Perils of a new Pacific arms race
This year China is celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Peoples'
Liberation Army. But its traditional strategic thinking is undergoing a
huge shift, prompting fears in the United States that China might pose a
threat to American diplomatic and military power with a naval arms race
in the Pacific.
The capitulation of Sadam Hussein's army in the face of a hi-tech
American onslaught in Desert Storm, with land, air and sea forces
enabling a rapid US advance across large areas of land, gave a fresh
impetus to military modernisation, according to Christian Lemiere, China
expert at Jane's Country Risk.
China says its navy is needed to protect trade interests
"China had always relied upon the idea that if attacked it had large
areas of land. It could fall back with these areas but if one power is
able to take that and very quickly, it rapidly negates any advantage."
China has been looking to match US military technology and launched
an anti-satellite missile as part of this process.
Joseph Lin, a military affairs analyst with the Jamestown Foundation
in Washington said this development has unnerved the Pentagon.
"The United States is heavily dependent upon satellites for all
matters of communications, especially the military, which would be
crippled and completely ineffectual without any sort of satellite
coverage either for imaging, navigation or for communications."
At the same time, China's naval build-up has alerted American
military officials to the previously unthinkable possibility that they
might face competition in the Pacific Ocean, where the US has enjoyed
naval dominance since the World War Two.
Richard Lawless, Deputy Undersecretary of Defence for Asia and
Pacific Security Affairs, believes it is the biggest shift in the
region's power balance for more than 60 years.
China's defence budget far exceeds official figures say US
And he is especially concerned with the development of new classes of
submarine, including two of them nuclear: one an attack submarine class,
the other a ballistic missile submarine. Since 2000 China's official
military budget has leaped from $15bn to $45bn.
Some US estimates say these figures exclude a range of defence-related
outlays such as arms purchases from abroad and put the true figure for
China's annual military spending at up to $122bn.
Professor Yan Xuetong, director of the International Studies
Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and an analyst whose voice
is heard by Chinese and American decision makers, said China needs
submarines to deter the US Navy.
"Every major power when they increase the military budget will bring
about this kind of suspicion," he added.
China's official pronouncements stress a commitment to "peaceful
development". Prof Ne Lex Yong, of Shanghai Normal University is an
influential advocate of building up China's navy for economic security.
China's armed forces are over two million strong
"A country that depends on sea-trading faces the greatest threat to
its survival in areas outside its own borders. Because of this, we need
to have a stronger navy to protect our trading interests."
Some Chinese observers feel their vulnerability is most clearly
demonstrated by "the Malacca Dilemma."
More than 80% of the imported oil which fuels China's expanding
economy has to pass through the narrow Straits of Malacca which link the
Indian and Pacific oceans.
One school of thought in Beijing worries that if relations with the
US were to break down, Washington might block the Straits and cut off
its oil. Others warn that developing a much more powerful Chinese navy
capable of keeping the oil flowing might unnecessarily provoke America.
Professor Zha Daojiong, director of the Centre for International
Energy Security at Renmin University, concedes that opinion is divided.
But he is not convinced by the blockade threat, pointing out that
this would also hit supplies to American regional allies like Japan and
Nonetheless, China's navy is growing, with the acquisition of new
missile destroyers and submarines.
This process is sparking a new arms race in the Pacific, according to
naval expert Paul Kennedy, Professor of History at Yale University.
"When I was in South Korea recently I quizzed the Naval Ministry
about the construction of some very large, 7000 ton missile guided
destroyers. They said: 'Well look at how many destroyers Japan is
building', and if you ask the Japanese Navy they would say: 'Well look
how many destroyers China is building.'"
Dr John Chipman, director of the International Institute for
Strategic Studies, said Japan - China's historic enemy - is also quietly
strengthening its navy, which will soon be larger than Britain's Royal
Navy. This naval build-up is fuelling the debate in Washington about how
the US should respond to China.
One side, seizing on Pentagon warnings, argues that the United States
needs to act decisively to halt the rise of the "China threat."
Rick Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Centre,
said: "The United States has a period in which it can expand upon its
current military technical superiority and form a kind of hard basis for
deterring conflict, but that requires that the United States understands
that we're now in an arms race.
"The United States must invest especially in the technologies and in
the science that will allow us to maintain the superiority that will
impress the communist leadership in Beijing that wars are futile."
But others, like Congressman Adam Smith from Washington state, argue
the danger is that the United States will create an enemy and talk
itself into another Cold War. "I see no reason that we need to view them
as a military threat and to get involved in an arms race build up."
A concerned Pentagon, however, made its anxieties clear to the US
Congress this spring in its latest report on China's military
No official Chinese government spokesman accepted the BBC's
invitation for an interview. However, earlier this summer, Lieutenant
General Zhang Qinsheng, a senior general in the Peoples' Liberation Army
responded to American anxieties at an international conference in
He said the Pentagon report was unreliable, a product of "the Cold
War mindset" and detrimental to China-US relations.
IISS director John Chipman, who chaired the conference said: "I think
the majority of people in the conference were reassured by his attempt
to demonstrate that Chinese defence expenditure was uniquely for self-defence,
but the same majority were also certain that increased Chinese force
projection capabilities ... would help China to confront - if it ever
came to that - larger navies around the region which would include the