The Dragon Stirs

Tech Central Station

August 2, 2004

For the decade after the Cold War, the United States military strategy was built around a scenario involving two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts with Iraq and North Korea. Much derided by analysts throughout that period, the doctrine was formally abandoned with the September 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. Ironically, the announcement a few months later that North Korea had acquired nuclear capability and the long march to war with Iraq soon thereafter made that scenario much more likely than ever before. Similarly, strategic planners have long projected a burgeoning People’s Republic of China as the most likely military competitor for the United States. While considered a reach by most observers, this, too, may soon become a reality.

Recently the Washington Times‘ Bill Gertz reported a massive buildup in the Chinese submarine fleet that had caught US intelligence flatfooted.

China’s naval buildup has produced a new type of attack submarine that U.S. intelligence did not know was under construction, according to U.S. defense and intelligence officials. . . . One official said the new submarine was a ‘technical surprise’ to U.S. intelligence, which was unaware that Beijing was building a new non-nuclear powered attack submarine. U.S. intelligence agencies have few details about the new submarine but believe it is diesel-powered rather than nuclear-powered, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The new boat, which appears to be a combination of indigenous Chinese hardware and Russian weapons, suggests that China is building up its submarine forces in preparation for a conflict over Taiwan, defense analysts say. “China has decided submarines are its first-line warships now, their best shot at beating carriers,” said Sid Trevethan, an Alaska-based specialist on the Chinese military. “And China is right.” “One has to marvel at the enormity of the investment by the People’s Liberation Army in submarines,” said Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military.

China also is building two nuclear-powered submarines – one Type 093, believed to be based on the Russian Victor-III class and armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a Type 094 attack submarine, which the Pentagon believes has a finished hull and will be ready for deployment next year. According to Mr. Trevethan, China currently has a force of 57 deployed submarines, including one Xia-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine, five Han submarines, four Kilos, seven Songs, 18 Mings and 22 Soviet-designed Romeos. Beijing also has eight more Kilos on order with Russia.


A Pentagon report made public in May stated that China is changing its warship forces from a coastal defense force to one employing “active offshore defense.”

“This change in operations requires newer, more modern warships and submarines capable of operating at greater distances from China’s coast for longer periods,” the report said, noting that submarine construction is a top priority.

Gertz’ report comes on the heels of several recent reports, none of which has gotten much attention. Hamish McDonald, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, notes that the United States and China are both sending strong signals to one another on the Taiwan issue.

Over recent weeks — and the operations will continue through to next month — the US Navy has been testing an awesome display of military force, by deploying seven aircraft-carrier strike groups simultaneously at different locations around the globe. The aim is to prove a new operational doctrine called the “fleet response plan” that can provide six carrier groups in less than 30 days to deal with military contingencies anywhere in the world, with another two carrier groups to be battle-ready within three months. The exercise, “Summer Pulse 04,” is being studied very closely in Beijing, where it is clearly being read by some as a warning to China as much as any of the so-called rogue nations that might challenge American dominance.

Concern about a Chinese military strike against the US-shielded Taiwan has sharpened drastically since the island’s independence-leaning President, Chen Shui-bian, gained a new term in the March elections and foreshadowed changes to its constitution.

This month, the People’s Liberation Army is holding ground, sea and air exercises involving its latest fighters, submarines and missile ships around Dongshan Island, off the Fujian coast near Taiwan, to send what official media called “a substantial warning” to the island’s leadership. The tone of Beijing’s rhetoric has changed, notes Richard Baum, a leading China specialist at the University of California in Los Angeles. The decibel-level of harsh anti-Chen polemic has subsided, replaced by a mood of “grim determination,” Baum said in a Yale Review article. “Before a tiger attacks, it remains calm and quiet,” one Chinese scholar told Baum.

CNN reports that the PLA exercises involved “months of preparation,” involved 18,000 troops, and “will aim for the first time to demonstrate air superiority in the Taiwan Strait.”

Jim Wolf of Reuters reports that Dragon’s Thunder, “a crisis-simulation drill based on a growing Chinese military threat to Taiwan,” was held at National Defense University last week.

Pentagon officials cautioned against reading anything into the timing of the strategy drill or into the deployment of seven U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups worldwide simultaneously. “Neither the deployment of carrier strike groups worldwide nor this NDU tabletop exercise should be seen as sending a signal to any specific country,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, a Pentagon spokesman.

