- BEIJING (Reuters) -- Nervously, the world is eyeing China's military build-up.
Its top-of-the-line Russian Sukhoi fighter jets are easily a match for
U.S. F-16s; its ballistic missiles can hit targets almost anywhere in the
world; its Kilo-class submarines, also from Russia, are silent killers
in the waters off Taiwan. But look again.
- Beyond a relatively small number of high-tech
toys is a junkyard of obsolete equipment, undertrained troops and an officer
corps distracted by business. The army has long been funding itself by
running discos and hotels.
- A military overhaul was one of the "Four
Modernizations" proposed by Deng Xiaoping 20 years ago, along with
upgrades in agriculture, industry and science and technology.
- Yet far from posing a threat to world
peace, Western analysts say China itself feels under siege.
- "There is a clearly recognized theme
within the military that they are not prepared to meet new missions, new
threats and new problems," said Bates Gill, a Chinese military expert
at the U.S.-based Brookings Institution.
- Often dismissed by Western military experts
as the world's largest active-duty military museum, China's 2.5-million-strong
People's Liberation Army (PLA) is surrounded on all sides by powerful conventional
and nuclear forces.
- True, the PLA Air Force has around 50
Sukhoi SU-27's, and others on order. But it also owns 4,500 Korean War-era
fighters that would lose in a dog-fight to advanced warplanes fielded by
Vietnam, Thailand, India and Taiwan.
- Without an aircraft carrier, China's
tiny navy cannot extend its reach much beyond the coastline.
- The country has had an atomic bomb since
the early 1960s. But while membership of the nuclear club has given it
the trappings of big-power status, that club is rapidly expanding.
- China is now bordered by three nuclear
powers: Russia, India and Pakistan. Four if the U.S. presence in Asia is
counted " and four and a half with North Korea and its suspected nuclear
weapons program in the mix.
- "Its getting a little shaky out
there for them," Gill said.
- China's military remains only a looming
threat to its neighbors and a distant strategic problem for the United
- U.S. China scholar Robert Ross said that
even hawkish projections by the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency
showed it was "unlikely that in the next 25-30 years they will be
able to significantly erode the American lead."
- The PLA has come a long way since suffering
an embarrassing rout by the Vietnamese army during a brief 1979 border
war sparked by Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia, then ruled by Beijing's long-time
ally the Khmer Rouge.
- Chinese troops backed by a barrage of
heavy artillery originally expected to roll over the lesser Vietnamese
forces, but became bogged down by their own communication snafus.
- Since then, China has streamlined its
army, trimming troop strength, acquiring advanced technology and reinstating
rank insignia so soldiers have a clear line of command on the battlefield.
- "China today has greater access
to the international economy, dual-use technology and they are moving in
a direct way which will allow them to build a more militarily powerful,
technologically advanced army," Gill said.
- Even the dramatic public relations setback
suffered by the army during the bloody 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy
protesters in Tiananmen Square has failed to slow the rapid upgrade.
- An overseas military shopping spree was
the result of a radical plan, proposed by Deng, for the PLA to go into
business and funnel profits into improving the armed forces.
- Although the PLA has always farmed the
land and operated factories " and still stitches its own uniforms
" Deng gave the green light for units to move from the battleground
to boardroom. Training and discipline suffered.
- By the time the movement reached its
peak in the mid-1990s, the army was a major player in the Chinese economy,
controlling 20,000 industries. It assembled cars, built office towers and
- All that is being reversed. President
Jiang Zemin, worried about rampant corruption and smuggling, has ordered
the military to quit business.
- To make up for lost revenue, Beijing
has agreed to boost the PLA's budget, which official figures put at $9.8
billion in 1997 but which Western analysts believe could be three times
greater, accounting for 3-4 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
- "This move dovetails with the broader
efforts to professionalize the armed forces," according to Robert
Karniol, Asia Editor for Jane's Defence Weekly.
- "From Jiang's perspective, it reflects
his different view of the PLA and its role as compared with Deng."
- Jiang's bold decision left the PLA grappling
with fundamental questions about its mission as it faces growing challenges
in the 21st century.
- The PLA's most pressing concern is a
sovereignty dispute over Taiwan which could ignite conflict with the United
States. Beijing has not ruled out force to reunify the Nationalist-ruled
island with the mainland.
- The navy is also being called upon to
assert China's disputed claims to the Spratly Islands in the South China
Sea, resulting in strained relations with the Philippines and Vietnam.
- But China's biggest long-term fear is
a re-militarized Japan whose economic clout is matched by a blue water
navy and star wars technology. Beijing complains that Tokyo still has not
confronted its World War II past, and fears Japan could rise again.
- "Over the longer term, Japan is
a big problem," said Gill.
- But for now, China's military is expected
to remain in the barracks while it rethinks its mission.
- "The last thing China needs now
is instability," Ross said.
- "They hope to use the peaceful international
environment to develop the economy, so that when great powers collide again
in the future, they will not be passive."