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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SECURITY

China's New-Look Army
The PLA tested higher tech in the Strait war games

By Anthony Davis / Bangkok


FOR INTELLIGENCE ANALYSTS, THE recently concluded series of military exercises near the Taiwan Strait were more than political theater. They were a chance to see and evaluate China's new-look armed forces. This was, after all, the largest and most comprehensive flexing of People's Liberation Army muscle since Chinese forces attacked Vietnam in 1979.

The live-fire exercises involved all major services -- army, navy and air force, plus the Second Artillery Corps, which is responsible for rocketry and nuclear weapons. Also, the Chinese used some of their newer weapons, including elements of the 26 supersonic Su-27 fighters purchased from Russia and the locally developed M-9 intermediate-range missile. The Chinese were judicious in firing the latter, expending only four: they cost $2 million to $3 million each.

Analysts noted that the PLA's new command center for the Taiwan Strait appeared to function smoothly. Headquartered in Fuzhou, it operates at the end of a line of command running through the Nanjing Military Region, the General Staff in Beijing and ultimately to the Central Military Commission, the highest authority. Chinese pilots were able to hone night-flying skills, but bad weather forced a marked drop in naval and air activity, pointing up a significant weakness.

For the experts, the maneuvers were less eye-opening than confirmation that the PLA is slowly beginning to turn itself from a lumbering, largely obsolescent behemoth into a modern fighting force capable of projecting power beyond its shores. "What we've seen is a reaffirmation of training programs," said John Downing, a naval analyst at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. "That means more joint operations, more cohesive operations and forces moving further away from shore."

The PLA is still not considered capable of mounting a convincing attack on Taiwan, let alone menacing its more distant neighbors. But equally clearly, the sprawling Chinese armed forces are firmly launched on a far-ranging, indeed revolutionary modernization program. Over the uncertain decades to come, that process will, analysts agree, inevitably arm China with a military clout commensurate with its awesome economic potential.

China's strategists have long since jettisoned outdated Maoist theories of people's defense, calling for drowning any foreign invader in a sea of popular resistance across the vast interior. Heavily influenced by the lessons of the 1991 Gulf War, Chinese generals are today striving to develop hi-tech capabilities suited to the 21st century. That means building a more flexible, mobile combined-arms force ready to wage small wars in border areas or to project power well beyond them.

In part, this reflects a worldwide trend. Large conscript armies are becoming a thing of the past. Even France, where the concept of a nation-in-arms was born during the French Revolution, decided recently to end conscription and downsize its forces into a more professional, mobile elite. Of necessity, Moscow is also allowing large segments of the Russian army to atrophy while putting its limited resources into special units and rocket forces.

Beijing has no plans to end conscription, but in the past decade, it has cut more than a million men from the PLA. There are plans to cut troop levels further from 2.9 million to about 2.5 million. In some ways this is cosmetic, since large numbers of troops have been transferred to the paramilitary People's Armed Police, established in 1983 and now boasting about a million men. This clearly reflects an increasing concern for coping with domestic unrest as much as external conflict.

Rapid deployment will be crucial to China's forces in the future. Already Beijing has purchased 20 Russian Il-76s, a heavy military transport designed for carrying armor and airborne forces. The country's growing fleet of civilian jetliners also means the PLA can call on large numbers of wide-bodied aircraft within hours. All domestic airlines in China have air force liaison offices attached to them.

Work is progressing on an indigenous fighter to add might to the swarms of antiquated MiG clones that form the bulk of Chinese airpower. The J-10 is, as one analyst put it, "designed to be at the same level of technology and capability as the most advanced in the West." It borrows technology from the America's front-line F-16 fighter, believed to have been acquired via Pakistan, or purchased from Israel's Lavi program. The first J-10 prototype may fly later this year.

The recent crisis in the Strait underscored two of the navy's most glaring shortcomings: insufficient landing craft and woefully weak air defenses. Nevertheless, the Chinese navy has big dreams. "They're aiming for a blue water navy by 2020 and a world-class fleet by 2050," says the IISS's Downing.

For reasons of cost and technology development, navy chiefs appear to have chosen the long road of building a Chinese aircraft carrier rather than purchasing one off-the-shelf. That, say experts, will take another ten years or more. "But the purchase option remains open," says Robert Karniol, Asia Editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. "One route might be to purchase from Russia or Ukraine. Or, Spain might offer a new vessel developed from the one it is building for Thailand."

However, modernization of the submarine fleet is moving quickly. Last year China obtained two new Kilo class subs from Russia with firm orders for two more. Intelligence analysts believe that Beijing may equip them, and its own new Song class boats, with wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes. This month Russian President Boris Yeltsin plans to visit Beijing, where the two countries will most likely put the seal on further weapons procurements, including 24 additional Su-27s and permission for China to build them under license.


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