Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

China flexes weapons muscles [Straits Times]


This report allays some fears of China’s growing military power by asking the analysts with vested interest in how if the Chinese military new toys really work. Reportedly, most of the new hardware remains not ready for service – Professor Shi Yinhong, director of the Centre on American Studies at Renmin University, said as much. ‘Since 1980, not a single PLA soldier, not a single PLA weapon has been battle-tested,’ he said. ‘We all have to calm down and realise that these weapons are still a long way from being ready.’

It is probably important to remember here – Tao Guang Yang Hui (韬光养晦), something the Chinese have been largely abiding to for a while now.

– – –

China flexes weapons muscles
Military superpower? Not so fast
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief
Source – Straits Times Review, published January 14, 2011

IT’S a stealth fighter. It’s a carrier missile killer. It’s looking like very exciting times for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China.

Two news breaks in recent weeks suggest that the world’s largest standing army is seemingly fast taking on a spectacular modern sheen.

The J-20 stealth jet took its first test flight on Tuesday, the crown jewel in the Chinese air force’s Jian-series of fighters. It would not reassure China’s neighbours or United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was on a fence-mending trip to China during the test, that ‘Jian’ means ‘annihilate’ in Chinese.

But it would be a good idea to not get too excited – yet. The weapons are still a long way from being ready and no one, not even the Chinese, really knows how good they will be.

Take the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), for example. While Admiral Robert Willard, the head of US Pacific Command, said last month that the Dong Feng 21D (DF-21D) has acquired an ‘initial operational capability’, many hurdles remain.

For one thing, the missile cannot be deployed on its own. It needs to be integrated with China’s command, control and reconnaissance systems – and that is a complex endeavour that could take years. And even when that is done, a big question mark remains over its viability.

‘It is difficult to target an aircraft carrier even when stationary. Relying on the ASBM’s onboard sensors to acquire a target may not be sufficient,’ wrote military analyst June Teufel Dreyer in a forthcoming paper.

‘Employing another scout platform, such as a helicopter or a small submarine, to illuminate the target with a laser could increase the ASBM’s accuracy, but it is unlikely that the scout could enter the carrier battle group’s visual range without being detected.

‘If the carrier is moving, the difficulty of the task is compounded, particularly if the carrier takes evasive manoeuvres such as zig-zags.’

The J-20 also faces roadblocks. Again, it is one thing to develop a fighter jet, quite another to integrate it into a combat environment. It is believed that the stealth fighter will need another decade before it can be in service.

Critically, China does not yet have any experience in using these weapons in combat, unlike the US, which has had plenty of opportunities to do so.

Professor Shi Yinhong, director of the Centre on American Studies at Renmin University, said as much. ‘Since 1980, not a single PLA soldier, not a single PLA weapon has been battle-tested,’ he said. ‘We all have to calm down and realise that these weapons are still a long way from being ready.’

The last war the PLA fought was a month-long battle with Vietnam in 1979, a fight that historians generally believe showed the Chinese coming off looking the worse for wear.

Yet, that does not mean that the J-20, the DF-21D and the aircraft carrier which China could unveil later this year, count for little. The recent revelations have confounded many experts, who admit to having been surprised by Beijing’s quick military development.

Vice-Admiral Jack Dorsett, the head of US Navy intelligence, said last week that the Pentagon made the same mistake.

‘We’ve been on the mark on an awful lot of our assessments but there has been a handful of things we have underestimated,’ he said, referring to the DF-21D.

Mr Gates also said on Sunday that the US will enhance its own capabilities in response to China’s modernisation, eyeing a new generation of long-range nuclear bombers, new electronic jammers and radar, and new satellite launch technology.

Finally, it is important to evaluate the new weapons according to China’s objectives. Unlike the US, Beijing does not seek to be the global policeman.

It wants to have enough strength for an edge over Taiwan – its No. 1 security concern – to defend its maritime borders and perhaps have enough sway in the event of war on the Korean peninsula. China may also find a need to project its power a little farther afield into the South China Sea and other vital sea lanes.

Its concerns are still largely to prevent being hit rather than to attack others. Its military interests are thus limited to the region and are largely defensive and not offensive in nature.

In this context, its new weapons would be highly useful as a deterrence – especially against the US in the event of a cross-strait crisis. Washington may not be convinced of the effectiveness of the DF-21D, but it will certainly think twice before sending aircraft carriers into waters close to China. And this is exactly what Beijing hopes for – an anti-access defence strategy.

As military analyst Wang Xiangsui of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics put it: ‘They have no idea what the missile is capable of. But if they don’t believe it, they can always try it.’

shpeh@sph.com.sg

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Communications, Influence, International Relations, J-20, Mapping Feelings, military, Nationalism, Politics

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