By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
China's military buildup is increasingly aimed at projecting power far beyond its shores into the western Pacific to be able to interdict U.S. aircraft carriers and other nations' military forces, according to a Pentagon report released yesterday that outlines continued concerns over China's rising strategic influence in Asia.
Chinese military planners are focusing to a greater degree than in the past on targeting ships and submarines at long ranges using anti-ship cruise missiles, partly in reaction to Taiwan Strait crises in 1995 and 1996 that saw the U.S. military intervene with carrier battle groups, the report said.
The People's Liberation Army "is engaged in a sustained effort to interdict, at long ranges, aircraft carrier and expeditionary strike groups that might deploy to the western Pacific," the report said. Long-term trends in China's development of nuclear and conventional weapons "have the potential to pose credible threats to modern militaries operating in the region," it said.
The annual report to Congress on China's military power also highlighted Beijing's purchases of Russian weapons, its positioning of as many as 790 Chinese short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan and its nuclear weapons modernization. It warned that advances in nuclear missiles are spurring a debate among some high-ranking Chinese strategists over whether Beijing should change its "no first use" doctrine that bars using nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack.
The 50-page report states that China's military buildup remains primarily focused on Taiwan, and notes that its current ability to sustain military power over long distances is limited. But the report also outlines Chinese military ambitions that go well beyond Taiwan, and reiterates the Pentagon's latest formulation on China's military threat, stating that "China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States."
China's defense budget is expanding apace with the new investments, the report said. Beijing officially projects a growth in defense spending of 14.5 percent this year to about $35 billion. But the report, citing the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, puts the actual funding at twice or triple that amount -- or as much as $105 billion -- when all military-related spending is tallied.
The report details how the Chinese military is investing in cruise missiles, precision weapons and guidance systems that could target ships, submarines, aircraft and airbases as far away as the "second island chain" including the Mariana Islands and Guam. As part of this strategy, China is buying Russian aircraft, such as the IL-76 transport and IL-78 tanker aircraft, and has shown interest in the Su-33 maritime strike aircraft. China is in the early stages of "developing power projection for other contingencies other than Taiwan," said Peter W. Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
On Taiwan, the report said China had deployed about 100 more short-range ballistic missiles to garrisons opposite the island, increasing the total from 650 to 730 last year to between 710 and 790 now. "The balance between Beijing and Taiwan is heading in the wrong direction," Rodman said, adding that "maybe our job is to be the equalizer if a contingency arises."
The internal debate over China's nuclear policy of no first use is unfolding as the nation upgrades its nuclear arsenal to include more mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the DF-31A and the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, according to the report. Both missiles are expected to become operable as early as 2007 and be capable of striking the United States, it said.
China's stated doctrine, reaffirmed last fall during a visit to Beijing by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, is not to use nuclear weapons first. But senior U.S. defense officials said improvements in the quality and quantity of China's nuclear missiles had generated discussion among Chinese military and academic strategists over how and when to use them. "We take them at their word that they adhere to that doctrine," Rodman said. However, he said, "as their capabilities change they may be thinking about options that they didn't have before."
The report cites public comments by Chinese military officials and strategists stating that under certain extreme circumstances -- such as an all-out attack against the country by conventional forces -- that China should use nuclear weapons.
Any move to abandon the no-first-use doctrine would be "very destabilizing" in the region, a U.S. defense official said.
To address such concerns, the United States and China will soon start talks over nuclear strategy with the first U.S. visit by the head of China's nuclear arsenal, Jing Zhiyuan, the commander of the Second Artillery Corps, officials said. Jing will be hosted by his American counterpart, Gen. James E. Cartwright, chief of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. No date has been finalized for the visit, Rodman said.
The strategic talks illustrate the Bush administration's two-pronged approach to China's military buildup set down in the 2006 National Security Strategy: to engage with Chinese military leaders to influence their choices while hedging against potential threats.
Experts on China's military differed on the significance of the debate over nuclear policy. "The real issue is not 'no first use.' The real issue is: Under what conditions China will use nuclear weapons . . . how bad do things have to get for the threshold to be crossed?" said Evan S. Medeiros, an expert at Rand Corp. He noted that some Chinese military commentators have stated that a precision strike by conventional weapons on China's nuclear facilities could be tantamount to a small-scale nuclear attack and lead China to consider using nuclear weapons.
Other experts played down the importance of the nuclear debate in China. "They are primarily interested in increasing conventional options in regional contingencies and vis-a-vis Taiwan," said Kurt Campbell, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.