Wednesday, March 18, 2009

China's Military After Taiwan

It seems there have been a lot of debates on PLA's missions beyond Taiwan recently. The topic first gained public attention in the 2007 edition of the Annual Report on China's military published by DOD, then it was discussed in the 2008 US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute’s Colloquium Brief (Here). Now, Joffe, one of the most respected PLA watchers out there adds his take in the current edition of FEER.

FEER was my regular diet back in the days, but its editorial standards have suffered greatly since it became an "online" only outlet. But with the return of Joffe (speaking of the good ole days), Jonathan Anderson, Andrew Chen, and Mark Valenica, I think I will give FEER another try.

March 2009
China's Military After Taiwan
by Ellis Joffe

Posted March 18, 2009

The recently concluded session of the National People’s Congress brought news of another double-digit boost to China’s official defense budget. While the 14.9% increase is a little less than the 17.6% rise in 2008, it is still substantial, especially in view of the looming economic difficulties and improving relations with Taiwan. Although the official line is that the money will go mainly for raising the living standard of troops, Premier Wen Jiabao in his speech highlighted the need for the continued buildup of the armed forces, which will presumably absorb much of the increase.

This fits with the existing trend of more than a decade, as the Chinese armed forces have been undergoing an intensive buildup that has substantially increased their combat capabilities. Although these capabilities had plummeted drastically during the Maoist period, no concerted modernization drive--primarily to acquire new weapons--was launched until after the Taiwan crisis of 1995/96, because the Chinese had perceived no strategic military threat to their security.

This perception changed dramatically when the dispatch of two American carrier groups to the vicinity of Taiwan forced a humiliating Chinese retreat from missile firing exercises that had been designed to put pressure on Taiwan. This crisis convinced the Chinese that the U.S. would intervene if they attacked Taiwan and confronted them with a new and urgent strategic threat that became the impetus for a major force buildup and a focus for its direction.

This threat, stemming from China’s determination to block Taiwan’s moves toward separation, had been the catalyst for China’s efforts to build up its armed forces. Their focus was defensive: to acquire a capability needed to invade Taiwan and to deter the U.S. from intervening; failing that, to delay the advance of U.S. forces by protecting the maritime approaches to the Taiwan Straits and China.

However, relations between China and Taiwan have improved greatly following the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan president in March 2008. Although the unification issue remains unresolved, Mr. Ma has rejected his predecessor’s policy of pursuing de facto independence from China.

This dramatic change has removed the specter of war from the Taiwan Strait. It has also removed the primary rationale behind China's decade-long rapid military buildup and the vast investment of funds that it required. However, no letup in this effort should be expected.

The reason is that other factors beside Taiwan have become operative, and these will continue to drive the buildup. The first is the strategic defense of China, which has become an acute issue, paradoxically, as a direct result of the Taiwan tensions. After a decade of gradual post-Mao military modernization, the Chinese greatly accelerated war preparations in the mid-1990s, prompted by the dispatch of two U.S. carrier groups to the vicinity of Taiwan.

However, these preparations have been viewed as increasingly threatening by the U.S. which, in turn, has adopted a “hedging” strategy aimed at strengthening American military power in the Pacific. The Chinese, for their part, have looked upon this as a threat to their security, requiring continuous enhancement of their military posture. It also requires the Chinese to be constantly on alert against what they view as U.S. probing of their defenses, as demonstrated by the recent incident in which Chinese vessels harassed a U.S. Navy surveillance ship.

The second factor derives from the military’s mission of providing support for China’s nationalistically inspired great power aspirations: to obtain for China the international respect, recognition, and ranking that has been accorded to great powers. Although China’s global status received a tremendous boost from its economic surge, China still lacks the military capabilities that are also essential for great power status.

