By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 30, 2006
BEIJING, Dec. 29 -- China warned Friday that the military landscape in northeast Asia is getting "more complicated and serious" because of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and tighter defense cooperation between Japan and the United States.
The Chinese views on regional security, articulated in a government white paper on national defense, provided a rare glimpse into the strategic assessments that underlie decisions and priorities of the secretive Chinese military and the Communist Party's policymaking Central Military Commission.
In part, the paper was designed as a response to repeated complaints from the Bush administration that China has not explained the rationale behind its long-term military improvement program. China's announced military budget has risen about 10 percent a year recently, reaching $35.4 billion in 2006, and Pentagon specialists estimate that also counting equipment expenditures would more than double it.
Along with Taiwan's pursuit of independence, the government pointed out as particular security challenges North Korea's missile tests last summer and its maiden nuclear test in October, which undermined Chinese-led diplomatic efforts to create a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. The most recent round of nuclear negotiations took place last week and ended in stalemate, creating doubts about the utility of continuing the three-year-old six-nation talks.
In listing Chinese concerns, the white paper also cited a U.S.-Japanese effort to build a regional missile defense shield based on U.S. ships equipped with the Aegis radar system and a U.S.-Japanese missile now being developed. The joint defense system, portrayed as protection against a North Korean attack, has been criticized by Chinese officials and commentators because it also could blunt China's missile threat in the event of U.S.-Chinese hostilities over Taiwan.
Chinese officials have expressed concern that Taiwan could eventually be integrated into the U.S.-Japanese system, providing a counterweight to China's increasing missile threat against the self-ruled island. That fear was not explicitly conveyed in the white paper, but Japan's growing willingness to assert itself militarily was cited as a strategic concern for military planners in Beijing.
"America and Japan are strengthening their military alliance in pursuit of operational integration, and Japan seeks to modify its peace constitution and exercise collective self-defense," the paper said. "North Korea launched missiles and had a nuclear test. The situation in the Korean Peninsula and northeast Asia is getting more and more complicated and serious."
The paper said China's military improvements are part of the country's overall modernization and economic expansion. The effort will continue apace, it added, seeking to "lay a solid foundation" by 2010, make "major progress" by 2020 and "reach the strategic goal of building informationized armed forces and being capable of winning informationized wars by the mid-21st century."
Moving from infantry to high-tech naval and aerial warfare has been a major goal of China's military modernization. It has entailed the shedding of thousands of untrained foot soldiers and a concerted effort to replace them with trained technicians able to function in the world of computerized weaponry.
The white paper said, for instance, that the army's relative strength in the Chinese military has dropped by 1.5 percent, while that of the navy, air force and Second Artillery Force -- China's missile and nuclear corps -- rose by 3.8 percent. Overall military strength has fallen by 1.7 million troops since 1985 and is estimated to stand at 2.3 million, still the world's largest force.
The People's Liberation Army "has made new progress toward the goal of being proper in size, optimal in structure, streamlined in organization, swift and flexible in command and powerful in fighting capacity," the paper boasted.
But it provided no details on the new ships, warplanes, missiles, submarines and computer systems that, according to U.S. officials, have increased China's lethal power in the region and made any confrontation over Taiwan a riskier proposition for the United States than it would have been a decade ago.
As it has before, the government warned that any step by Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian to move toward formal independence by changing the territory's constitution would be a "grave threat" to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, suggesting it could trigger military intervention. President Hu Jintao, who as head of the Central Military Commission is commander in chief of the armed forces, has told visitors he has no plans to attack Taiwan but would have to act if the island took a decisive step toward formal independence.