Friday, January 7, 2011

China’s Military Modernization Should Give the US Pause

As US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prepares to go to China and President Barack Obama prepares to host Chinese leader Hu Jintao, it is important that they recognize that the Chinese leadership has an increasingly capable military at its disposal. Worse, the factors shaping that military remain opaque.

A number of items concerning the Chinese People’s Liberation Army were in the news this past week.

The most high-profile item was the comment by Adm. Robert Willard, chief of the US Pacific Command, that China’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) system had reached initial operational capability much earlier than had been expected.

This means that the Chinese DF-21D, which is believed to have been developed specifically to target US carrier strike groups, has now been distributed to at least some PLA units for actual operational use in the event of conflict.

At almost the same time, Chinese Internet sites revealed pictures of a possible Chinese stealth-type fighter aircraft.

The pictures are grainy and may not bear any resemblance to any actual Chinese aircraft in development, although it is apparently referred to as the J-20.

The larger point is that such photos reached the Chinese portion of the Internet about the same time as Willard raised the subject of the DF-21D again.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the Chinese carrier Shi Lang may be ready for launch in 2011.

This, too, would appear to be far in advance of prior estimates of when the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier might be refurbished — and make a mockery of those who had claimed that the Chinese were either not interested in or not capable of developing and operating an aircraft carrier.

All of these news items serve to underscore that China’s military development has proceeded more rapidly than many had expected.

It remains to be seen, though, what the 2010 Chinese defense white paper will reveal about Chinese military policies and emphases.

Few Western analysts, however, expect it to be significantly more revealing about Chinese decision-making than the previous editions.

For all the purported interest in sustaining military-to-military exchanges, there is little indication that Beijing sees them as much more than an opportunity to gain information and press their political and diplomatic agenda.

Where the United States has tried to use military-to-military meetings to propose operational steps for minimizing the potential for incidents or misunderstanding, China uses these meetings to demand alterations in fundamental US policy.

As the United States and China engage each other in 2011, the US Congress and the administration should:

•Hedge against Chinese breakout capabilities.

In and of itself, China’s military modernization is not necessarily a threat.

China is now the world’s second largest economy and has a global footprint. It is only natural that China would create a military capable of defending those interests.

How it defines those interests and how it uses its military power to pursue them are the dangerous complicating factors. The pace of China’s military expansion is much greater than predicted. Consequently, American planners should not only revise their predictions to accommodate the new realities of the PLA, but also recognize the limits of their understanding of current Chinese practices.

•Maintain US capabilities in the western Pacific.

One of the essential elements of US deterrence is the ability to engage in escalation dominance — that is, no matter what Chinese military capabilities arise, the United States will always be able to meet and overmatch them.

Reductions in current American forces can only raise questions about both the credibility and reliability of the American commitment — and increase the risk of miscalculation and conflict.

•Enhance intelligence and analytical capabilities.

The Chinese government in general, but especially the PLA, does not place much faith in transparency.

Before expanding its engagement with the Chinese, the United States should have a better sense of whom it is dealing with and how their system of military management actually works.

This can be achieved only through a sustained commitment to developing familiarity and expertise.

There is little question that the United States and the People’s Republic of China will be steadily engaged with each other in 2011, continuing a post–cold war trend.

The United States should never be afraid to engage China, but neither should it give the Chinese the impression that Washington is dealing with them out of fear.

Only a consistent national security policy, including a sustained US presence in the region, can do that.

By Dean Chengresearch fellow in Chinese political and security affairs in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. Jakarta Globe

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