China’s War on Obsolescence

Zemin pushes for military modernization, as his ancient nation catches up with the new warfare.
From the January 1999 Trumpet Print Edition

Extending territorial boundaries; protecting overseas assets and trade routes; coming to the aid of an ally. Such causes have long motivated men to wage war. Yet the “reach” of a nation’s fighting arm is limited by its capability to supply and sustain the war effort. Technology has extended military power projection to a point today where many nations could influence geopolitics anywhere on earth.

Recent conflicts have demonstrated the need for rapid deployment of complicated fighting arrays at even the most remote locations. Most conflicts simply don’t permit enough time for a significant military build-up prior to a strike. What is needed is a quick, powerful strike, which allows some time to station troops near the area of confrontation. The current trend is to equip small, high-tech, elite units for combat. Their deployment is more covert, less expensive and, when aided by new technology, potentially more lethal.

All nations today are faced with the daunting task of reconfiguring their military to accommodate this new warfare. In an age of exorbitant costs and limited resources, the winner of this race will emerge the dominant global power.

Brute Strength Vs. Technology

One would naturally assume that the military power with greater numbers and more equipment would prevail. But the latest flare-ups have demonstrated this era may have passed. Third-world nations, in possession of first-world technology, can pester or even defeat once-great superpowers. Witness the conflict in Chechnya with the Russians. The balance of power obviously heavily favored Russia. Yet the Chechen rebels enjoyed victory over the superior forces, partially due to their possession of advanced weaponry. Technology has leveled the battlefield, reducing the impact of brute strength.

Hand-to-hand conflict is the most carnal, violent form of warfare. Gone are the days of this brutality. Today, we fight a vastly different kind of war. Unmanned, guided weapons are the choice. These bombs and missiles were made popular during the Desert Storm campaign in 1991 as CNN broadcasted video footage of sleek, destructive armaments slipping through open windows or over rooftops on their path to destruction.

The proliferation of missile and rocket technology has armed many with the ability to strike their neighbors without ever leaving home. As the range and lethality of these weapons increases, so will their popularity.

The New China

China, the most populous nation on earth today, has an endless supply of manpower. But as times have changed, so too must the Chinese. “In recent years, China has been moving away from its long-standing defensive ground warfare doctrine toward a forward-deployment strategy employing smaller, but better balanced, forces trained to operate in areas remote from the homeland” (Warships, Summer 1998). Though limited technologically, the Chinese have made progress in modernizing their forces. The Chinese have traditionally looked to the former Soviets for advancement, but they currently have set their sights on the advanced navigation systems and avionics, radar and early detection equipment, propulsion systems and other secret technologies of Western powers.

The deceptive appearance of scaling back manpower may fool some. Today, many nations are forced to reduce their soldiery for economic reasons. But the Chinese are cutting personnel, while at the same time spending more on their armed forces. Where is the money going? Into advanced weaponry. President Jiang Zemin has penciled in a 12 percent increase in military spending in his new government’s first budget; by 2000, over one half million troops will be demobilized to free up capital for hardware purchases.

China’s latest diplomatic ventures support its changing military structure. Bill Clinton recently made the first official presidential visit to China since the Nixon era. Visiting Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 massacre of student protesters, President Clinton restated diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China. His statements underscored a shameful abandonment of an old American ally, Taiwan.

But China is not only cozying up to the U.S. They’ve increased trade and economic cooperation with the great bear to its north—Russia. This move has eased tension between the two significantly, which, in turn, has increased the flow of military equipment to the Peoples’ Liberation Army of China (PLA). Even China’s age-old, most-feared Asian enemy, Japan, has overcome history and prejudice to address their mutual interests in trade and investment.

Not to be left out, the EU and Britain have also pledged greater cooperation with China. We can’t forget the significance of the return of Hong Kong to China after decades of British rule. Not only did the British develop this superior natural harbor, they cultivated the economy which now benefits the Chinese. As the June 1997 Trumpet predicted, this handover of Hong Kong has had many ominous impacts on the free world. “‘Never before has so much, used by so many, gone for so little,’ declared the ministry of defense sales slogan in a rather sad parody on Churchill’s famous statement in support of the brave few who fought and won the Battle of Britain.” Our article went on to report on the gifting of Hong Kong’s $380 million modern naval base, constructed and financed by the British, to the Chinese.

An Air of Openness

The once-secret Chinese military is taking on an air of openness. In 1997, two of China’s largest modern ships, the Luhu and Luda III, sailed into Pearl Harbor and then San Diego. Docking at U.S. naval berths, these destroyers were opened for military inspection. “While the Chinese on the one hand realized that they probably had nothing new to show the Americans, openness on their part was an encouragement for the U.S. to share more high technology” (ibid.). The Chinese are playing every possible card in their pursuit for new technology.

The problem for the Chinese is to modernize their aging arsenal. For instance, their navy is comprised of 1100 ships. That is nearly three times as many vessels commissioned by the United States. But 80 percent of the Chinese fleet is built on old technology which would render it useless against most nations. They only have six nuclear submarines. The diesel-electric submarine fleet is not much better. Their surface warships were constructed in the 1970s, which means most are not equipped with anti-aircraft missiles. In fact, only 35 percent of the fleet carry sams (surface-to-air missiles)—all of which are short range—leaving the navy exposed to a devastating aerial assault. Even the navy’s electronics capabilities are poor by Western standards. The most common ship in the PLA is a coastal patrol boat. These lightly armed vessels are no match for the modern weaponry they would undoubtedly face in any confrontation.

