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Sunday, Aug. 10, 2003

U.S. hardly stoking fear of China threat

HONG KONG -- The Pentagon's latest report on the military power of the People's Republic of China has, predictably, angered Beijing. But a careful reading shows that the language used is by no means provocative.

For one thing, the report begins by acknowledging that "little is known about the most significant aspects of Chinese military power" because "Chinese secrecy is extensive." Even though China published another white paper on defense last December, the white paper reveals "little about the quantity or quality of China's military forces."

Moreover, U.S. military exchange delegations to China "have been shown only 'showcase' units, never any advanced units or any operational training or realistic exercises."

This is perhaps understandable. After all, China knows that it lags way behind the United States and is, therefore, reluctant to let Washington know exactly where it stands in military power. But China should also understand that, in the absence of concrete information, other countries are likely to speculate.

"Beijing apparently believes that the United States poses a significant long-term challenge," the Pentagon report asserts. This is not surprising, given that the U.S. is known to view China in the long run as the main challenger to its desire to maintain global supremacy.

U.S. President George W. Bush himself used to call China a "strategic competitor" rather than a "strategic partner." Moreover, China's long-term goal is to achieve national reunification with Taiwan while the U.S. has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself. It is therefore not surprising that Beijing sees the U.S. as posing a long-term challenge.

However, the report does not in any way stoke fears of a "China threat." While reporting that China is attempting to modernize its armed forces, the report says that the country "has not improved appreciably the capabilities of most of the PLA's ground forces."

It adds: "China currently lacks a coherent, national, strategic-level integrated air defense system. . . . [T]he bulk of China's air defense system is based on obsolete weapon systems. . . . China will only be able to defend effectively against isolated intrusions and small-scale attacks."

Of course, the area of greatest interest to the U.S. Congress, which mandated such an annual report, is the security situation in the Taiwan Strait. There, the single most relevant statement is that China is stepping up its buildup of missiles and currently has 450 short-range missiles opposite Taiwan, or 100 more than last year. Moreover, the Pentagon now predicts that China will increase its build-up by at least 75 missiles a year, rather than its previous projection of 50 per year.

China's goal, the Pentagon says, is to develop military capabilities that could expand its options for an armed conflict against Taiwan and to increase political pressure on Taiwan.

At the same time, it suggests that Chinese leaders are likely to be cautious because "failure in any military venture against Taiwan would pose a threat to the survival of Communist Party rule."

Moreover, the report also points out that "over the last year, Beijing has adopted a more moderate public approach toward Taiwan."

As for China's attitude toward the U.S., the report says that the most recent Chinese defense white paper, unlike the previous one, "did not explicitly criticize U.S. activities in the region and is significantly more moderate in tone."

China's Foreign Ministry has accused the Pentagon of trying to create "an excuse to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan" through issuing this report. And, it must be said, the report is replete with warnings to Taiwan to upgrade its defenses. For example, the report says: "Over the next several years, China likely will be able to cause significant damage to all of Taiwan's airfields and quickly degrade Taiwan's ground based air defenses . . . unless Taiwan undertakes the defensive upgrades needed."

The report also warns that the Taiwanese "defense budget's steady decline as a percentage of total government spending increasingly will challenge Taiwan's force modernization."

In discussing the mainland's missile buildup, the report says: "Taiwan's current ability to defend against ballistic missiles is negligible, although it has committed to upgrading its defensive capabilities."

It is known that the U.S. wants Taiwan to buy its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air missile system, but Taiwan has criticized its performance and apparently has still not made up its mind.

All in all, the Pentagon report does not in any way put China in a particularly bad light.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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