Iraq war hands lessons to China
By By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- The Chinese leadership's assessment of the war in Iraq is focused on two issues: the impending North Korean crisis, and chinks in the American armor that have been exposed in the heated campaign.
The coalition forces' relatively speedy liquidation of the Saddam Hussein regime has raised fears in Beijing the U.S. might target North Korea sooner than expected.
As the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary last weekend, the fall of Baghdad had convinced Washington "hawks" that "the U.S. should even without 'authorization' from the world community take pre-emptive strikes to tackle potential threats [from enemy states]."
Beijing's concerns have hardly been alleviated by reports last Sunday that Pyongyang may agree to multi-national talks to resolve the standoff over its weapons-development program.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing said a group of People's Liberation Army (PLA) generals had written the Hu Jintao leadership warning of the possibility North Korea might be exposed to U.S. military pressure.
The missive pointed out Beijing must adopt a "resolute stance" on the issue because the country "cannot afford to lose the North Korean buffer."
It added that should North Korea fall into the hands of hostile forces, Beijing and major coastal cities including Shanghai would be jeopardized.
The generals recommended Beijing provide some form of military assistance to Pyongyang, including anti-missile facilities.
To prevent such weapons from being misused by the Kim Jong Il regime, the PLA officers suggested the hardware be put under Chinese control all the time.
For example, Beijing would send military and technical staff -- including personnel with ethnic-Korean backgrounds -- to man the weapons, which would be taken back to China as soon as the crisis is over.
While the Hu leadership has yet to make a decision on military assistance, there is evidence Beijing has expressed more concern about Washington going after Pyongyang.
In his meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan last Friday, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated Beijing's stance about keeping the Korean Peninsula nuclear free.
However, Wen also emphasized that North Korea's security should be safeguarded.
In a message meant as much for Washington as Pyongyang, Wen said "concerned countries should maintain restraint -- and not adopt measures that will further worsen the situation."
It is understood Beijing has asked various senior Seoul politicians to remind the U.S. of the dire consequences of military action against the Kim regime.
Diplomatic analysts in Beijing said Chinese officials had played a role behind Pyongyang's apparent climb-down from its previous position that it would only agree to bilateral, North Korean-U.S. talks.
The analysts said, however, that Beijing was worried this concession alone would not be enough to defuse tension between Washington and Pyongyang -- and after the Iraq victory, an emboldened White House would prefer regime change to painstaking negotiation with the notoriously unreliable Kim administration.
To help prepare for the scenario of Washington targeting North Korea, analysts added, Chinese military experts might be sharing with Pyongyang their analysis of American capacity as displayed in the Middle East theater.
Indeed, Chinese cadres and tacticians are closely watching the deployment of U.S. forces and weaponry with a view to spotting chinks in the American armor.
A detailed assessment of the strong and weak points of American forces would be invaluable for Beijing strategists who are planning for eventualities -- however unlikely -- such as a U.S.-North Korean war or a Chinese-U.S. military confrontation over Taiwan.
The pro-Chinese Hong Kong paper, Wen Wei Po reported last Saturday battles between U.S. and Iraqi forces were "closely monitored all the way" by newly developed Chinese satellites.
The paper said these eyes in the sky could even pick up minute tracks on Iraqi runways.
Moreover, Beijing had before the start of the war reportedly dispatched a considerable number of strategic and intelligence specialists to neighboring Middle East countries.
Foci of PLA interests include whether the high-tech, multi-dimensional assault on Baghdad represented, in the words of another Xinhua commentary, "a new American war model."
Apart from the latest gadgets used by the coalition, PLA tacticians were interested in how the U.S. maintained its long supply line -- a vital consideration for Chinese strategists to bear in mind in contingency planning for a U.S. strike against an Asian target.
The experts are also studying the weak links in the American war machine.
Commentators on Chinese TV have dwelled on instances when top-of-the-line weapons including Tomahawk missiles, high-precision bombs, Patriot anti-missile batteries and Apache attack helicopters had missed the mark or otherwise under-preformed.
A PLA source in Beijing said experts were analyzing evidence Russian-made gadgets the Iraqis had apparently acquired to counter and "deceive" US missiles and electronic systems had been relatively effective at least in the first week or so of the war.
"Conclusions that military professionals have drawn concerning how U.S. weapons can be rendered less potent will underpin a key area of future R & D," the source said.
Chinese strategists, who have studied asymmetrical warfare for decades, have also been inspired by how the Iraqi army had used similar tactics to slow the coalition advance to Baghdad in the war's initial phase.
While summing up America's overall strategy in Iraq, Chinese commentators have highlighted the following points: high technology, high mobility, ubiquitous intelligence gathering, and a relatively small number of ground forces.
How China, with its fast-modernizing weaponry, huge land mass and large population, should fine-tune its game plans in light of the Iraq experience will dominate brainstorming in PLA think-tanks for the foreseeable future.