The Chinese are well aware that until now these capabilities have been beyond their reach. Although they possess a minimal but credible nuclear deterrent, they still do not have the conventional forces needed to project military power in wartime for extended periods at a distance from China's borders, and they have only begun to acquire the capabilities necessary for protecting the maritime approaches to China. For this reason, China’s leaders have not viewed their military power as relevant to China’s global aspirations.

This situation is changing. China’s new global standing combined with its Taiwan-driven military progress has convinced the Chinese that they can begin narrowing the gap between their economic standing as a great power and their military capabilities and to begin playing a military role on the international stage.

More important is the desire to assert China’s regional pre-eminence. Whereas China’s global aspirations are long term and require currently unattainable levels of military power, its regional objectives impinge directly on national security and require achievable military backing.

These objectives are to counteract the presence of a potentially unfriendly power in its neighborhood--most immediately, the United States, but also India, Japan and Russia over the long haul. Critical to these objectives is the development of military capabilities that will enable the Chinese to respond to what they might view as a threat to their growing continental and maritime regional interests--primarily sea lines of communication.

The final factor is the sheer force of momentum. The military buildup has set in motion a wide range of long-term programs backed by powerful interests--such as the military-industrial complex--which cannot be easily terminated. There is no reason to assume, moreover, that China’s leaders will want to terminate them, since they and the generals share nationalistically inspired global and regional aspirations. Most important, China’s leaders need the support of their generals and, barring a severe economic crisis, continuous military modernization is a price they will readily pay out of both conviction and self-interest.

These are basic long-term factors that are not likely to change and they will drive the modernization effort for decades. After Hu Jintao became chairman of the Central Military Committee in 2004, new objectives were introduced to underpin this effort and to make it more relevant to current needs. Touted as new “historical missions” and “diversified military tasks,” these objectives clearly reflect Hu’s desire to put his own imprint on the military and to bolster his position among the generals. After the rapprochement with Taiwan, they also provide an additional rationale for China’s continued military buildup.

While Taiwan remains the Chinese army’s main mission, the new “military objectives other than war” include anti-terrorist operations, maritime security, rescue missions, and peace-keeping duties. To carry out them out, it is necessary to divert resources and energies from “core military capabilities.” How much to divert has apparently become a contentious issue among China’s generals.

The most forceful proponents of such objectives are presumably the admirals. Since 2000, the navy has commissioned five nuclear-powered and 22 conventionally powered submarines, in addition to 10 destroyers and six frigates, and nearly 30 amphibious ships. In a Taiwan scenario, the role of the navy would be central: to transport assault troops to Taiwan, and, more importantly, to deny access to U.S. aircraft carriers and warships.

Now the Chinese admirals apparently want to move beyond defensive perimeters and to position the navy as the prime military supporter of China's aspiration to gain recognition as a great power. This was an angle highlighted by Chinese comments on the dispatch of Chinese warships off the Somalia coast to participate in international efforts to protect shipping from pirates.

More important have been renewed reports that the navy is embarking on a program to build aircraft carriers--an issue that has been unresolved for years. If the Chinese go ahead, it is clear that the mission of their aircraft carriers will not be to defend China against the U.S. or to protect sea lanes in wartime. The mission, at immense cost, will be to augment China’s dominant political and military presence in the region and to bolster its international prestige.

The preoccupation with new missions--demands have also been made to upgrade the People’s Armed Police for security purposes and military units for rescue missions--has aroused dissatisfaction in the military, probably among conservative ground force generals. Criticism has been directed at the damage to combat training caused by performance of other tasks; at the inability of the military to effectively carry out both traditional and non-traditional functions; and at inadequate attention to the military’s basic mission of coping with threats to the nation’s sovereignty and vital interests.

There have been no demands to abandon the new tasks, only to focus more on combat preparations. At several recent sessions of the top military policy-making body, the Central Military Commission, such a compromise has apparently been reached. However, if the navy is allowed to go ahead with grandiose development plans, the question is how long it will hold.

Mr. Joffe is a professor emeritus of Chinese affairs at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written widely on the Chinese military.

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