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Red Dragon Rising

Washington cocktail-party conversations about China typically go something like this: A person from the China-as-a-peer-competitor school of thought says, "I think China, with its growing economy, growing military and young, nationalistic population, will only naturally lock horns with the U.S. in future decades."

An advocate of the enmity-is-a-self-fulfilling-prophecy school responds, "Maybe, but casting the Chinese in an adversarial role now will serve to drive them away from the U.S. and from a friendship that I think they're open to."

As the impasse is marked with polite sipping of the Cabernet Sauvignon, each guest searches for rescue by a more like-minded conversationalist.

Turning the tables on such an exchange is the new report of Congress' U.S.-China Security Review Commission. Never mind what you chatterers think, the bipartisan report seems to interject, because the die is cast: "China's leaders consistently characterize the United States as a 'hegemon,' connoting a powerful protagonist and overbearing bully that is China's major competitor, but they also believe that the United States is a declining power with important military vulnerabilities that can be exploited. China views itself as an emerging power."

Specifically, China's military leaders are focusing on several investments and advances that cannot be mistaken for anything but preparations for conflict against the U.S.

This focus is far from meaning that conflict is inevitable. It doesn't even rule out cooperation and close U.S.-China ties in a variety of areas. But it should stop in its tracks any wishful thinking that China doesn't already see the U.S. as a potential military adversary. It should also make apparent that China's leaders, for their part, aren't worried that their planning will alienate the United States.

Among China's U.S.-oriented military ambitions, it seeks to advance its:

Ability to sink a U.S. carrier: China has publicly stated that it intends to be able to sink an American aircraft carrier. Among the technologies that could allow China to do this are anti-ship cruise missiles, which China could fire from land across long distances, and which it is now developing. China is also developing an over-the-horizon radar network with which to track surface ships.

China has reportedly bought from Russia eight new Kilo-class diesel subs. China, which already has four of the subs, is to take delivery of the eight beginning in 2007. China's growing fleet of diesel subs is supplemented by a program to develop nuclear subs, the congressional report says. The nuclear sub development, called "Project 093," is to begin between 2003-05 and already has Russian cooperation. Whether this program will be successful is far from clear, however. In addition, China is acquiring the high-speed Russian anti-ship SS-22 Sunburn missile, and advanced wake-homing torpedoes. Some of these advances could be used in anti-submarine warfare against the U.S.

Focus on asymmetrical warfare: China's President Jiang Zemin in 1999 called for the People's Liberation Army to develop weapons with which a technologically inferior Chinese military might defeat a technologically superior U.S. one. More specifically, China seeks to develop "assassin's mace" weapons -- what Americans might call a "magic bullet" -- with which to attack U.S. vulnerabilities. This focus on "asymmetrical warfare" draws on two millennia of Chinese strategic tradition. The congressional report says China focuses on such weaknesses as U.S. reliance on computer networks and dependency on satellites for military reconnaissance, navigation and communications. The Chinese also plan to target business communications, and specific systems such as the New York Stock Exchange computers or the communications and computers of airbases and carriers.

Another example of an asymmetrical capability, though not one discussed in the report, is China's existing ability to launch a massive missile barrage against Taiwan or a traditional U.S. basing site such as Okinawa, Japan. The threat of such a barrage could pressure Japan to deny the U.S. access to Okinawa, thereby exploiting U.S. over-dependency on foreign bases in the event of a Taiwan conflict.

Focus on space: China has seven military satellites and is building more. It has a modest, two-satellite version of the U.S. Global Positioning System of satellites, and has plans to expand it. Other research on China published by the Pentagon has pointed out that the PLA is developing ground-based anti-satellite technology.

While these advances don't spell out a future in which China will be a U.S. "peer," China is definitely a "competitor."

It would be convenient and reassuring to dismiss China's military advances and the recently announced expansion of its military spending by 17.6 percent as measures directed at the perennial tensions with Taiwan. But the advances outlined here are focused on countering U.S. capabilities, not Taiwanese ones. To be sure, Chinese military planners may be calculating that the U.S. would get involved in a cross-strait military conflict. But there's more to China's range of investments than planning for a brush with the U.S. in the Taiwan Strait.

Rather, China's military planners seem to think the possibility of a large-scale, future military conflict between them and the dominant Pacific power is real, and should be prepared for. That's not necessarily a bellicose conclusion, it's just realistic. And since it's Beijing's conclusion, there's no reason Washington should draw a different one.

Melana Zyla Vickers, a columnist for TechCentralStation.com, is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She is a former editorial-board member of USA Today, Canada's The Globe and Mail and The Asian Wall Street Journal, and a former editor at the Far Eastern Economc Review. She has a master's degree in strategic studies and economics from Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.