So China has actively pursued a massive refit of their fighting forces—especially their navy. Local construction of a new fleet of warships is already under way. Early in the next century, the Chinese are expected to commission a new class of nuclear submarine capable of firing on U.S. coastal targets from Chinese patrol areas. The sub also will provide a platform to launch the new Chinese-made underwater cruise missile.

Indian Threat

The greatest threat facing China is populous India, one of the world’s newest nuclear powers. China has allied itself with Pakistan to check the problem, but India, with its millions of potential fighters, lurks restlessly across the border. Of particular concern is the Indian navy. India’s submarine force excels China’s, both in technology and numbers. They also have two World War II vintage aircraft carriers. Though they are not the modern equivalent of a U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, they are vessels the Chinese PLANavy does not have.

Speculation abounds that the Chinese are working to acquire the unfinished, 33,600-ton Varyag aircraft carrier from the Ukraine. If the Chinese were to acquire and complete construction on this colossal ship, the balance of naval power would tilt in their favor.

Taiwan Threat

The little island nation of Taiwan, situated roughly 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, draws international attention far out of proportion to its size. Because of its strategic significance, this land of 21 million has been a major concern to Beijing for decades.

The United States has pledged and carried out significant financial and military contributions to Taiwan. “America is their most important ally—the source of their military armaments. Without America’s military and psychological support, they would have already been conquered by mainland China. They have little or no chance to survive without our support” (Trumpet, Aug. 1998). But today, as this issue of The Trumpet details, support from the United States is waning.

The Taiwan Relations Act regulates trade with Taiwan in the absence of formal diplomatic ties. The United States has long supported Taiwan with military cooperation and arms sales under this act. This will continue despite Clinton’s comments in support of mainland China, according to U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin: “There has been no change in our longstanding and consistent policy with regard to arms sales to Taiwan. In bilateral meetings, the (mainland) Chinese frequently raise their concern about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and we respond to those concerns when they do so. But nothing in those discussions signals in any way the fact that we are changing our policy” (March 30, 1998).

Thus far, defense contractors have continued to supply Taiwan with American arms. In October, Lockheed Martin reported that they delivered more F-16 fighters to Taiwan. Of the 150 planes promised Taipei back in 1992, 103 have now been transferred and are in service. The new jet fighters will certainly make Taiwan’s Air Force one of the premier in the world. Currently under consideration is the proposed sale of 61 vehicle-mounted “Stinger” anti-aircraft missile launchers and 728 missiles. These too will strengthen Taiwan’s air defense.

The Taiwanese Navy received substantial reinforcement in late July as the third batch of U.S. Navy Knox-class frigates arrived in port. Since 1993, Taiwan has acquired six of these vessels on a rental basis. In August, the U.S. also announced plans to sell $350 million worth of Harpoon missiles and MK-46 anti-submarine torpedoes to Taiwan.

France too has publicly spoken against Taiwan and at the same time sold high-tech weapons to them. Taipei bought six of the French-built, radar-evading Lafayette-class stealth frigates and 60 of the advanced Mirage 2000-5 fighter aircraft. Now there are reports of other European nations trying to make their armaments available on the Taiwanese market.

Though Taiwan has only 2 percent of the population mainland China has, their defense spending is almost equal to China’s! With foreign aid from the United States and France, the Taiwanese military is equipped with the most modern and lethal weaponry.

Taiwanese Military Production

Ironically, the nations that built up the Taiwanese military are now deserting them diplomatically. It is only because arms sales are so lucrative that foreign nations continue to pour in the weaponry. But the diplomatic message is abundantly clear to Taiwan. Western nations are distancing themselves from Taipei. Now that the diplomatic ties are being severed, how much longer can the Taiwanese rely on military cooperation and assistance? Because the answer is uncertain, Taiwan has increased domestic research, development and production of their own weapons.

After the U.S. formally severed diplomatic ties with the Taiwanese government in 1979, they began funding a secret weapons program. In April 1998 they successfully tested their first homemade supersonic anti-ship missile. This weapons program is also reported to be working on missile systems, which can deliver a variety of warheads—including chemical, biological and, someday, nuclear. But on August 4, 1998, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) reiterated that “it is Taiwan’s firm policy not to do research on, develop or produce chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.” These comments were made in response to a statement by Gerald Segal (director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London) which appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal that same day: “In order to forestall American efforts to push them into the arms of mainland China, representatives of the Taipei government are embarking on a subtle campaign to remind the world that Taiwanese military retains the option of completing the development of a nuclear deterrent…. They evidently hope that a nuclear card will force the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to protect Taiwan’s security, in order to avoid seeing the stand-off across the Taiwan Strait go nuclear.”

With the prospect of little or no international support, Taiwan has no alternative but to arm itself in defense against their nemesis across the Taiwan Strait. But Taipei’s actions are regarded as provoking the People’s Republic of China, which in responce is arming itself

The Ultimate Advantage

With economic crisis, political turmoil and human nature running rampant, the nations of Asia are arming themselves to the teeth. If successful in their attempt to modernize their military, the Chinese could pose a threat to civilization unlike any other nation. Though the current trend is to downsize and modernize, sheer manpower is one factor which will perpetually favor the Chinese. Millions of potential fighters, using some of the world’s most advanced weaponry, are a formula for devastation the likes of which this world has never witnessed.

Pay close attention to what is taking place in China as this vast nation modernizes and works to extend its hegemony, and India and Taiwan strive to ensure their security.