Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 16

The recent release of two U.S. government studies on China–the Pentagon’s annual report of Chinese military strength, and the findings of the Congressional U.S.-China Security Review Commission–should come as a wake-up call to those who craft U.S. China policy. Many of those who are engaged in China policy or who invest there remain blithely ignorant of Chinese goals to replace the United States as the reigning world power. This is especially true of those who continue to pour billions of dollars of investment into the Chinese fata morgana of future profit. These two studies make it quite clear that the PRC is rapidly emerging as a future threat to U.S. political and economic aspirations.

The Pentagon report, reportedly delayed for a year due to concerns of “offending” the sensitivities of PRC leadership, states that Chinese military doctrine has been retooled to focus on surprise attack and “shock effect in the opening phase of a campaign.” Basically, China is developing a blitzkrieg strategy to use against Taiwan. Armed with state-of-the-art air, naval and missile technology, Beijing hopes to take Taiwan out of the fight before the United States can come to Taipei’s assistance, thereby in one fell swoop irrevocably altering the balance of power in Asia. The Chinese, after all, believe the twenty-first century is theirs by right.

This report details how China is developing new classes of long-range and regional nuclear missiles and short-range conventional missiles. It is becoming increasingly clear that all this development–the long-range ICBMs, the medium-range nuclear missiles and the hundreds of shorter-range conventional missiles–is part of China’s strategy as it seeks to expand its sphere of influence in East and South Asia. These missiles likely would be postured and/or used in an effort to deter the United States from military action to defend Taiwan, and, in the future, possibly Japan. For example, the Pentagon notes that four new classes of long-range nuclear ballistic missiles are under development at a time when Russia and America are drawing down their own nuclear forces.

Beijing is also deploying hundreds of shorter-range conventional missiles–the CSS-6 and CSS-7 classes–on the coasts opposite Taiwan. According to the Pentagon report, the later versions of these are highly accurate thanks to satellite-guidance improvements. Such missiles could not only be used against Taiwan’s cities, ports and military installations in a leading edge surprise attack, but conceivably could be targeted against U.S. naval forces in the region. These nonnuclear armed missiles also have the capability to launch against American bases in Okinawa. This is politically important in that it undermines the U.S. regional nuclear deterrent in the event of a Taiwan conflict. China is also developing land-attack cruise missiles that theoretically would be able to penetrate ballistic missile defenses.

China is also improving its capability to conduct anticarrier warfare. The DoD report states that “Beijing’s military training exercises increasingly focus on the United States as an adversary.” The purchase of modern Russian Kilo submarines and Sovremennyy destroyers dramatically improves China’s ability to fight a modern high-tech war in a limited littoral area such as the Taiwan Straits. Beijing plans to produce the even more advanced Type 093 nuclear attack submarine. China has also made rapid advances in land-based and space surveillance systems: “Over-the-horizon radar will enhance [China’s] ability to detect, monitor and target naval activity in the Western Pacific.” In other words, U.S. carrier battle groups.

Other PLA high-technology investments include laser weapons, high-tech missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, information, electronic warfare, and the internet as a tool to sabotage enemy communications. The list of Chinese military advances goes on and on. One can only imagine what was included in the original draft.

The report of the Congressional Commission, by contrast, examines overall Chinese strategic and economic advances to the United States. Among other things, it notes continuing Chinese exports of missiles and nuclear materials to terrorist-sponsoring nations as “an increasing threat to U.S. security interests in the Middle East and Asia in particular.” Although China has promised time and time again to halt such sales, “it has not kept its word.” That is putting it mildly. What in fact happens, and what has occurred repeatedly over the past ten years, is that when Beijing gets caught in a lie over exports of such materials to Pakistan, Iran or other nations, U.S. business groups put pressure on Washington not to sanction China, and the administration issues a solemn statement that, this time, Beijing really, really promises to keep its word. Repeat as necessary. This continuing lack of U.S. resolve and credibility in Chinese eyes has allowed Beijing to turn Pakistan and Iran into nuclear or near-nuclear states. Should terror groups detonate a nuclear device on American soil, that device will almost certainly have come from Chinese technology fed through Pakistan or Iran.

The U.S.-China Security Review Commission also looked at Chinese economic development as a strategic weapon. America’s huge trade deficit with China is unlikely to ease and instead will get worse as China continues to break the promises it made in order to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO). No longer a producer of toys, Chinese economic expansion is on the verge of cornering the market in several critical segments, especially computer technology. According to the study, “the increasing transfers of U.S. research and manufacturing facilities to China could have a negative impact on the strength of our technological and industrial base as well as the relative military strengths of the two countries,” and could “undermine the U.S. defense industrial base.”

Indeed, both Microsoft and Intel recently signed huge deals to build cutting-edge facilities in China to develop and produce advanced generation computer technology. Microsoft and Intel won’t really own these plants. The Chinese government will. Beijing will have the final say on what gets produced and whether the plants remain operating under joint-venture auspices. This grants the Communist leadership in Beijing incredible leverage over multinationals, leverage that can be, and has been, translated into intense lobbying to appease China on a variety of issues.

China is already breaking its WTO promises barely after the ink has dried on the pages. In the wake of Chinese foot-dragging on allowing imports of U.S. corn, wheat, cotton, rice, vegetable oil, pork, beef, poultry and computer chips, among other things, chief U.S. negotiator Allen Johnson was recently reduced to stating the obvious: “There’s a growing concern over implementation of China’s WTO obligations.” In fact, China may have no intention of abiding by many of its WTO obligations. Beijing has progressed quite nicely for years by promising Washington to abide by weapons export agreements, only to break them time and again without penalty, so why shouldn’t China be able to pull the same trick on WTO? By the time America wakes up to the fact that it has been bamboozled, China will have the world’s most rapidly advancing economy, will be able to hold trillions of dollars of U.S. investment hostage, and won’t really care what America thinks. The long-term strategic impact of rebasing U.S. technology development capability inside China has yet to be appreciated by those rushing to invest in China.

Both the Pentagon and the Congressional Commission reports signal that the days when America could look condescendingly at China are long gone. American policy toward China is still affected by the long out of date anti-Soviet Cold War relationship and vain lingering hopes that China will eventually transform into a peaceful democracy and become a force for stability in Asia. Unfortunately for America and much of the world, Chinese economic growth is occurring against the backdrop of a concomitant growth of Chinese nationalism, while at the same time the Communist Party is proving increasingly unable to solve its own contradictions, like rampant corruption, or provide real leadership to solve China’s many social ills. Both reports provide new details about the degree to which China’s leadership is masking its weakness with recourse to military adventurism. As such they have done a considerable service to inform a realistic debate about U.S. relations with China.

Thomas Woodrow was a senior China analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington DC.