Balance of power at risk, says Pentagon

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 August, 2010, 12:00am

An expected increase in the PLA's presence in the South China Sea - including large ballistic missile submarines - risks upsetting the regional balance of power and a 'delicate status quo', according to the Pentagon's latest report on China's military modernisation.

An expanded naval presence to protect the five new nuclear-powered Jin-class submarines and five advanced Type 095 attack submarines to be based on Hainan Island over the next year was part of a broader effort to project the mainland's military power across Asia, far beyond the traditional target of Taiwan, the US Defence Department's annual report to Congress says.

Just as its expanding capabilities - from advanced missiles and improved radar to planned aircraft carriers - revealed a strategy to cover potential targets including Japan, the Philippines and the US island of Guam, a continued lack of transparency risked 'misunderstanding and miscalculation'.

'Current trends in China's military capabilities are a major factor in changing East Asian military balances and could provide China with a force capable of conducting a range of military operations in Asia well beyond Taiwan,' the report says.

'The limited transparency in China's military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.

'China is fielding an array of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, ground- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles, special operations forces and cyberwarfare capabilities to hold targets at risk throughout the region.'

The wide-ranging and nuanced report, delayed for five months for fine-tuning amid frosty Sino-US military relations, covers a wide range of expanding PLA capabilities and evolving strategies.

It was condemned by mainland officials in Beijing and Washington, who accused the Pentagon of resorting to a cold war mentality to exaggerate the China threat.

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, said it was a conservative report this year and the Pentagon did not want to unduly provoke Beijing.

'Maybe the US is keen on resuming military-to-military exchanges with China,' he said.

While the number of short-range missiles - 1,050 to 1,150 - targeting Taiwan is unchanged from last year, the report confirms private analysts' warnings that those missiles are becoming increasingly lethal with improved range, accuracy and explosive strength.

'The balance of cross-strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland's favour,' the report says, despite an improved political and economic climate across the Taiwan Strait.

It also notes continued progress on the development of a medium-range ballistic missile adapted with a manoeuvrable warhead designed to attack aircraft carriers more than 1,500 kilometres out into the western Pacific.

If successfully integrated with an expanding array of satellites and electronic command systems, the so-called anti-ship ballistic missile would represent China's only unique military capability.

China is now home to 'the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile programme in the world', the report notes.

Yet the report also highlights potential problems and ongoing uncertainties about China's capabilities and intentions.

While in the latter half of the decade the PLA could be able to project several battalions of ground forces and/or a dozen ships to a small conflict far from China, projecting force beyond that would still be beyond them.

'It is unlikely ... that China will be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China until well into the following decade,' the report says.

It also notes stalled negotiations with Russia to purchase Su-33 fighter planes for future aircraft carriers, which the PLA intends to have in domestic production by 2020. A former Soviet-era ship, the Varyag, is now being refitted for training purposes.

'Analysts in and out of government project that China will not have an operational, domestically produced carrier and associated ships before 2015.'

The report also noted that China faced several decades of dependence on oil imported by ship, despite planned regional pipelines - a potential vulnerability.

Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said while the Pentagon had played down its criticism of China's military build-up it still 'paid too close attention to the PLA's development'.

In the report, the US said Beijing wanted to gain international prestige by enhancing military exchanges with the US, and to drive a wedge between the US, its allies, and its partners, including Taiwan.

'The Pentagon is ... narrow-minded if they believe Beijing's efforts in enhancing Sino-US military ties are aimed at fomenting dissension between the US and its allies,' Xu said.

'If the US has close and stable relations with its allies and partners, it's impossible for China to drive a wedge between them. And if their ties are broken, it should be the US's responsibility, not China's business.'

PLA power

China's arsenal at a glance:

Vessels in PLA Navy: 85 (65 are in the East and South Sea fleets)

Nuclear submarines: 6

The estimated 3,300 missiles in its arsenal include:

DH-10 land attack cruise missiles (pictured): 200-500

CSS-7 short-range ballistic missiles: 700-750

CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missiles: 85-95

Sources: military.today.com, globalmil.com, US Department of Defence