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World - Asia/Pacific

World's largest army not necessarily the strongest

China's army is 2.8 million strong   

May 28, 1999
Web posted at: 3:26 p.m. EDT (1926 GMT)

(Originally posted June 1998)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The recent controversy over the possible transfer of weapons technology to China has brought new focus to bear on China's military.

Whether U.S. security was in fact compromised, the incident has renewed fears that China is on its way to becoming a military superpower in its own right.

How does China stack up to the U.S.?

The United States is widely regarded as the world's sole military superpower. But many experts expect China to challenge that status on the military front by early next century. Still Western analysts see little reason to fear from China's military:

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  • Its 2.8 million-person army is the world's largest but is poorly trained and equipped.

  • Its 8,500 tanks are slow, small and out-of-date.

  • The 4,000 fighter planes in the Chinese air force are mostly from the 1960s and 1970s and lack modern avionics.

  • Its navy's 61 submarines and 54 surface ships are capable of little more than coastal patrols.

    "It's a very large military. It's a very old military," says Tom McNaugher, a China analyst for the Rand Corp. "In fact, two scholars recently referred to it ... as the world's largest military museum."

    To modernize, China is trimming its ground forces and using the savings to pick up high-tech bargains from the Russian arsenal.

    It has already purchased a squadron of Su-27 fighter planes, with a second squadron on order. And it's taking delivery of two of four quiet and fast Russian Kilo class diesel submarines.

    But progress has been slow.

    "They aren't buying in a number that will lead to any kind of immediate increase in combat capability," Montaperto said.

    "Reports are they are having trouble maintaining the submarines and the aircraft," McNaugher said. "The pilot training isn't all that effective. It's going to take a long time to absorb these weapons."

    The assessment at the Pentagon is that China could not project a sustained military force any distance from its borders. American military officials also believe that China, for all its size, could not even successfully invade tiny Taiwan.

    China slowly closing the gap

    But if China's military is second-rate, it can still frighten its neighbors and put the United States on alert. China., with some 400 nuclear warheads, still has the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal and missiles that can reach the United States.

    In light of last year's nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, China's nuclear arsenal may be more of a comfort than a threat to the U.S.

    China has made no secret of its desire to hone its military capabilities.

    Last year, then Prime Minister Li Peng said China should step up research in science and technology to "gradually upgrade weapons and other equipment and improve the defense capabilities and combat effectiveness of the army under modern technical and especially high-tech conditions."

    Despite these moves, the U.S. military believes China is focused more on holding its ground closer to home.

    "They don't want Taiwan to go independent. They have claims in the South China Sea, and they have to have a force that will put teeth into those claims," Montaperto said.

    China's long-term goal may be to someday challenge U.S. superiority -- but the reality today is that the United States is the 800-pound gorilla in Asia and the Pacific, while China remains a superpower wannabe.

    Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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