While it is certainly true that the Pentagon plans for a wide variety of scenarios on a routine basis, the confluence of so many of them based on a conflict with China — during a time when the nation is engaged in a global war against Islamic terrorists and spread very thin by major combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, is quite noteworthy. From later in Wolf’s report:

The scenario in the U.S. exercises, ninth in a series prompted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “specifically examined responses to an increasing possibility of military action by China against Taiwan,” the National Defense University said. Details of the scenario and “lessons learned” were classified, but such crisis-simulation was meant to be as realistic as possible, said David Thomas, a defense university spokesman. “Participants examined the gravity, complexity and difficulty inherent in responding to a sequence of escalating tensions between China and Taiwan,” he added in a statement. “The exercise sought to understand the full range of policy options and associated consequences available to the U.S. to restore stability to the Taiwan Straits and surrounding region, while avoiding nuclear confrontation with China,” NDU said.

Opening the session, Navy Secretary Gordon England noted the value of such games for addressing “some of the complex security problems the nation confronts today,” it said. Participants were from Rumsfeld’s office, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, U.S. Pacific Command, White House National Security Council, National Intelligence Council and departments of State and Commerce, according to NDU. Also taking part were 14 members of Congress, including Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican who chairs the House of Representatives Projection Forces Committee.

Again, given the other commitments of the Defense Department, it is highly unlikely that they would hold nine simulations of a China-Taiwan conflict and draw the attention of several Members of Congress if they believed the scenario to be off-the-wall.

Certainly, the Chinese are giving every indication that they think a military clash over Taiwan is inevitable. According to CNN,

China believes Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian will push for formal statehood after winning a second four-year term in March and is preparing for a possible showdown with the island, which Beijing has claimed since their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. The period “before or after 2020 is the time to resolve the Taiwan issue,” military chief and ex-Communist Party chief Jiang told a recent expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission, the decision-making body of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Wen Wei Po newspaper said. The meeting also approved military, political, logistics and armament development plans over an unspecified period for the 2.5-million-strong PLA, the newspaper said. It gave no details.

McDonald indicates that the conflict may come much sooner:

Numerous US analysts believe that China’s military is close to reaching the capability it sees as necessary for an attack on special forces in Taiwan before the US Navy could execute its 30-day ‘surge’ of massive reinforcements to the region — a Chinese version of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘shock and awe’.

The decisive moment could come even as early as Taiwan’s elections for its legislature this December, when Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party is expected to sweep out many of the conservative Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist) oppositionists who have so far protected the existing constitution that sees Taiwan as part of China. But most see 2006, when Chen introduces his constitutional reforms, as a critical time. Repeatedly, in recent months, Chinese spokesmen have warned that any price — large casualties and physical damage, broken diplomatic ties, economic reverses, and disruption of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — will be paid to prevent Taiwan declaring its independence.

An assessment published last week in the Wall Street Journal indicates that China’s military, while still nothing close to a match for that of the U.S., has made great strides in recent years.

“The Chinese have leapfrogged,” says James Mulvenon, a Chinese military specialist with Rand Corp., a think-tank often commissioned by the U.S. government to study security issues. “Don’t comfort yourself by thinking that they’re not formidable.”

The PLA isn’t likely to catch up with the U.S. for a long time, foreign military analysts say. Its 2.25-million-member force, the world’s largest, is largely land-bound. It has an improving arsenal of missiles but underpowered naval and air forces; they and the infantry rarely train together. China also still relies on Russia and other foreign suppliers for major weapons systems. Defense attachés who have visited Chinese ships describe seeing a mish-mash of electronics, some of it commercially available. Only in recent years have commanders boasted of a new capability — encrypted e-mails.

Despite the disparity, though, China has the ability to create fear and disruption in Taiwan.

With its growing proficiency, the PLA is making a concerted push into information warfare — the use of computer viruses to paralyze an enemy’s financial markets or traffic systems. The PLA has opened an information-warfare center and is training special units in these skills, according to Shen Weiguang, a former aide to the PLA’s recently retired chief of staff and a lecturer at military academies on warfare trends. In 1996, the PLA couldn’t track two U.S. aircraft-carrier groups that Washington dispatched to Taiwan, recalls Mr. Shen. “We’re not deaf and blind anymore. If you come, we’ll know,” he says.

All these changes are giving China’s leadership real military options for the first time in decades. Military analysts think the PLA still lacks sufficient naval and air power to launch a full invasion of Taiwan, for example. But the areas where the PLA is making its greatest strides — commando forces, information warfare and missiles technology — could, if deployed together in a few years time, demolish Taiwan’s military bases and command centers, according to a Pentagon assessment of the PLA’s capabilities.

It should also be noted that, while China is still well behind the U.S., Taiwan is another story. As noted in the Gertz piece, “Taiwan currently has just two World War II-era Guppy-class submarines and two 1980s Dutch submarines.” The US offered to sell them an additional eight submarines in 2001 but that sale has not occurred.

China may calculate that, with the U.S. straining under the burdens of the war on terror and sustaining a force in Iraq, it will be reluctant to intervene in a conflict over Taiwan. Despite several decades of bipartisan U.S. policy to the contrary, that calculation may not be entirely unfounded.

 Original article