China's Low-Tech Army
Struggles Despite Reform
By Christiaan Virant
BEIJING (Reuters) -- Nervously, the world is eyeing China's military build-up. Its top-of-the-line Russian Sukhoi fighter jets are easily a match for U.S. F-16s; its ballistic missiles can hit targets almost anywhere in the world; its Kilo-class submarines, also from Russia, are silent killers in the waters off Taiwan. But look again.
Beyond a relatively small number of high-tech toys is a junkyard of obsolete equipment, undertrained troops and an officer corps distracted by business. The army has long been funding itself by running discos and hotels.
A military overhaul was one of the "Four Modernizations" proposed by Deng Xiaoping 20 years ago, along with upgrades in agriculture, industry and science and technology.
Yet far from posing a threat to world peace, Western analysts say China itself feels under siege.
"There is a clearly recognized theme within the military that they are not prepared to meet new missions, new threats and new problems," said Bates Gill, a Chinese military expert at the U.S.-based Brookings Institution.
Often dismissed by Western military experts as the world's largest active-duty military museum, China's 2.5-million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA) is surrounded on all sides by powerful conventional and nuclear forces.
True, the PLA Air Force has around 50 Sukhoi SU-27's, and others on order. But it also owns 4,500 Korean War-era fighters that would lose in a dog-fight to advanced warplanes fielded by Vietnam, Thailand, India and Taiwan.
Without an aircraft carrier, China's tiny navy cannot extend its reach much beyond the coastline.
The country has had an atomic bomb since the early 1960s. But while membership of the nuclear club has given it the trappings of big-power status, that club is rapidly expanding.
China is now bordered by three nuclear powers: Russia, India and Pakistan. Four if the U.S. presence in Asia is counted " and four and a half with North Korea and its suspected nuclear weapons program in the mix.
"Its getting a little shaky out there for them," Gill said.
China's military remains only a looming threat to its neighbors and a distant strategic problem for the United States.
U.S. China scholar Robert Ross said that even hawkish projections by the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency showed it was "unlikely that in the next 25-30 years they will be able to significantly erode the American lead."
The PLA has come a long way since suffering an embarrassing rout by the Vietnamese army during a brief 1979 border war sparked by Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia, then ruled by Beijing's long-time ally the Khmer Rouge.
Chinese troops backed by a barrage of heavy artillery originally expected to roll over the lesser Vietnamese forces, but became bogged down by their own communication snafus.
Since then, China has streamlined its army, trimming troop strength, acquiring advanced technology and reinstating rank insignia so soldiers have a clear line of command on the battlefield.
"China today has greater access to the international economy, dual-use technology and they are moving in a direct way which will allow them to build a more militarily powerful, technologically advanced army," Gill said.
Even the dramatic public relations setback suffered by the army during the bloody 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square has failed to slow the rapid upgrade.
An overseas military shopping spree was the result of a radical plan, proposed by Deng, for the PLA to go into business and funnel profits into improving the armed forces.
Although the PLA has always farmed the land and operated factories " and still stitches its own uniforms " Deng gave the green light for units to move from the battleground to boardroom. Training and discipline suffered.
By the time the movement reached its peak in the mid-1990s, the army was a major player in the Chinese economy, controlling 20,000 industries. It assembled cars, built office towers and managed nightclubs.
All that is being reversed. President Jiang Zemin, worried about rampant corruption and smuggling, has ordered the military to quit business.
To make up for lost revenue, Beijing has agreed to boost the PLA's budget, which official figures put at $9.8 billion in 1997 but which Western analysts believe could be three times greater, accounting for 3-4 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
"This move dovetails with the broader efforts to professionalize the armed forces," according to Robert Karniol, Asia Editor for Jane's Defence Weekly.
"From Jiang's perspective, it reflects his different view of the PLA and its role as compared with Deng."
Jiang's bold decision left the PLA grappling with fundamental questions about its mission as it faces growing challenges in the 21st century.
The PLA's most pressing concern is a sovereignty dispute over Taiwan which could ignite conflict with the United States. Beijing has not ruled out force to reunify the Nationalist-ruled island with the mainland.
The navy is also being called upon to assert China's disputed claims to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, resulting in strained relations with the Philippines and Vietnam.
But China's biggest long-term fear is a re-militarized Japan whose economic clout is matched by a blue water navy and star wars technology. Beijing complains that Tokyo still has not confronted its World War II past, and fears Japan could rise again.
"Over the longer term, Japan is a big problem," said Gill.
But for now, China's military is expected to remain in the barracks while it rethinks its mission.
"The last thing China needs now is instability," Ross said.
"They hope to use the peaceful international environment to develop the economy, so that when great powers collide again in the future, they will not be passive."