submarine and cruise-missile capabilities in an apparent bid to challenge U.S. naval dominance of the Asia-Pacific region. China is building a nuclear-missile arsenal and is already capable of striking “virtually all of the United States.” It is purchasing advanced aircraft systems and is moving to professionalize and modernize the People’s Liberation Army. China’s defense spending could reach $90 billion this year, about three times what it admits spending. Only the United States and Russia spend more.

Taiwan remains the focus of Chinese military strategy, but “some of China’s military planners are surveying the strategic landscape beyond Taiwan.” In fact, several Chinese military strategists seem to view Taiwan not as an end but as a means of projecting power into the oceans. Gen. Wen Zongren, political commissar of the Academy of Military Science, said recently that the Taiwan problem is of “far reaching significance to breaking international forces’ blockade against China’s rise … [T]o rise suddenly, China must pass through oceans and go out of the oceans in its future development.”

The Pentagon report details China’s moves to develop anti-satellite weaponry, computer-network warfighting capabilities, nuclear- and electromagnetic-pulse options against Taiwan and examines the capabilities for an amphibious landing. Looming over these conclusions is the fact — oft-mentioned in the report — that U.S. intelligence agencies have nowhere near full knowledge of China’s military capabilities, or its intentions. The most threatening elements could be the ones we don’t yet know.

It’s worth pointing out that this report is a consensus document with many authors. Hawks, doves and others pull and tug and the result of such pulling and tugging is frequently an inconclusive muddle. So it’s significant that the mainstream recognizes the China threat in increasingly clear-eyed terms. The report should be read carefully on Capitol Hill.

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