Osama bin Laden has done Communist China a favor. Because the minds of President Bush and congressional leaders are so concentrated on the war on terrorism, they have all but ignored Beijing’s aggressive military buildup. A strong possibility exists that by focusing so closely on Iraq, a focus that is understandable considering how unsettled the situation is, the United States could miss developments that could affect its standing in the rest of the world.
Among the many uncertainties of the Asian security environment, none is more compelling than that surrounding the modernization program of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. For some observers, the combination of economic growth and force improvement signals Beijing’s intention to establish regional supremacy. Others acknowledge that the PLA can spoil the United States’ interests; however, Beijing’s interest in regional stability, and the growing conventional capabilities of other regional powers, they tend to discount a PLA military threat. Chinese secrecy compounds the difficulty.
China’s armed forces may not be a direct threat to the United States, but are good enough to cause plenty of trouble in their region and will be better in the future. China is one of the few nations to increase its defense spending in the post cold-war world, and is engaged in a major effort to upgrade its weapons capability for a possible quick strike on Taiwan. Taiwan would face an enormous challenge in repelling a determined Chinese attack. The island is too close to the mainland and too inferior in forces to hold out indefinitely. Its technological advantages would enable it to prolong the struggle, but not defeat China. If the United States were to get involved, it would face a nuclear-armed adversary capable of striking its American shores. That is not likely to happen, but it has to be kept in mind.
China has greater military power today than it did a decade ago. If Beijing were willing to pay the price, the PLA could wreak great damage. In assessing China’s future threat potential, it is essential to consider the economic, political, and strategic constraints on PLA modernization. Such considerations suggest that the PLA is years away from achieving the capability to project military force in a sustained manner.
China’s likely future strategic intentions can be difficult to predict and there are many theories put forth by many different experts. Defense budgets can be a useful, even a critical, indicator of national defense priorities, policies, strategies, and capabilities. The size of a country’s defense budget, the rate of growth or decline in its military expenditures, and what it spends its defense dollars on can reveal much about a country’s strategic intentions and future military plans. Defense budgets can also be a good indicator of a country’s military modernization priorities and therefore its possible future military capabilities. Finally, military expenditures can serve as a gauge of a nation’s defense commitment and resolve or its potential to threaten others.
The PLA is developing six distinct types of fighters, more than any nation, and a new mobile strategic missile that Air Force Intelligence calls a “significant threat” to US forces in the Pacific and portions of the continental United States. China’s recent weapons purchases from Russia comprise advanced warplanes, two guided-missile destroyers, and top-of-the-line artillery. The Office of Naval Intelligence reported that Beijing’s leaders are committed to deploying a 40,000-ton-class aircraft carrier by 2010. US defense officials are reluctant to openly characterize China as a threat, or even potential threat, but China’s march to acquire sophisticated weapons, combined with a raft of troubling statements issued by Chinese military officials, has raised new concerns about the world’s most populous nation. The head of US Pacific Command, maintains that US forces are far superior to anything fielded by the Chinese PLA. However, he said he is under no illusions about the potential dangers that a rearmed China could pose in another decade or so.
China is also purchasing weapons from other countries to include the former Soviet Union; among China’s new weapons are purchases from Russia, including guided missile destroyers and diesel-electric powered attack submarines that could threaten American warships. Outside experts on the Chinese military said it remained impossible to state with certainty China’s military intentions.
China could be preparing to challenge the United States and its allies, Asian or otherwise, for dominance of the Asia-Pacific region. China has expanded its national security objectives, has changed its patterns in the use of military force, is developing a modern war machine and sea control capability and, is attempting to build an anti-American and anti-West alliance. There can only be one reason for these activities. These are not moves directed at local opponents or guided by the principles of self-defense. This is a move aimed at the world’s sole remaining superpower, the United States. American world dominance rests on the fact that it is master of the North and South American continent, the oceans that surround that land mass, and a forward presence in strategically important regions of the world such as, Western Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Asia. If China and the PLA can marginalize the United States in Asia, then they can challenge the United States’ mantle as the world’s only superpower. Only time will tell if they can be successful in their ambition.