Accessibility links

Chinese Military Modernization Based on Possible High Tech War - 2002-09-13

Chinese strategists are applying lessons learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Kosovo to their own military modernization effort. American analysts say China is trying to prepare for the possibility of a limited war using high technology, and, they say China sees Washington as a possible adversary.

Chinese military strategists were impressed with the high technology and successful performance of the equipment used by the United States during the Gulf War in the early 1990's. And it was widely reported at the time that China was studying the strategy and firepower of that war between the United States and Iraq.

"Probably no military in the world spends as much time and manpower studying how others fight wars," says David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at the Elliot School of International Affairs and author of a book about China's military modernization.

"And guess what they're studying. They're studying the Gulf War. They're studying the Kosovo war. And they have studied the most recent Afghan conflict, and you bet they're going to study the next Iraq conflict if, indeed, there is one," Mr. Shambaugh said.

Professor Shambaugh says China is incorporating the lessons from those wars into all aspects of its military modernization, the training regime, the force structure, intelligence efforts, and weapons procurement. "In Kosovo, they learned not just how the United States and NATO prosecuted that conflict, but how the Serbs in fact tried to defend and protect their forces from that aerial assault. And they watched very carefully how the Serbs moved their equipment at night, hid their equipment in forests and caves and moved certain equipment into population centers, so that the collateral costs of attacking were very high, the political costs, that is," he said.

From the war in Afghanistan, Professor Shambaugh says, China learned about special operations and the need for real-time intelligence, getting information to and from forces in the field immediately so it is useful in the most timely way.

Professor Shambaugh, who spoke at a recent forum at the Cato Policy Institute in Washington, says China knows it does not have the capability to implement a high-tech war. And he says China sees itself not as prosecuting such a war but on the receiving end of one.

"They put themselves in the positions of the Iraqis and the Serbs and the Taliban. And they think that someday if worse comes to worse, and that there is a war between the United States and China over Taiwan, that they have to absorb the lessons on how to cope with that kind of assault. So their attention is on how to defend against cruise missiles, how to defend and protect against aerial bombardment. Hence, they're putting a lot of effort into very sophisticated surface to air missile systems," he said.

China officially acknowledges a military budget of about $20 billion a year. U.S. estimates say the total is probably closer to about 40 billion dollars. Professor Shambaugh says China's military spending has been rising by more than 17 percent a year. And he says its modernization program is progressing steadily, so China may achieve a modern military within 10 to 15 years.

Ross Munro, who has written extensively about China's strategic policies, also spoke at the Cato event. He says despite its current limited capabilities, China's military modernization program poses a threat to the United States.

"One of the lessons of 9/11 was that any opponent that's hostile to the United States has the potential of hurting us badly. China still views us as its strategic foe. And if and when China gets an opportunity to hurt us, despite its relative military weakness, and again I stress it's very weak compared to us, if it gets an opportunity to hurt us without incurring serious costs it will do so," Mr. Munro said.

Mr. Munro, who is director of Asian Studies at the Center for Security Studies in Washington, says when the United States is pre-occupied with the war on terrorism, it should not let down its guard with respect to China. He says over the past year China has continued to foster relationships with so-called rogue states, including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya. And Mr. Munro says those contacts involve more than just transfers of military hardware.

Another speaker, Bernard Cole, of the National War College, is a specialist on Chinese naval forces. Professor Cole says China is not looking to engage the United States in conflict but instead is modernizing so it can defend its sovereignty and borders.

"I don't think Beijing is trying or has any aspirations to build a military that's going to directly oppose the United States. I think China believes one of the reasons the Soviet Union fell apart is that the Soviet Union tried to do that. They tried to build a navy that could go ship to ship against the United States, and an air force that could go airplane to airplane. I don't believe China has aspirations to do that," Mr. Cole said.

However, Professor Cole says if Beijing believes U.S. policies threaten the continued rule of the communist party or interfere with Taiwan's reunification with the mainland, China will do whatever it feels is necessary to counteract that U.S. policy.