Is China America’s Friend or Not?

A cave complex blasted out of the rocky coastline on China’s southern island province of Hainan is home to one of the newest and potentially most lethal weapons in Beijing’s arsenal: a home-grown submarine designed to launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

The Wall Street Journal

So when the USNS Impeccable, a U.S. surveillance ship, was snooping in the area last month, China set a trap. Five Chinese vessels crowded around the U.S. ship. Crew members hurled chunks of wood into the Impeccable’s path and used poles to try to snare its acoustic equipment. When U.S. sailors turned a fire hose on their assailants, the sodden Chinese crew aboard one of the vessels stripped to their underwear and closed to within 25 feet, the Pentagon said.

The encounter in the South China Sea, which lasted for about 3½ hours, was intended to send a clear message. China says the Impeccable was violating international law by conducting surveillance activities in its exclusive economic zone. The U.S. and many other nations view such activity as legal.

When U.S. surveillance ships visit the area in the future, says Su Hao, director of the Center for Strategic and Conflict Management at China Foreign Affairs University, “they’ll be more cautious.”
The Pentagon views China as the country most likely, at some point down the road, to acquire the capacity to challenge the U.S. military on a global scale. The U.S. in recent years has moved to strengthen its forces in the Pacific and urged its ally Japan to do the same. Washington and Tokyo are working together to boost anti-missile defenses, to defend against threats from both North Korea and China. And some in the Defense Department talk up the “China threat” to justify greater spending on new weapons systems.

This week, Adm. Wu Shengli, the top officer in China’s navy — officially known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy — said the service would move faster to modernize its arsenal and build larger and more capable warships “to boost the ability to fight in regional sea wars” using high-tech weaponry. In an interview with China’s official Xinhua news agency ahead of the navy’s 60th anniversary next week, he also said the navy would improve its ability to operate on the high seas. Other officials in recent months have talked about China building its first aircraft carrier, adding to U.S. concerns that China wants to project its power.

A missile destroyer "Shenzhen" leaves the Zhanjiang ...
A missile destroyer “Shenzhen” leaves the Zhanjiang port, south China’s Guangdong province — file photo.REUTERS/China Daily

However, many observers, both in China and the U.S., say that fear of China is exaggerated. China’s armed forces are still no match for U.S. firepower at sea, on land or in space. Many American security analysts — including former senior military officers — do not believe that China intends to take on the U.S., as the former Soviet Union once did. For now, China’s military falls back on a mix of high-tech weaponry, such as its new Jin-class nuclear-missile submarines, and low-tech stealth and cunning.

Chinese leaders say that their country’s economic rise will be peaceful. However, it is accompanied at times by a strident nationalism — a desire to restore what many people in the country see as China’s rightful place in the world, stolen by 19th-century Western imperialists and 20th-century Japanese militarists. China’s belligerence toward Taiwan and its military secrecy make it easier for hawks from Washington to New Delhi to paint a picture of a vengeful China plotting its comeback.

North Korea’s failed launch of a ballistic-missile-like rocket on April 5 complicates the situation. It is likely to spur Japan to strengthen its military and invest more in missile-defense efforts, in which it is now cooperating with the U.S. That could add to tension with China, which already views the U.S.-Japan alliance as a partnership designed to constrain Chinese power. China yearns for stability on the Korean peninsula, fearing that if North Korea collapses, a wave of refugees will spill over its borders, and it will end up face-to-face with U.S. forces stationed in the South.

According to the Chinese government, the country’s defense budget for 2008 was $60 billion, up nearly 18% from a year earlier. The Pentagon believes China’s official figures substantially underestimate actual defense spending. It estimates that China spent $105 billion to $150 billion on military-related expenses last year, as its military transforms itself from a low-tech mass army designed to fight a war of attrition against invaders to a more sophisticated, agile force capable of projecting power beyond China’s borders.

China’s main focus in modernizing its military over the past few decades has been preventing Taiwan from establishing formal independence and stopping any effort by the U.S. to come to the island’s aid in a crisis. Now some Chinese naval officers talk of one day patrolling as far as the Indian Ocean, conjuring up images from China’s imperial past 600 years ago, when a towering armada of treasure ships led by the Chinese Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He, or Cheng Ho, sailed through those waters on its way to east Africa.

Despite protests that its more capable navy should be no cause for alarm among neighboring states or Washington, Chinese ships and submarines have been pushing farther offshore. In at least some cases they’ve tested the defenses of other nations and telegraphed the Chinese navy’s intentions to be a player on the high seas.

Some U.S. military analysts now see a broader threat to American domination of the seas, linked to the spread of Chinese trade and economic influence around the globe. If China can challenge a U.S. surveillance ship off its coast, they are asking, might the rising Asian economic superpower in the future aggressively patrol its maritime trade routes in the Strait of Malacca (through which most of China’s vital oil supplies pass), or even the Persian Gulf? The pessimistic view says as much about the anxieties of the world’s sole superpower as it does about Chinese capabilities.

