China's Arms Race

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DOUGLAS WALLER WashingtonIn January 1991, as American bombs rained onto Iraq, CNN's live attack coverage found a particularly appreciative audience five time zones away, in Beijing. To the Chinese, the Gulf War was a revelation--an introduction to 21st century tactics and weaponry that pointed out, in the most graphic possible way, the limits of China's massive but antiquated military. Smart bombs, flexible command and control, and seamless, high-tech attacks dazzled the Chinese leadership, who ramped up a campaign to upgrade the People's Liberation Army (P.L.A.) to world-class status. The new buzz words in China's Ministry of Defense became limited war under high-tech conditions--and China is now buying and spying its way toward high-tech, superpower status as fast as it can.One result has been more fretting in Washington about how China is retooling its vast military. Particularly worrisome: massive Chinese spying on the U.S. A top-secret congressional report delivered to the White House last month suggests a stunning espionage effort being coordinated from Beijing, whose spy rings have been stealing secrets in the U.S. for 20 years. The congressional committee set out six months ago to probe allegations that two U.S. aerospace companies, Hughes Electronics Corp. and Loral Space & Communications, provided China with critical rocket-design information that helped improve its ballistic missiles. The committee concluded that they had. But as the panel dug deeper, we were quickly led to far more serious problems, says its Republican chairman, Representative Christopher Cox.U.S. investigators say Beijing has taken a vacuum-cleaner approach to stealing secrets, sucking up any kind of intelligence it can find. The official spy organization is the Ministry of State Security. But it is supplemented by dozens of other government departments, each of which runs some kind of intel operation. Beijing also works through Hong Kong front companies or co-production agreements with U.S. firms to glean military-related secrets.Investigators say the Chinese still place a premium on human intelligence. Private citizens visiting the U.S. are often coerced into collecting information for the state. Others become sleeper agents, burrowing into international firms operating in the U.S., to be called on when a job needs to be done. The Chinese will use anybody who's available or has access, says a CIA source. It's across the board.In the past few decades, as U.S.-China relations have thawed, Beijing has had plenty of access to exploit. Chinese scientists visiting U.S. nuclear-weapons labs in the 1980s, for instance, pilfered design information for the neutron bomb and the Trident-II nuclear warhead. Commercial attaches prowling trade shows have been spotted pocketing demonstration videos of weapons systems or dipping their ties into chemical solutions on display so that secret formulas can be analyzed. Chinese agents have even gone to U.S. military-surplus sales to buy scrapped aviation hardware.PAGE 1  |    |  
Hughes and Loral, which have been launching satellites aboard China's Long March rocket, deny that they aided Beijing's missile program when they provided information to correct faults that had caused two launch explosions. And Beijing has called the charges absurd and irresponsible. Inside the White House--which has been pressing for closer relations with China--aides insist that Cox's report hypes the Chinese intelligence threat. China's great leap forward into espionage, they say, has yielded uneven results.Perhaps as a consequence, while China has been privately spying, it has also been snapping up more modern military gear in open, legitimate markets. The new P.L.A. is populated with arms from France, Brazil, Israel and Russia. All of them consider China a big customer.Partly to help fund this modernization, the P.L.A. budget is growing; last year it rose almost 13%, to $10.9 billion. The nation's top generals are leading all the armed forces through an aggressive reorganization. The P.L.A. is streamlining its force by 500,000 to bring it down to 2.5 million men, and replacing war-fighting equipment, much of which is still 1950s vintage. In their place: more modern weapons systems. China has so far bought from Russia three Kilo-636 attack submarines, two Sovremenny-class destroyers equipped with SS-N-22 antiship missiles, and 50 Su-27 attack jets. China is also building up to 20 new Dongfeng-31 intercontinental ballistic missiles, whose 8,000-km range could put nuclear warheads on U.S. soil. It's also interested in cyberwar, to cripple U.S. computers, and antisatellite