At arm's length

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 April, 2010, 12:00am

The recent remarks by Admiral Robert Willard, the head of the US Pacific Command, that China may have its first aircraft carrier operational in two years' time, contain some interesting wrinkles. First, there is the nagging issue of military transparency. We learn more, it seems, about the juicy specifics of China's military build-up through statements from US officials and Pentagon reports than we do from Beijing.

In fact, the delay this year, apparently for political reasons, of the Pentagon's annual report to the US Congress on China's military is quietly troubling military analysts and scholars internationally. Beijing may habitually lash out at the report as evidence of Washington's lingering 'cold war mentality' but the report is generally considered a relatively sober update of programmes such as the aircraft carrier and the development of weapons like the unique anti-ship ballistic missile - all the good stuff Chinese military brass prefer not to talk about.

While the information vacuum allows Washington to frame the debate on its own terms, it is also a useful reminder of just how far behind China is in catching up to a powerful and modern military such as the US.

PLA strategists still like to cling to their secrets, apparently allowing plenty of room for second-guessing, speculation and deception to take hold in increasingly worried minds across the region.

This shows the build-up is not yet at the point where military transparency can be deployed as a weapon in its own right.

The dark flip-side to military transparency, of course, is intimidation. There is little value, after all, in boasting a terrifying arsenal of weaponry as a deterrent unless potential adversaries know what they are up against and can be allowed to think twice and slink away in retreat.

The carrier programme, for example, still raises more questions than answers and is a long way from being more than a theoretical projection of power. The carrier Willard referred to was the once-engineless rusting hulk China bought from Ukraine in 1998.

Under refit in and around Dalian since 2002, the carrier and its jump ramp appear almost certain to be used as a training platform not just for pilots, but for the very difficult business of co-ordinating all the elements of a carrier and its battle group - communications, radar configuration and security. The first Chinese-built carriers - not expected to be completed for at least five years - are expected to be bigger, flat decked ships with a catapult to launch fighters. By 2020, PLA planners want multiple carriers in production.

Then there are the planes. While Ukrainian-trained Chinese pilots are training others at several bases around China, Beijing has yet to acquire the Russian Su-33 fighters it is thought to need for the training carrier and beyond.

Moscow, apparently leery after previous attempts to reverse engineer technology sold to the PLA, had drawn out negotiations and there is no sign they will be completed any time soon.

The role of Russia is another intriguing wrinkle in the wider equation. Amid the uncertainty, fear and doubt that surround China's military modernisation, Moscow is cleaning up, it seems.

Russia has struck a deal worth more than US$2 billion to sell six Kilo-class diesel submarines to Vietnam - Hanoi's biggest military purchase in decades - in a move clearly designed to create a long-term deterrence against China in the disputed South China Sea. And, just last month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin struck a US$3.8 billion deal with India to sell a second aircraft carrier and fighters to China's neighbour and rival.

At the same time, Beijing still needs the fruits of Russia's military research tradition, too. Last week, Russia delivered 15 surface-to-air missile batteries to China as part of a US$2.25 billion deal.

Russia has, in recent years, rekindled its own dreams of rebuilding its once-proud Far East fleet. As China's expansion continues apace, it has found a good way to fund those ambitions.

Greg Torode is the Post's Chief Asia Correspondent