TAXIi driver Jin Yinjian has some advice for those alarmed by China’s increasingly muscular military, including its first-ever aircraft carrier: Get used to the flexing.
“I am proud we will have our first aircraft carrier,” Jin says. “It’s a sign of China’s growing strength, as all great countries should have aircraft carriers.”
As the Pentagon plans for US forces to exit Iraq and Afghanistan, it is keeping one eye trained on the rising threat in the East. For two decades China has been adding large numbers of warships, submarines, fighter jets and—more significantly—developing offensive missiles capable of knocking out US stealth aircraft and the biggest US naval ships, including aircraft carriers.
At the same time, China has announced that its territorial waters extend hundreds of miles beyond its shores, well into what its neighbors and the United States consider international waters. It has installed more than 1,000 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, a democratic island nation and US ally. Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan all have complained to the United States about confrontations on the high seas with China.
China says it is simply developing defensive weapons and protecting its interests. But military analysts say the United States appears to be taking a different view, citing the Pentagon’s development of a new class of bombers that can fly for long periods outside of the reach of radar.
The Long Range Strike Bomber “is a deterrent to those who would seek to deny our access,” says Air Force Maj. Gen. Noel Jones, director of operational capability requirements for the Air Force.
Jones doesn’t mention China as the potential adversary for the bomber. He doesn’t have to, says Roger Cliff, an independent defense researcher, specialist on China and former Pentagon official.
“China is one of the countries that they certainly have in mind for this bomber,” Cliff says. “China’s offensive capability will be steadily growing for the next decade. By the end of this decade, we really can’t just count on fending off the blows. They will be able to deliver ballistic and cruise missile attacks.”
China has seen phenomenal growth in wealth since it turned away from Marxist economic policies in the 1980s and toward capitalism. Ever increasing portions of that money, obtained in part from Western consumers, has gone to the People’s Liberation Army, the Pentagon says.
Since 1989, China’s defense spending has increased by nearly 13 percent annually, according to the Department of Defense 2010 Annual Report to Congress. In March it announced its annual budget would be $78.6 million.
US defense spending dwarfs that figure. The fiscal 2012 Pentagon budget request is $676 billion. However, the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank focusing on the military, has said the US military is underfunded and cannot counter China’s threat to US allies in East Asia with declining defense spending, as some in Congress are seeking as part of a deal to raise the ceiling on the national debt.
Although the US spends more, it suggests China’s real defense spending approaches $300 billion. And all of that spending is concentrated in one region, East Asia, while the US spending is spread out over many regions of the world.
The previous peak in US defense spending was an inflation-adjusted $517 billion in 1985. It then fell in real terms the next 15 years but jumped after the September 11, 2001 attacks, growing an average 4.4 percent annually. Fifty years ago, defense spending accounted for 47 percent of total federal spending. Today, it accounts for 19 percent, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The United States has far more ships and warplanes worldwide, but in just two decades China has created the largest force of submarines and amphibious warfare ships in Asia. Its air force has added hundreds of fighter jets comparable to US F-15s and F-16s. This year China’s military announced it had successfully tested a military fighter jet—the J-20—that based on video appears to have radar-evading stealth characteristics.
China also announced it is about to launch its first aircraft carrier and is developing an anti-ship missile that can strike from 900 miles away, according to the Pentagon report.
As its military might increases, China has been ramping up confrontations with US allies in the South China Sea and even against US ships in the Yellow Sea. The South China Sea is a vast area of more than 1 million square miles that may contain sizable amounts of oil and natural gas.
Twice since May, Chinese military boats have cut cables used by Vietnamese ships to conduct seismic tests of the sea bottom, Vietnam officials say. In March, two Chinese ships threatened a Filipino ship exploring for gas, the Philippine government says.
Vietnam and the Philippines say energy-hungry China is harassing their efforts to explore for oil and gas. Last fall a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese patrol boats near islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries. And Taiwan has complained to the State Department of veiled threats of invasion, as well as China’s firing of ballistic missiles over the Taiwan Strait.
The world has taken notice of China’s new military posture, according to a poll released on July14 by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The poll found that 15 of 22 nations say China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world’s leading superpower. Majorities or pluralities in all but four of the nations surveyed say China’s increasing military might is a bad thing.
China’s vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai warned recently that the accusing nations are “playing with fire” and said he hoped the United States stays out of the fray. China has called for negotiations to resolve the disputes that would not include the United States.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has expressed concern over China’s actions. In a trip earlier this month to Beijing, he said China must respect freedom of navigation.
