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Stealth plane

Harsh V. Pant

: Fri Jan 21 2011, 02:07 hrs

As Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington, the pace of China’s rise is causing consternation across the globe. This is particularly true in the military realm where recent events have underscored growing tensions in Sino-US ties. There was a surprise waiting for US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in Beijing last week — China welcomed him with its first stealth plane, the J-20. It was the classic Chinese way of showing off its military muscle. Gates was there to restore high-level military contacts with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) following Beijing’s decision to cut these ties last year when the US announced a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.
China’s largely secretive military modernisation programme is producing results faster than expected, and is gearing up to challenge US military prowess in the Pacific. It is refitting a Soviet-era Ukrainian aircraft carrier for deployment next year and more carriers are under construction. China’s submarine fleet is the largest in Asia and is undergoing refurbishments that include nuclear-powered vessels and ballistic missile-equipped subs. Its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) system, developed to target US carrier strike groups, has reached initial operational capability much earlier than expected. And this month, photographs appeared on the Internet of what is apparently its first stealth fighter during a runway test in western China.

China has already shown its prowess in anti-satellite warfare and has redeployed its nuclear warheads on to mobile launchers and advanced submarines. In a marked shift in China’s no-first-use policy, its leaders have indicated that they would consider launching pre-emptive strikes if they found the country in a “critical situation”, thereby lowering the threshold of nuclear threats.

China is a rising power, the world’s second largest economy and has a growing global footprint. It would like to have a military ready and willing to defend these interests. But it is the opaqueness surrounding its military upgrade that is the real source of concern. In fact, the PLA follows Sun Tzu who argues that the “essence of warfare is creating ambiguity in the perceptions of the enemy.”

China continues to defend its military upgrade by claiming that it needs offensive capability for Taiwan-related emergencies. But clearly its sights are now focused on the US. China wants to limit American ability to project power into the Western Pacific. It wants to prevent a repeat of its humiliation in 1996 when US aircraft carriers could easily move around in the

Taiwan Strait and deter Chinese provocations. Not surprisingly, the steady build-up of a force with offensive capabilities well beyond Chinese territory is causing consternation in Washington and among China’s neighbours. This comes at a time of Chinese assertiveness on territorial disputes with Japan, India and Southeast Asian countries.

American technological prowess and war-fighting experience will ensure that China will not be able to catch up very easily. China is still at least a generation behind the US militarily. But the Pentagon’s most recent assessment of China’s military strategy argues that despite persistent efforts, the US’s understanding of how much the Chinese government spends on defence “has not improved measurably”. It is clear now that Beijing is configuring its military to fight the US. China’s focus on anti-access and area-denial weapons is designed to prevent the US from operating without fear in the Western Pacific.

As it turned out, Gates’ Beijing visit failed in achieving anything substantive; there was merely a commitment to continue talking. China’s defence minister made it clear that it was up to the US to change its policies if it wanted

better ties with China’s military.

The US secretary of defence has acknowledged that US military and intelligence had been underestimating China’s military build-up. China’s J-20 will rival the US F-22 superfighter whose production was cancelled by Gates on the assessment that China would not deploy a comparable jet until 2020. The US military is stepping up investments in weapons to counter China’s military build-up in the

Pacific, including a new long-range, nuclear-capable bomber aircraft and a new generation of electronic jammer for the navy designed to thwart a missile from finding and hitting a target.

But it might be too late already for the US. China has closed the capabilities gap with the US — enough to pose a threat to US freedom of action in the Western Pacific — with the help of a three-decade-long build-up and a raft of technological secrets stolen through espionage. The US has been consistently underestimating the PLA for more than a decade now. Not surprisingly, the Chinese military has advanced faster than the West thought it could. The US aircraft carrier battle group now stands vulnerable in East Asia.

Chinese ships have increasingly challenged the US navy in the

Pacific in recent months. China might succeed in getting the US out of East Asia without firing a shot by enhancing its deterrence capability in the region, forcing the US to think twice before intervening in the region. And this should be

troubling for those who continue to view the US as the ultimate bulwark against China’s rising assertiveness in the region.

The writer teaches at King’s College, London, and is the author of ‘The China Syndrome’;


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