Tuesday, September 7, 2010

China’s Enigmatic Military

Last month, the US Department of Defense released the latest version of its annual publication on the Chinese military. Previously known as ‘Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,’ the US Congress has decided to rename the document, ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.’But while the title may have changed, the language in the report hasn’t. China is not only increasing the size of its military, but also the quality—with significant implications for the Asia-Pacific region and the United States.Meanwhile, China also wants to maintain a nuclear deterrent sufficient to survive a first strike by the United States or other nuclear power and still have sufficient forces to overcome any defences and retaliate effectively. For this reason, the PLA has been investing in mobile land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines, both of which are harder to locate and destroy than fixed land-based missiles in silos.

But it’s the non-nuclear objectives that have garnered most attention. While the PLA has been trying to develop conventional forces capable of defeating Taiwan’s and other Asian countries’ militaries, it has also sought the capacity to deny the US military access to contested areas (at least long enough for it to defeat its local adversary). Although the PLA could arguably prevail in a straight-up fight with another Asian country, doing so would be much harder if the Pentagon decided to actively assist China’s opponent.Although the report expects that the PLAN might acquire one or more aircraft carriers later this decade, it notes that the Chinese Navy already has the largest number of submarines and principal surface combatants in Asia. The PLA is also seeking to develop a new anti-ship ballistic missile capable of hitting moving warships at a distance of 1,500 kilometres. Such a missile could destroy US aircraft carriers before they could move sufficiently close to attack the Chinese mainland with their planes.

In addition, there’s less detail here than in previous years on the implications of the PLA’s development of an increasing range of sophisticated ‘disruptive’ military technologies that Beijing could use asymmetrically to negate US military strengths. These capabilities include China’s improving anti-satellite, electronic warfare and cyber strike technologies, sometimes referred to as the PLA’s ‘Assassin’s Mace.’

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