Friday, October 2, 2009

China’s military modernizes

By Amando Doronila

BEIJING—The streets near our hotel, leading up to Tiananmen Square, are lined with military vehicles every day, participating in rehearsals for what is billed as China’s biggest military parade in a decade scheduled for Oct. 1, their national day celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The military hardware that China will unveil in its show of force is still under wraps until the parade, but curious Beijing citizens throng the rehearsals to take a peek into how powerful militarily their country has become since the communist revolution liberated China from Kuomintang rule and capitalism.

As the anniversary approaches, the festive spirit rises along with the patriotic fervor stemming from a sense of achievement in an economy that has been booming for nearly two decades. The parks in the capital are full of people, young and old, doing graceful exercises to the tune of rhythmic music.

In a rare interview published on Monday, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said that China’s military now possesses most of the sophisticated weapon systems found in the arsenals of developed Western nations. “This is an extraordinary achievement that speaks of our military’s modernization and the huge change in our technological strength,” Liang said.

He cited J-10 fighter jets, latest-generation tanks, navy destroyers, and cruise and intercontinental ballistic missiles as among the Chinese defense industry’s biggest achievements. He said the military’s goal is to achieve complete mechanization and computerization by 2020 and to produce a fully modern army before mid-century. Liang said he believed the parade would “display the image of a military force, a civilized force, a victorious force.”

The 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army is the world’s largest standing military and its modernization has been accompanied by gradual steps toward greater engagement with the outside world. Liang said China had contributed 13,000 troops to United Nations peace-keeping operations along with three navy flotillas that have joined in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia.

At the military parade to mark the 60th anniversary of China’s navy last April, Chinese military leaders openly admitted that they wanted to build bigger and better warships for missions far away from the country’s coastal waters. BBC quoted analysts as saying that despite improvements in recent years, China’s navy is still not on par with those of the world’s leading powers.

According to BBC, China has been building up its navy to cope with new threats and a changing political landscape. China used to focus its military spending on island forces, to counter potential problems from Russia, India and Vietnam. As those land-based threats receded, new areas of possible conflict have emerged at sea, BBC pointed out. “China has become more assertive in its claims over a string of islands to its east and south. This has led to arguments with, among others, Japan and Taiwan, a self-governing island that China says must be reunited with the mainland.”

China has been involved with, among others in Southeast Asia, the Philippines in territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands. In an interview at the Chinese foreign ministry last Friday, a group of visiting Filipino journalists raised the issue of the growing concerns of Filipinos over the build-up of the Chinese navy into a blue water, ocean going fleet.

Ma Jisheng, deputy director general of information in the foreign ministry, admitted that China’s relations with its close neighbors “are not as good” as they ought to be. “The South China Sea should develop as a sea of peace,” he said. “Territorial issues are only one aspect of bilateral relations. Trade is another.”

In the face of China’s naval expansion plans, Ma tried to allay Southeast Asian fears of aggressive Chinese intentions. He said, “It is not important whether our military technology is advanced or not. It is important how these weapons are used. We support and emphasize a policy of independence and peace in the region. We oppose any country interfering in the policy of another country. We want the South China Sea to be friendship sea. We do not have any intention to pursue some military actions in the South China Sea. We have never intended to solve South China Sea issues with military power. Our policy is the diplomacy of peace.”

BBC has reported that China operates the largest submarine force among Asian countries, consisting of 8 to 10 nuclear-powered submarines and 50 to 60 diesel-electric submarines.

The Chinese navy has been following a three-step strategy in its modernization program to develop a relatively modernized naval force that can operate within waters stretching from Japan in the north to Taiwan and the Philippines in the south. It aims to develop a regional naval force that can operate beyond the first island chain, which includes Guam, Indonesia and Australia.

According to BBC, China seems particularly keen to have an aircraft carrier, a warship that has symbolic power as well as practical uses. At the moment, China does not have such a vessel, despite the great strides made by its navy over the last 10 to 15 years.


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