Pentagon Report Plays Down Chinese Military Threat

By Walter Pincus
Monday, March 10, 2008

A recent Defense Department report titled "Military Power of the People's Republic of China" highlights some of Beijing's potential weaknesses and some positive steps the Chinese are taking in their relationship with the United States.

The report noted that China is spending heavily to modernize its military forces, and drew attention to anti-satellite and cyberspace activities that represent potential threats to the United States, which were discussed in last week's column.

But the study also noted that U.S. intelligence agencies estimate it could take Beijing at least two more years "to produce a modern force capable of defeating a moderate-size adversary."

More important, the intelligence estimate predicted that the Asian nation "will not be able to project and sustain small military units far beyond China before 2015, and will not be able to project and sustain large forces in combat operations far from China until well into the following decade." The intelligence estimate was completed within the past year; this is the first time it has been made public.

Intelligence agencies have long believed that China has never had the transport capability to carry enough troops across the Taiwan Strait to invade its tiny neighbor. That is one reason for its emphasis on threatening the Taipei government with missiles and asymmetric electronic warfare.

The Pentagon study also lays out, not for the first time, military and economic problems that stem from China's growing need for imported oil. Over 53 percent of China's oil is imported, with the "vast majority" of the more than 4 million barrels a day coming through two rather narrow waterways: the Strait of Malacca, which separates Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Lombok/Makkasar Straits through the Indonesian islands.

Chinese consumption of oil is expected to increase by as much as 60 percent by 2015. The nation's top foreign suppliers are Saudi Arabia, Angola and Iran, and in a 2006 defense white paper of its own, China concluded that "security issues related to energy resources . . . and international shipping routes are mounting."

The Beijing government, according to the Pentagon report, currently "is neither capable of using military power to secure its foreign energy investments nor of defending critical sea lanes against disruption." Perhaps that is why China is building aircraft carriers and submarines, and obtaining other maritime-related strike forces, according to the report.

Recognizing its vulnerability should it face a naval blockade, China, like the United States, has put together a strategic petroleum reserve. It is expected to reach 100 million barrels this year, equal to 25 days of oil imports.

Another element in the Pentagon report is a list of international military exercises and exchanges conducted by the Chinese last year. These activities have grown in recent years and represent, according to the Pentagon, Beijing's expanded international role in support of its diplomatic and security objectives.

In March 2007, for example, two Chinese guided missile frigates took part in a multinational naval exercise in the North Arabian Sea hosted by Pakistan and focused on maritime counterterrorism. The United States and seven other countries also participated. In April 2007, the Chinese and Indian navies held a combined-force exercise in the South China Sea.

In December 2007, Chinese and Indian troops conducted a training exercise code-named "Hand-in-Hand" that included establishment of a joint command post, joint battle decision making and anti-terrorism drills. Despite a boundary dispute, the two nations' defense ministers met in January 2008 and agreed to have a second military exercise in India later this year.

As of December 2007, China had 1,800 troops deployed globally in 13 U.N. peacekeeping missions. The 135 military engineers it sent to Darfur in November 2007 comprised the first non-African Union group in that multinational force.

U.S. and Chinese military activities are not widely publicized, but they do occur. A September 2006 search-and-rescue exercise off San Diego was the first to involve U.S. and Chinese vessels. A hotline agreement was recently signed and the phone link-up was expected to become operational this month, according to David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asian security affairs, who briefed reporters on the China report last Monday.

Sedney also said there is agreement to continue a dialogue on nuclear strategies and exchange information on each country's military activity in Africa.

"There's a wide range of activities underway," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters last Wednesday, "and we think having an ongoing dialogue with them about the meaning of all that would be very useful."

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