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China military seeks comfort from high technology { August 1 2004 }

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China’s military seeks comfort from high technology
Europe sought as a source; Taiwan is issue
By Jehangir Pocha, Globe Correspondent | August 1, 2004

BEIJING -- China, whose armed forces are among the world's most powerful, is looking to transform its military into a technology-driven force capable of projecting power globally by 2010. And it expects Europe to help.

The effort to revamp the People's Liberation Army is taking place amid increasing tension over Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, and whose security the United States has committed to protect.

Former president Jiang Zemin, who still officially heads the People's Liberation Army, said last month that China will recover Taiwan by 2020. It was the first time the Chinese had set a deadline for the island's reunification with the mainland. And analysts say the threat of war is implicit in the statement.

In addition, Chinese and Taiwanese forces have been conducting simultaneous large-scale exercises; China's maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait simulate an invasion of Taiwan. At the same time, a US carrier group participating in a global exercise dubbed Summer Pulse 2004 practiced defending Taiwan.

China is increasingly looking to Europe to help in its military makeover.

Russia and Israel have been China's main arms suppliers. But changing geopolitical circumstances -- notably Germany, France, and China's stated desire for a multipolar world and a common stance against the war in Iraq -- are leading Germany and France to call for resumed arms sales to Beijing. Both the United States and the European Union imposed arms sanctions against China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

When Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's tour of the continent in May, he pressed Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Jacques Chirac on the issue. The EU is expected to lift its embargo by the end of this year, said John Tkacik, a research fellow in China policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Such a step would allow European firms to grab a slice of China's arms appetite. Western intelligence agencies estimate that China spends up to $60 billion a year on defense, almost three times its official defense budget.

Although France and Germany have promised to build substantial conditions and curbs into any new arms deals with China, the European action prompts concern from Tkacik and other analysts.

"The thing that I'm angry about" is that the United States has not "spelled out to our allies that US servicemen could be killed by Euro-weapons in a fight with the Chinese," he said.

But Song Do Xing, a scholar at the People's University in Beijing, says: "The world has nothing to fear" from China's military.

"China's main focus is to protect its territory and stabilize its borders," Song said. "The strategic objective is limited to be able to fight a small-scale, high-tech war. China has no aggressive military goals or ambitions."

In Beijing's diplomatic parlance, protecting borders is a euphemism that includes preventing Taiwan from declaring independence, thus placing its core military aim in direct opposition to Washington's commitments.

"There is no question that China's real goal is to achieve deterrence against the United States, both as a means to protect itself and as a way to project itself as a global power," said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor for Jane's Defense Weekly.

Yet Karniol doubts that China is preparing for war. "If I had to define their strategy, I wouldn't call it aggressive, but aggressively defensive," he said.

All three branches of the military -- the Army, Navy, and Air Force -- are undergoing massive shifts in equipment and structure. Among the changes:

The Army is reducing its 2.5-million-man force by about 250,000 but giving it a new lethality by investing heavily in special forces, missile systems, and tanks. For the first time, the army is acquiring its own transport planes and attack helicopters.

The Air Force is replacing its aging fleet of about 4,500 1960s-era fighter planes with about 600 Russian Sukhoi-30 nuclear-capable, fighter-bombers, and about 300 Chinese Super-7s and 300 J-10s, which are based on Israel's shelved Lavi fighter. It also is acquiring aerial tankers, airborne early warning and control aircraft, intelligence-collection platforms, and is developing a stealth fighter, currently dubbed the J-X.

The Navy is expanding its 83-ship fleet by acquiring four Russian Sovremenny-class cruisers capable of countering US carrier groups, and eight Kilo-class submarines. Five indigenous destroyers are under construction; some say the Navy is also considering the construction or acquisition of as many as 12 new aircraft carrier-led battle groups.

China is also replacing its land-based nuclear arsenal of about 20 1970s-era intercontinental ballistic missiles with 60 new multiple-warhead missiles capable of reaching the United States.

China's determination to modernize its military was spurred by the first Gulf War, in which the effectiveness of high-technology weaponry awakened Beijing to the fact that the Maoist idea of the "people's war," in which an endless stream of infantry would subdue an opponent, was obsolete, Karniol says.

Joseph Nye, former assistant secretary of defense and currently a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says he believes China is more interested in economic development, and understands that it "has much more to gain from good relations with the West."

But he accepts that complexities and contradictions inherent in ascertaining China's real, long-term intentions toward the United States, and indeed the world, make it almost impossible to reach any conclusion on its long-term military ambitions.

A Western diplomat in Beijing, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of ruffling feathers of Chinese officials, said: "Only one thing is clear. Whatever the compulsions in Iraq or elsewhere, one cannot, one should not, take one's eye off China."

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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