BEIJING -- A top-to-bottom modernization is transforming the Chinese military, raising the stakes for U.S. forces long dominant in the Pacific.
Several programs to improve China's armed forces could soon produce a stronger nuclear deterrent against the United States, soldiers better trained to use high-technology weapons, and more effective cruise and anti-ship missiles for use in the waters around Taiwan, according to foreign specialists and U.S. officials.
In the past several weeks, President Bush and his senior aides, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Director of Central Intelligence Porter J. Goss, have expressed concern over the recent pace of China's military progress and its effect on the regional balance of power.
Their comments suggested the modernization program might be on the brink of reaching one of its principal goals. For the last decade -- at least since two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups steamed in to show resolve during a moment of high tension over Taiwan in 1996 -- Chinese leaders have sought to field enough modern weaponry to ensure that any U.S. decision to intervene again would be painful and fraught with risk.
As far as is known, China's military has not come up with a weapon system that suddenly changes the equation in the Taiwan Strait or surrounding waters where Japanese and U.S. forces deploy, the specialists said. China has been trying to update its military for more than two decades, seeking to push the low-tech, manpower-heavy force it calls a people's army into the 21st-century world of computers, satellites and electronic weapons. Although results have been slow in coming, they added, several programs will come to fruition simultaneously in the next few years, promising a new level of firepower in one of the world's most volatile regions.
"This is the harvest time," said Lin Chong-pin, a former Taiwanese deputy defense minister and an expert on the Chinese military at the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies in Taipei.
U.S. and Taiwanese military officials pointed in particular to China's rapid development of cruise and other anti-ship missiles designed to pierce the electronic defenses of U.S. vessels that might be dispatched to the Taiwan Strait in case of conflict.
The Chinese navy has taken delivery of two Russian-built Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers and has six more on order, equipped with Sunburn missiles able to skim 4 1/2 feet above the water at a speed of Mach 2.5 to evade radar. In addition, it has contracted with Russia to buy eight Kilo-class diesel submarines that carry Club anti-ship missiles with a range of 145 miles.
"These systems will present significant challenges in the event of a U.S. naval force response to a Taiwan crisis," Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony March 17.
The Nuclear Deterrent
Strategically, China's military is also close to achieving an improved nuclear deterrent against the United States, according to foreign officials and specialists.
The Type 094 nuclear missile submarine, launched last July to replace a trouble-prone Xia-class vessel, can carry 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Married with the newly developed Julang-2 missile, which has a range of more than 5,000 miles and the ability to carry independently targeted warheads, the 094 will give China a survivable nuclear deterrent against the continental United States, according to "Modernizing China's Military," a study by David Shambaugh of George Washington University.
In addition, the Dongfeng-31 solid-fuel mobile ballistic missile, a three-stage, land-based equivalent of the Julang-2, has been deployed in recent years to augment the approximately 20 Dongfeng-5 liquid-fuel missiles already in service, according to academic specialists citing U.S. intelligence reports.
It will be joined in coming years by an 8,000-mileDongfeng-41, these reports said, putting the entire United States within range of land-based Chinese ICBMs as well. "The main purpose of that is not to attack the United States," Lin said. "The main purpose is to throw a monkey wrench into the decision-making process in Washington, to make the Americans think, and think again, about intervening in Taiwan, and by then the Chinese have moved in."
With a $1.3 trillion economy growing at more than 9 percent a year, China has acquired more than enough wealth to make these investments in a modern military. The announced defense budget has risen by double digits in most recent years. For 2005, it jumped 12.6 percent to hit nearly $30 billion.