China’s military bluster camouflages toothless bite


Big on spit and polish and parades but short on experience, new technology and force coordination, China’s military has far to go before its bite begins to approach its increasingly loud, and for some fearsome, bark.

Reuters reports China has invested billions of dollars in its armed forces and is developing advanced fighters and missiles, considering building its first aircraft carrier and is trying to slim its bloated ranks down to a lean, high-tech military. The 2010 Defense budget unveiled last week was 7.5 percent higher than last year, a modest rise by China’s recent standards, but impressive compared to other big powers.

Those rises have raised alarm in Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own, the rest of the region, and especially in the United States, the world’s only superpower with a military reach that far exceeds China’s. In a report to Congress published last month, the Pentagon said it was concerned by China’s missile buildup and increasingly advanced capabilities in the Pacific region.

Yet while China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) looks increasingly fierce on paper, analysts — and even Chinese army officers — say it will be a long time before the country has the means to effectively challenge U.S. power, if ever. “What is their readiness level? How effective are these things they’ve developed themselves?” said Drew Thompson, of the Nixon Center, a think tank in Washington.
“Is their indigenous technology really working, or does it simply exist like a lot of things in the Chinese system, on paper? I would posit it probably leans more toward the latter.” After a spike in tension that has stoked nationalist Chinese calls for a hard shove back against U.S. influence, some PLA officers are also trying to discourage chest-thumping.
“There’s no way China can threaten the United States,” Lt. Gen. Li Dianren, a professor at the National Defense University, told Reuters on the sidelines of the annual session of parliament.
“Anyone with even a bit of common sense knows that our capabilities do not come even close to matching those of the U.S. In terms of economics, technology and the military, the gap is huge. How can we threaten them?” he added.

To be sure, China’s military is becoming increasingly assertive, as seen by occasional tiffs at sea and in the air, notably in 2001 when a U.S. spy plane made an emergency landing on Hainan island after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

Last March, the Pentagon said five Chinese ships harassed the U.S. Navy Ship the Impeccable, an unarmed ocean surveillance vessel, in international waters off Hainan. China says the U.S. ship was carrying out an illegal survey.

PLA showmanship is also grand. A military parade last October 1 marking 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China featured an array of new weapons, all domestically developed. “China and the United States are rivals. That’s a fact,” said Liu Mingfu, author of a book calling for China to develop a military so powerful Washington will not dare challenge it.
“In the past, U.S. presidents didn’t call China a rival, and Chinese presidents never have. But that’s strategic hypocrisy, because each side knows the other is a rival,” he said. Many practical hurdles could hamper Liu’s goal. China is hardly renowned for producing high quality goods, as a series of product safety scandals in recent years has shown.
“If you go to the PLA and they show you some fantastic new missile on display at an air show, yes they have a missile system, but does it work? Does it work repeatedly and does it work in combat conditions?” Thompson said. “Until you know that for sure you simply assume they’ve got one heck of an interesting platform that might do us some harm … but the reality might be far different.”

One problem is the U.S. and EU arms embargo against China following the 1989 military crackdown on the pro-democracy Tiananmen protests, and there is little sign they will lift it any time soon.

There’s also inexperience. Unlike the United States, currently engaged in two massive military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, China has not engaged in full battle for three decades.

China’s last major confrontation was with Vietnam in 1979, and that was hardly a glorious victory. Chinese forces crossed the border to punish Hanoi for invading its ally Cambodia, but Vietnam’s battle-hardened troops gave the Chinese a bloody nose.

China has made some impressive technological advances. The successful missile “kill” of an old satellite in 2007 represented a new level of ability. In January, China successfully tested emerging technology aimed at destroying missiles in mid-air. Integrating such advances into the country’s vast armed forces could be problematic though.
“The (Sichuan) earthquake in 2008 showed their weakness in joint operations,” said Lin Chong-Pin, a strategic studies professor at Taipei’s Tamkang University. After the massive quake, Chinese soldiers involved in rescue efforts struggled with shortages and bottlenecks magnified by poor coordination between forces and units. China’s military edge over tech powerhouse Taiwan, a democratic island Beijing has threatened to eventually bring under its control, is growing though.

Even then, not everyone is convinced China could easily overpower Taiwan, despite its advancing weaponry. “The point is to make the U.S. military stay at a distance,” said Hsu Yung-ming, a political science professor at Taipei’s Soochow University, referring to China’s military modernization.

Pic: Chinese “Humvees” and BM27 multiple rocket launcher systems parade past the naton’s leadership atop the photograph of Chairman Mao Zedong on the Gate of Heavenly Peace (aka Tiananmen) on the southern side of the Forbidden City, the old imperial residence, in central Beijing. The parade, on October 1 last year marked the 60th anniversary of Mao proclaiming a People’s Republic from the top of the gate.