China's Arms Buildup: Is The Paper Tiger Growing Claws?

The revelation that China is building up its missile arsenal across the Taiwan Strait from Taipei seemed to confirm every Sinophobe's worst fear: A modernized People's Liberation Army, packing stolen high-tech weapons technology, was finally flexing its muscles. The reality is far more complex. Despite that menacing array of missiles, China's army, navy, and air force are mainly ill-equipped and badly trained. Yet the Chinese are more committed than ever to building a military their neighbors must fear and respect. Responding to this challenge will be one of Washington's trickiest foreign policy tasks.

For now, the chasm between China's aspirations and capabilities is enormous. Beijing has plenty of priorities that call for a tough military machine. The top aim is to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence. China also wants to defend an industrial base that has migrated to the coast; protect its interests in the potentially oil-rich South China Sea; and prepare for future dustups with the likes of Japan, the U.S., and a nuclear-armed India. Eventually, China wants to achieve preeminence in the Pacific and recognition as one of five global powers beside the U.S., Japan, Russia, and Europe.

MILITARY "MUSEUM." Beijing, however, faces a long march before achieving such lofty goals. For the most part, the 2 million-man People's Liberation Army is "the world's best military museum," sniffs Robert A. Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations. Soldiers have shouldered the same weapons for three decades and haven't fired an angry shot in two.

Other services are no better off. A Pentagon report last year called the Chinese navy's anti-submarine warfare gear "rudimentary." Lacking an effective amphibious force, the military won't be able to invade Taiwan, which has a pretty tough army and a sophisticated air force of its own. As for China's air force, pilots average less than two hours a week in the air, with little night or bad-weather training. Paul H. B. Godwin of the National War College concludes that for the next decade, China's military won't "be anything more than a nuisance."

But China's military ambitions cannot be discounted. Now that Beijing has forced the PLA to divest its business interests, the generals have more time to overhaul their commands. The army has already built up a respectable capacity in the short-range conventional missiles needed to attack Taiwan. The Defense Ministry has bought four modern submarines and is haggling over two missile-firing destroyers from Russia, which could be the start of a long-term plan to build a larger navy. China is using Israeli and Russian equipment to build an air force that can match the capability American forces had in the 1991 gulf war, according to Richard D. Fisher Jr. of the Heritage Foundation. That should be enough to keep the pressure on Taiwan. "They hope to take Taiwan over without blowing it to bits," says William C. Triplett II, a noted China hawk.

Instead of aircraft carriers and bombers, China is investing heavily in electronic jamming and intercept techniques to thwart the Pentagon's satellite-based combat communications, just in case the U.S. gets in Beijing's way. The PLA may be working on such Buck Rogers stuff as anti-satellite laser weapons. "This is an area where it can at least reach rough parity," says one China watcher.

Clinton Administration officials admit China's buildup bears watching. The U.S. itself may not be threatened anytime soon. But over the long haul, the PLA's modernization could drastically alter the balance of power in Asia.

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