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Chinese Military Power Secret, but Growing

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 19, 2002 – A report to Congress detailing the military power of the People's Republic of China is filled with words and phrases like "approximately," "roughly," "likely" and "is believed to be."

This is because despite tremendous strides in economic growth, the Chinese government is still extremely secretive and opaque about military matters.

"The official Chinese military budget is $20 billion," said a defense official. "But the actual money invested could be as much as four or five times greater. The $20 billion is just a start."

Very little is really known not only about finance, but also about capabilities. Military-to-military exchanges between the United States and the People's Republic are another example of the secrecy the Chinese exhibit. "In the past, we have shown Chinese counterparts U.S. capabilities," said the official. "When we went for reciprocal visits, we saw only showcase units. We didn't see any operational training exercises."

The Chinese have one of the most vibrant economies in the world, growing at about 8 percent each year. Chinese leaders have committed to a long-range plan to improve military capabilities. According to the annual report to Congress, military modernization is behind other priorities such as development in agriculture, industry, science and technology. The report states this is done with the idea that improvements in these areas would necessarily improve the long-term status of the Chinese military.

However, preparing for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait is the primary driver for China's military modernization, and the focus is on reunifying with Taiwan on Beijing's terms, according to the report. The People's Republic wants to stop further moves by Taiwan toward independence.

"Beijing assesses that the permanent separation of Taiwan from the mainland could serve as a strategic foothold for the United States," the report states. "At the same time, securing control over Taiwan would allow (the People's Republic of China) to move its defensive perimeter further seaward."

The report says the growth of the Chinese military is aimed at a "coercive" approach to Taiwan. The People's Republic has repeatedly stated it will resort to force against Taiwan if the island declares independence.

The long-term Chinese goal is to modernize the military with "homegrown" capabilities. To that aim, the government has dedicated much money to research and development. In the meantime, the Chinese military has upgraded capabilities through arms sales.

Russia is the largest foreign supplier to the People's Republic. Russia has sold state-of-the-art Su-30 jet fighters to the Chinese as well as Sovremennyy-class destroyers and very quiet diesel submarines. The report says that the equipment coming in from other nations of the former Soviet Union allow the Chinese to reverse-engineer more modern weapons and systems.

Years ago, it was a given that the People's Liberation Army was a good force, but was only effective as far as it could walk, said a DoD official. That is changing. The PLA has been cut dramatically, freeing up money for modernization and allowing the remaining forces to train to higher standards. Money from various accounts outside the official budget is going into modernization.

China is building and designing its own weapons systems. The Chinese military is building homegrown destroyers, frigates and submarines. U.S. officials expect the expertise to grow and the systems to become more sophisticated. As that happens, officials expect the purchase of foreign arms will drop.

Areas of significant growth in the People's Republic's military include:

Missiles the Chinese have about 350 short-range ballistic missiles, and this is growing by about 50 per year. China is also replacing its ICBM force with longer-range versions.

Air power China has bought Su-30 fighter aircraft from Russia and is producing the Russian Su-27 jet. China is also beefing up the capabilities of the locally produced F- 7 fighter-bomber. The Chinese have developed an airborne early warning aircraft and is looking to buy the A-50 Mainstay AWACS plane from Russia. Training for aviation assets is getting more realistic, the report says.

Naval forces China has replaced its World War II era landing ships with about 600 military and civilian landing craft. China has bought Russian destroyers and a Kilo-class diesel submarine.

Land forces China has upgraded the main gun on more than 1,000 tanks and will continue to effort. At the same time, China expects to field 1,800 new Type 96 tanks by 2005. The PLA is also working on improving amphibious tactics and equipment.

U.S. officials say Chinese secrecy is disturbing, but not surprising. They say this secrecy continues a long tradition and fits in with new strategic decisions.

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