Pentagon warns of military threat from China

By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

Financial Times

Published: July 20 2005

China could pose a future military threat to other Asian countries but its current ability to project power beyond its periphery was “limited”, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

In its long-awaited annual report on the Chinese military, the Pentagon concluded that China was increasing its efforts to prepare for a conflict over Taiwan, including taking longer-term measures to defend itself from other countries who could get involved in a conflict over Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.

“We see China facing a strategic crossroads,” the Pentagon report said. “Questions remain about the basic choices China's leaders will make as China's power and influence grow, particularly its military power.”

The report said the Chinese military was focusing in the short term on modernising its ability to fight short, high-intensity conflicts along its periphery. But it said the People's Liberation Army was also taking longer-term steps to increase its defences against the potential involvement of other countries in any conflict between China and Taiwan.

Those measures include expanding its arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles, its submarine fleet, and purchasing advanced aircraft.

“Over the long term, if current trends persist, PLA capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region,” the report said.

But while the report said China posed a potential future threat to other Asian countries, it concluded that China's current ability to “project conventional military power beyond its periphery remains limited.”

The report added that the PLA was working towards its goals by “acquiring new foreign and domestic weapon systems and military technologies [and] promulgating new doctrine for modern warfare”.

The tone of the report echoed remarks by Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, who when speaking to a June meeting of Asian defence ministers in Singapore questioned why China was dramatically increasing its defence budget when “no nation threatens China”.

The report came on the heels of comments by a senior Chinese general last week who suggested that China would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in any conflict with the US over Taiwan.

Mr Rumsfeld on Tuesday described those remarks as a “bump in the road” in a relationship that has seen improvement over the past few years.

He also said the Pentagon report demonstrated why it was important for the EU not to lift its embargo on arms sales to China. The EU appears to have moved away from lifting the embargo this year because of strong lobbying from the US.

The report has been the subject of intense bureaucratic infighting as anti-China concerns mount on Capitol Hill. The State Department and National Security Council opposed an initial Pentagon draft, which they believed painted an overly antagonistic picture by signalling that China could emerge as a “strategic rival” to the US.

“This report is much improved over the past five years, and is well balanced, yet pioneers with new evidence that China's build-up goes beyond Taiwan,” said Mike Pillsbury, an author on the Chinese military who advocates a hard-line stance on China.

“The build-up includes forces that can be redeployed away from Taiwan some day toward any other regional nations such as India, Japan, Vietnam, even Central Asia and Russia. Yet the report is careful not to call China a threat to the US.”

The report also criticised China for the level of secrecy it maintains about its military strategy and expenditures.

“The outside world has little knowledge of Chinese motivations and decision-making and of key capabilities supporting PLA modernisation.”

The report also called for Taiwan to take measures to counter the increased Chinese military build-up across the Taiwan Strait. It estimated that China had 650-730 mobile short-range ballistic missiles pointed towards Taiwan, to which it was expected to add an additional 100 missiles per year.

"The cross-Strait balance of power is shifting toward Beijing,” the report said. “Chinese air, naval, and missile force modernisation is increasing demands on Taiwan to develop countermeasures that would enable it to avoid being quickly overwhelmed.”

Raising alarms for the US navy, the report concluded that China was developing the capability to slow, or even deter, US efforts to defend Taiwan in the case of a conflict.

"The US intelligence community also believes China will consider a sea-denial strategy to attempt to hold at risk US naval forces, including aircraft carriers and logistic forces, approaching the Taiwan Strait,” it said.

But the report also warned that China was positioning itself to respond to other potential conflicts, not just Taiwan.

"All of China's short-range ballistic missiles, although garrisoned opposite Taiwan, are mobile and can deploy throughout the country to take up firing positions in support of a variety of regional contingencies... There are corresponding improvements in intercontinental-range missiles capable of striking targets across the globe, including in the US.”

The report added that China was increasing deploying missiles that could target India, Russia, and “virtually all of the US” in addition to Australia and New Zealand.

"The pace and scope of China's military build-up are, already, such as to put regional military balances at risk,” the report said.

“Current trends in China's military modernisation could provide China with a force capable of prosecuting a range of military operations in Asia — well beyond Taiwan.“

The Pentagon also raised concerns about Chinese strategic deception, saying the PLA was reverting to “ancient Chinese statecraft". It said, for example, China had developed several new weapons systems that Western countries were unaware of, although it did not name the systems.

While critics of US policy have raised concerns that the Bush administration is moving to weaponise space, the Pentagon raised similar concerns about China, saying it was developing anti-satellite weapons. In particular, China was believed to be conducting research on ground-based laser weapons capable of damaging or destroying satellites, the report said.