THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT SAYS it spends $20 billion on defense per year, but the U.S. Defense Department has good reason to believe the figure is more like $45 billion. With a Pentagon budget nearly 10 times as big, no one yet is talking about an arms race.
But the new spending figures, contained in a report published by the Pentagon earlier this summer, have U.S. defense officials listening more carefully to the footfalls from the East. China's military might, and the motivation to use it, are more important than ever given the mounting potential for conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Military analysts disagree about how much of China's armament is aimed at taking on the United States. They also disagree about how successful Beijing's army would be if it tried. But no one questions that the PRC is serious about making itself into a rival defense giant.
The budget for the People's Liberation Army has increased by 17 percent in the last two years. Much of that spending is going toward better equipment, from aircraft and ships to more missiles and better weapons technology.
China maintains the largest army in the world, despite a recent reduction of half a million soldiers. Jiang Zemin, China's former president, still holds the chairmanship of the military, and has sacrificed manpower to make room in the budget for new hardware and the latest technology.
Mr. Jiang is reported to have pounded on the table during a New Year's address to the Central Military Commission and demanded that the military provide him with a surprise weapon-"assassin's mace," he called it-to gain an edge over the competition.
"Assassin's mace" has since become the new jargon for China's push to gain an advantage over bigger and better rivals. Right now it has no straightforward lead over the United States. But with clever planning, it could corner U.S. forces in a regional conflict, most likely with Taiwan.
China has about 4,000 short-range fighter aircraft, but only 150 are considered modern. Both the air force and navy have acquired the latest version multi-use fighters from Russia, the Su-30MKKs. Meanwhile they are updating fighter-bombers with new technology and pursuing advanced AWACS technology. China has acquired two Russian guided-missile destroyers, and signed a contract to buy two more. It also purchased four Russian super-quiet submarines. Of greatest concern, according to the Pentagon report, is China's expanded arsenal of increasingly accurate and lethal ballistic missiles.
The Jiang shopping spree with Moscow has been a decade in the works, but military analysts say that Russia-China cooperation has accelerated since a 1999 agreement between then-presidents Jiang and Boris Yeltsin. Now the joint efforts are focusing on "Star Wars" technology and cooperative research-into lasers, particle beams, an array of satellites, and missile technology.
China's short-range ballistic-missile arsenal-now numbering about 450-is parked in Nanjing Military Region, able to reach U.S. marines based in southern Japan at Okinawa, and directly opposite Taiwan. Pentagon strategists worry that China may try to take back the breakaway republic, which the United States is pledged to defend, using submarines to impose an economic blockade, firing short-range missiles, and disrupting Taiwan command and control with electronic warfare. In those events, U.S. response could be too little too late.
Under President Bush, the United States has hitched itself closer to Taiwan's defense. Mr. Bush promised in 2001 that the United States would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself" in the event of attack after China forced the landing of a U.S. spy plane on Hainan Island. It was the strongest pledge of a U.S.-Taiwan alliance to date.
At the time most military strategists cheered the tougher talk. "As long as the United States is maintaining a robust position with respect to its allies, this will have a beneficial effect on the Chinese leadership, who will look for ways to improve the relationship with the U.S.," said Arthur Waldron, a University of Pennsylvania China scholar.
Close-up attention to the regional threat from China should not distract the United States from China's long-term plans. "I do not think the United States is focused enough on China's development of space-based defenses or anti-missile programs," said Larry M. Wortzel, director of the Heritage Foundation's Institute for International Policy Studies.
"The Chinese threat is a latent one the further you get away from China," he told WORLD. "But until we are able to deploy both a ballistic-missile defense system, and space-based and kinetic-energy weapons, our ability to counter the Chinese threat is also latent."
Mr. Wortzel says that China for some time now has spearheaded an international movement to ban conventional weapons from space. It has introduced a draft UN treaty to outlaw their deployment, while at the same time continuing to develop its own.
Chinese researchers are working to develop "piggyback" satellites to jam satellite communications or destroy them. They are working on land-based satellite killers, too.
Mr. Wortzel, who served as U.S. Army attachŽ in Beijing, said Chinese security experts are studious when it comes to U.S. military assets. "They have noted that our superiority in communication, reconnaissance, and surveillance depends on what we have up in space." Neutralize or destroy U.S. satellites or other space-based assets, he said, and "American forces will lose a critical advantage, leaving them far more vulnerable to China's larger but less-advanced military."
China has the ability to muster an army of 206 million. Given the demographics, 11 million men reach military age annually. With overwhelming manpower and a glut of government-trained engineers, speculators wonder if it's not just a matter of time before its military hits eye-level with U.S. forces. Space-based defenses able to meet U.S. capability could be as little as five years away, but overall military parity is more likely 15 years away.
Any speculation is just that. With nearly 80 percent of China's business sector state-owned, it has nothing like the kind of defense-industrial base that the United States already had going into World War II. It is better at reverse engineering-copycat production-than at engineering.
China is adept at certain kinds of electronic warfare, laser, and radar technology, but has failed to come up with its own technology for most military applications. "Their ability to take manufacturing know-how, systems engineering, and quality control, which has allowed them to build cell phones, has not allowed them to turn those abilities into a fighter aircraft capability. It hasn't happened yet," said Mr. Wortzel. "They cannot make a gas turbine engine. They cannot do metallurgy right."
So for now China must import a war machine. "China has bought some very dangerous things, but once it uses them, they are gone," said Mr. Wortzel. "So the good news is they have a one-time-use military. That's extremely dangerous if you are up close to it, but not enough to sustain long-range menace."