“We are very anxious to see that…the sea lanes stay open,” he said. “The US is not going away.”
China is acting as if it wants the United States to go away, analysts say.
Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute, says China does not want war with the United States.
“What China does want, apparently, is to shift the military balance in the Western Pacific so that the United States will not be able to provide credible military support to longtime security partners such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan,” according to Krepinevich, who had a 21-year career in the Army.
All three nations provide vital ports and bases in the Pacific to the United States, preventing China from pressuring these democratic allies to accommodate the communist dictatorship’s foreign policy aims worldwide out of fear of attack, Krepinevich said. The Soviet Union tried the same thing in Western Europe, he said. He called the situation a “cloud” on the national security horizon that incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cannot ignore.
So what to do about it? Some analysts say the US military should be most concerned about China’s development of weapons that would block the US military from the region. These can be long-range missiles that could destroy an aircraft carrier at sea, or be used to target bases on islands, such as the one operated by the United States on Guam.
“The anti-access…approach is one of forcing US forces to attack from much longer distances,” says Jan van Tol, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a retired US Navy captain. “The greatest attention has been paid to the antiship ballistic missile that, if it were to become operationally effective, would give China a long-range weapon against the Navy’s aircraft carriers.”
Carriers are the backbone of US military power abroad, allowing attack jets to operate off virtually any coast in the world. China’s buildup would allow it to essentially fence off a portion of the Pacific from US forces and allow it to act with a freer hand against American allies in the region.
“There’s a lot of stuff that China seems to be acquiring for no obvious reasons,” van Tol says.
China “never intends to threaten any nation,” Defense Minister Liang Guanglie told fellow Asian defense ministers at a recent “Shangri-La Dialogue” on security in Singapore. Not everyone in China’s neighborhood buys that, says Arthur Ding, a China military affairs expert at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, who attended the forum.
As China continues its large and comprehensive military modernization, “China just cannot convince the neighboring countries” of its peaceful intentions, he says.
One clue to China’s strategic intentions will be where Beijing deploys its first aircraft carrier as early as the end of 2011, Ding says.
“If it is in the South China Sea, off the Guangdong coast, then the so-called China threat will rise again,” he says, because Asian nations and the US will see it as an aggressive message to them.
Beijing has long threatened Taiwan with invasion if it formally declares independence. Some analysts say China’s buildup is largely in preparation for the conquest of Taiwan, which has never been under Communist rule, and only military intervention by the US could stop it if China made such a move.
China’s growing presence in the South China Sea worries Ding but he does not see an invasion. “It’s probably unlikely, but the possibility is that [Taiwan’s] oil route might be somewhat threatened” by Beijing, he says.
Meanwhile, the US is moving forward on developing long-range, stealthy US aircraft capable of penetrating modern air defense, including those in China.
The Air Force plans to spend $197 million this year to design a new, radar-evading bomber. It may be flown by pilots, or remote control, allowing it to stay aloft for long periods without refueling. The Air Force hopes to have it flying missions by the mid-2020s.
With midair refueling, the warplane could circle outside the reach of Chinese air defense, positioned to strike.
Meanwhile, the US Navy also is testing an unmanned, radar-cloaked attack plane that can be launched from an aircraft carrier. The Navy refers to the plane as the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS.
Carriers capable of launching unmanned bombers could operate outside the range of the anti-access missiles China is developing, van Tol says. Those bombers could be launched in safe water and refueled before attacking, he says. “All of a sudden, carriers are back in play,” he says.
Despite the concerns, China says it is not trying to end America’s influence in East Asia.
“Our efforts to grow our economy is to ensure that the 1.3 billion people are better off,” Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said during a recent visit to the Pentagon. “We do not want to use the money to buy equipment or advanced weapons system to challenge the United States.”
In Beijing, shopkeeper Zhang Kexin says he supports the Chinese military buildup, but only for defensive purposes.
“We were undeveloped economically, and our military was weak, so we were easily humiliated,” says Zhang, 50, at his grocery store. “Now we are strong and I am proud of that strength.”
Even so, Zhang says, China has no need for an aircraft carrier.
“Its real meaning is symbolic not practical, but it is an offensive weapon, and unnecessary,” Zhang says. “And it costs millions of dollars just to start it up. That money would be better spent on rural education and health care.”