weapons, to knock out communications and spy satellites.All this technology requires a lot of hard currency and a new war-fighting doctrine. While Chinese leaders can't buy or steal the latter, they don't need to. Joint exchange programs with American and Russian officers have given them a glimpse of alternative strategic thinking. Though the Chinese still practice massive active defense maneuvers--leftover tactics from the old days of a Soviet threat--Beijing's generals are putting more emphasis on night training, infrared-vision equipment and so-called combined arms training in which air, navy and ground forces are intended to interlock seamlessly in an attack. The scenario that illuminates many of these ops: an attack on Taiwan. But new war-fighting techniques haven't filtered down to the P.L.A.'s rank and file, which hasn't demonstrated it can use the nifty new pieces of hardware Beijing has bought in a way that poses a credible threat, says Brookings Institution expert Bates Gill.Indeed, China's military will require decades to reach true superpower status. Some U.S. analysts suggest the P.L.A. may be 30 years behind the U.S.--a nearly insuperable gap. China's plans to launch cyberwar or antisatellite weapons may sound scary, but they are a long way from reality. China's nuclear arsenal, whose warheads aren't even attached to missiles in peacetime, is designed only as a retaliatory force. Even with the Dongfeng-31 missiles online, Beijing's strategic-missile force will be just one-eighteenth the size of Washington's. Those limits mean that while Beijing may be able to put up a credible fight to protect the homeland, it still can't project a large force thousands of miles away--a capability that belongs uniquely to the U.S.  |  2  |  
At the very least, however, China's new military tools will alter the balance of power in Asia. Explains Ralph Cossa, who heads the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu: China isn't trying to project power to San Francisco Bay. It's trying to project power to the South China Sea. Though China's leaders may want to restore their nation to its traditional Middle Kingdom status as Asia's dominant power, they must still face a formidable U.S. military presence in the Pacific. That doesn't necessarily mean war, but it almost certainly means more tension. Are the Chinese building a gun that ultimately they're going to point at us? asks Kent Harrington, a former CIA intelligence officer for Asia. I don't think today we can reach that conclusion. But we need to talk to them about it now to make sure it doesn't happen in the future. In the meantime, the U.S. can expect the spies to keep coming.With reporting by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing and Mark Thompson/WashingtonChina is in the middle of a military buildup, manufacturing its own weapons and spending more money for better hardware. Beijing ultimately wants to carry Asia's biggest stick, but it has a long way to go before it catches up with the U.S., which dominates the Pacific by sea and airA New Global Reach
China's ballistic-missile program is decades behind the U.S.'s, but it is building 20 new Dongfeng-31s, a mobile ICBM topped with one-megaton warheads that can reach the U.S.
The need: These mobile ICBMs will upgrade the nation's aging arsenal, whose rockets are liquid fueled.
Made in ChinaRussia's Supersonic Wonder
China has bought 50 Su-27 ground-attack fighters from Moscow and will assemble 150 itself. The all-weather jet also fires air-to-air missiles with deadly precision.
The need: These Sukhois will help China control the skies over the Taiwan Strait in the event of a war.
Made in Russia and ChinaSharper Eyes in the Sky
China has a fleet of communications and intelligence-gathering satellites, but their technology is crude. Beijing's spies are prowling the West for more sophisticated hardware.
The need: China will use better satellites to spy on its enemies and control its forces on the ground.
Made in ChinaQuiet Attacks from the Deep
China has so far received three of four Kilo-636 attack submarines that it ordered from Russia. Moscow has spruced up the diesel-powered subs for export, making them quieter underwater.
The need: The subs would harass shipping around Taiwan and force U.S. warships to sail Asian seas with a bit less aplomb.
Made in RussiaRed Thunder
Most of China's military-hardware purchases come from Russia. But it is trying to branch out to other suppliers. France is allowing Beijing to produce the Z-9A jet helicopter under a special license.
The need: The choppers can transport commandos and drop antisubmarine weapons.
Made in France and ChinaIllustration by Ed Gabel  |    |  3