Historically, the West has projected both fantastic hopes and dark anxieties upon China. Sentiments veering between the two extremes have long confused the West’s relations with the Asian giant. A conflicting dynamic is now at work in relations between the U.S. and China, arguably the most important relationship of the 21st century. While economic forces are pulling the two sides closer (China has become America’s largest creditor), military ties have stalled.

Generals and admirals in the Pentagon have objected to China’s challenge in international waters where their Navy has operated for more than half a century — even if those waters are right on China’s doorstep. In his testimony to the Senate’s armed services committee, Adm. Timothy Keating, the officer in charge of American forces in Asia, said that the interception of the Impeccable off Hainan Island showed that the Chinese are “not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior.”

Mr. Su of China Foreign Affairs University says the world fundamentally misreads Chinese intentions. China is a land power, he says, concerned about safeguarding its border regions and consumed by its desire for internal security and cohesion. To those who see menace in China’s seaward expansion, he offers this advice: “Relax.”

The Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military, published late last month, was widely criticized within China as biased and alarmist. The report says that “China’s ability to sustain military power at a distance remains limited,” but notes that its armed forces continue to “develop and field disruptive military technologies” that are “changing regional military balances and that have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region.” It also said: “Much uncertainty surrounds China’s future course.”

The report “exaggerates Chinese military power” by overestimating the country’s ability to project force beyond its own territory, says Yuan Peng, director of the American Studies Institute at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing. “Chinese military power is still at a developing country’s level. It lags far behind the U.S., Russia and even Japan and India in some senses.”

In Mr. Yuan’s view, American anxiety — after blows to the national psyche from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing financial meltdown — goes well beyond China’s military advance. “What makes people nervous is not really our military, but China’s economic rise and the Chinese political model,” he says. “China is rising so fast, the population is so big and the social system is so different” that it excites unease.

Still, China’s massive bulk — its continental size and vast population — looms over Asia, and its military modernization threatens an arms race in the region. Japan, heavily dependent on crude oil and raw materials from the Middle East and Australia, worries that one day it may run into a hostile Chinese navy along the same sea lanes that feed China’s rapid growth. Some Indian strategists worry that China is gaining an ability to disrupt its ocean trade, and is encircling it through diplomatic and military links with neighboring countries from Myanmar to Pakistan.

Among the biggest worries for the U.S. is China’s improved submarine fleet, which could delay or prevent U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups from responding to a crisis in and around Taiwan, the island that Beijing has pledged to bring under its rule, by force if necessary. China aims more than 1,000 missiles at Taiwan to deter any attempt by the island’s leaders to formally establish independence. China has also acquired eight Russian kilo-class submarines, which are very hard to detect when submerged, and is building its own attack submarines.

Some of the newer ships and submarines in China’s fleet are equipped with Russian-made anti-ship cruise missiles that can fly at supersonic speeds. Those missiles, and an anti-ship ballistic missile under development, appear aimed at giving China the ability to strike U.S. aircraft carriers, say U.S. naval officers. Aircraft carriers have been the mainstay of U.S. maritime power for decades.

While China has no aircraft carriers of its own, Chinese officials have started talking publicly again about adding one to their own fleet. Chinese shipyards would likely have little difficulty building the type of mid-sized carrier most analysts expect China to launch. But mastering the operations of a carrier task force and its aircraft would probably take many years, analysts say.

Chinese navy officers believe that their forces must be able to push beyond what they consider the first island chain — running south from Japan and around the east side of Taiwan — that stands between China and the broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Being able to move ships and subs out into the Pacific would be critical to Chinese efforts to block or delay the approach of U.S. ships to Taiwan or the mainland.

China’s fleets have been pushing farther offshore. Last October, a flotilla of four Chinese navy ships, including a Russian-built guided-missile destroyer and two of the country’s most-advanced frigates, passed through the narrow Tsugaru Strait between the main Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido and out into the Pacific Ocean. Japanese saw it as a demonstration of China’s growing might.

Chinese submarines have also been detected a number of times nosing around Japanese waters. In 2004, a submerged Chinese sub passed through another narrow strait in what the Japanese considered a violation of international law. U.S. and Japanese defense officials interpreted it as a possible effort to map and gather intelligence about routes from the East China Sea to the Pacific.

The new naval base on Hainan, which appears large enough to accommodate surface ships as well as attack and ballistic-missile submarines, gives China’s navy direct access to vital international sea lanes. It could allow submarines to deploy stealthily into the deep waters of the South China Sea, the Pentagon says.

Analysts from the Federation of American Scientists who have examined satellite images of the Hainan base say it also appears to have a facility of the sort used by the U.S. Navy to demagnetize nuclear-missile submarines before they deploy, to make them harder to detect. If that were true, it would indicate China’s intention to use its ballistic-missile submarines as an active part of its nuclear deterrent. The federation says that there is no evidence that China’s previous generation of nuclear-missile-carrying submarine ever carried out a single deterrent patrol.

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