Friday, October 2, 2009

Despite Parade Show, China Power Unknown: Experts


President Hu Jintao on October 1 called for even stronger armed forces as China flexed its muscles in a National Day parade, but experts said the PLA's marching skills might exceed actual fighting ability. Illustrating the importance China attaches to its growing military strength, the People's Liberation Army kicked off a dazzling celebration in Beijing of the nation's 60th birthday by showing off a range of home-grown weaponry.

China has boasted that the nuclear-capable missiles, fighter jets, aerial drones and other advanced arms on display mark a "quantum leap" made possible thanks to a long-running campaign to upgrade the once-backward PLA. Hu hailed this push in a speech to a packed Tiananmen Square, ahead of the massive military parade.

"The PLA ... must carry forward their glorious tradition, build up military strength and perform their duties earnestly," he said. Official media gushed after the parade about the "cutting-edge" arms that have caused concern overseas about Beijing's military intentions, but analysts noted China had far to go before it could truly project military power abroad.

"We can make absolutely no conclusions about the actual tactical abilities of the troops or the capabilities of the equipment from what we have seen," Dennis J. Blasko, a former U.S. military attache to China, told AFP. "The fact that nothing broke down en route and all marchers completed the parade is admirable, but does not speak to tactical capabilities," he said.

Blasko noted one apparent advancement - the intercontinental ballistic missiles which state-run Xinhua news agency described as a military "trump card" were now on mobile launchers. "The key is its mobility, thus improving its survivability and insuring a true second-strike capability," he said. But aside from hardware such as the Jian-10 fighter jet, much of what was seen October 1 represented upgrades or variations on weapons seen in the 50th anniversary parade in 1999, he said.

However, the array of home-grown systems showed China was making clear progress in moving away from its long-term reliance on Russian arms purchases, experts said. And the mix of ground, naval and air force components showed the PLA - which encompasses all those branches - was growing more diverse.

"The era of a 'heavy' PLA is over. A lighter, more diversified and capable military able to complete various missions was on display," a Western diplomat well-versed in military issues, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie boasted last month that much of his nation's weaponry now rivals that included in Western arsenals, but analysts said China has much to do before it comes close to challenging American power.

"Despite rapid strides in military modernization, China still has a lot of catching up to do," said Minxin Pei, a China scholar at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Most of its neighbors, including Japan, India, South Korea, and Taiwan, have more advanced and better-trained air forces and navies than it does," he said in a research note.

China also is believed to possess too few of some systems, such as major missiles, for them to be significant in strategic terms in the near term. "This was a demonstration of what China knows how to do but this is just a show - the entire military is not equipped with what we saw this morning," said the Western diplomat.


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