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China's Military On the Move


China is emerging as a major economic power. It is also transforming its massive military into a more modern and efficient force, but this transformation is not necessarily intended to make its military capable of global power projection.

When China's modern military came into being with the 1949 revolution that swept Mao Zedong and the communists into power, it relied on massive manpower to achieve its objectives. Waves of Chinese soldiers entered the Korean War in the early 1950s and turned a U.S.-led advance into a stalemate.

Military Technology

Today, a nation's military strength is largely measured by its command of technology and ability to integrate the operations of its armed forces, not how many soldiers it has. This has been the trend that the United States and Britain have followed.

Evan Medeiros, a China analyst with the RAND Corporation in Washington, says Beijing is on a similar path.

"The Chinese P.L.A., or People's Liberation Army, has traditionally always been the principal focus of the Chinese military. And the army has been focusing in recent years on building a smaller, more flexible, highly trained and well-equipped ground force, one that can have more rapid-reaction units with enhanced special operations capabilities, greater numbers of airborne troops, larger amphibious capabilities and mechanized ground forces," says Medeiros.

The P.L.A. is not just the Chinese army. It also encompasses the air force and navy.

Christian Le Miere, the Asia-Pacific Editor of Jane's Country Risk, says the army's long-standing central role and massive numerical strength has been changing, and is more integrated today with the other branches.

"The army has received less funding than the air force and the navy over the last 20 years. There is currently approximately 1.6 million personnel in the active [duty] army. That number is being reduced by about 200,000. And, with the other services, there is a major drive to modernize the army for joint service operations," says Le Miere.

As for where joint operations involving the army, the navy and the air force might be directed, the short answer for many analysts is the island of Taiwan, off the coast of mainland China.

Taiwan Policy

When the communists defeated the forces of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek in 1949, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, where they set up their own government. China has always considered Taiwan to be a renegade province and has often stated that it intends to get it back.

Philip Coyle, with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, says China's long-standing Taiwan policy is driving Beijing to build a different navy than the sort that would be used for global power projection.

"The kinds of surface ships that they'll be interested in don't need to be great big cruisers and aircraft carriers like the United States has," says Coyle. "They can deal with smaller, frigate-sized, ships for the area in and around Taiwan," says Coyle.

Coyle and other analysts also say Beijing wants to use its navy to support its ambition to become an economic superpower. Achieving that goal requires raw materials and oil from abroad, which need to be protected on the high seas, especially in areas subject to piracy such as the Strait of Mallaca between Malaysia and Indonesia.

The U.S. and British navies have monitored sea lanes over the years by having bases outside of their countries. John Pike, the Director of the private military information group Global Security.org, says Beijing is also headed in that direction.

"The Chinese have established bases in Burma. They are building a naval base in Pakistan. And it looks like China is looking, in the medium-term, to establish a naval presence in the Indian Ocean that would enable them to protect their sea lanes to make sure that they can get oil from the Persian Gulf back to China," says Pike.

Air Force Modernization

Along with ships, aircraft are used for projecting power beyond a nation's boundaries as well as for protecting its territory from intruders. China has no long range strategic bombers like America's B-52 and Russia's TU-95. China's air force is presently configured for defense and the possibility of shorter-range offensive operations against, for instance, Taiwan.

Christian Le Miere at Jane's Country Risk points out that China's attempts to modernize its air force have not produced greater capabilities.

"They have bought some fairly modern equipment, in particular fourth-generation [Russian] Sukhois [fighters]. But it took about a decade to integrate these Sukhoi 27s into its air force. So it does have small numbers - - we're talking hundreds, not thousands - - of quite advanced aircraft. But the ability to utilize these aircraft, particularly in joint operations, remains in question," Le Miere.

As for nuclear missiles, China has at least 20, and possibly up to 40 liquid-fueled land-based ICBMs, which carry a roughly four megaton warhead. China's submarine-launched missile program is miniscule and its submarines do not conduct long-range patrols as American submarines do. But Beijing has significantly built up short-range missile installations across from Taiwan, as the Pentagon has noted for several years in its annual report to Congress.

While China's efforts to modernize and streamline its armed forces have been considerable - - costing an estimated $82 billion, or 4.3 percent of its Gross Domestic Product last year - - most analysts say Beijing's economic goals are its top priority, and its military ambitions are subordinate. Yet others point to recent large military budgets and say China clearly has ambitions to project its power not only in its immediate region, but also wherever it has economic and strategic interests.

But as for when China's military may achieve parity with the United States and other first-world nations, the consensus among most analysts is that the People's Liberation Army and its naval and aviation branches are still decades away from such capabilities.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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