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China's war games unnerve neighbors

August 18, 2009

By Kent Ewing
Asia Times
August 18, 2009

HONG KONG - War games launched last week by the
People's Liberation Army (PLA) have alarmed
China's neighbors and raised further questions
about Beijing's military intentions. The games,
dubbed "Stride-2009", are scheduled to stretch
over the next two months. They involve only
50,000 troops from China's 2.3 million-member
standing army - the largest in the world - but
the sophisticated nature of the far-flung
deployments has captured the attention of
military experts all over Asia and beyond.

For the first time, forces from the four major
regional military commands - stationed in the
cities of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan and Guangzhou
- will all be engaged in live-fire drills at
least 1,200 kilometers from their bases. Some
soldiers will reportedly be involved in maneuvers
as far as 1,600 kilometers from home. Previously,
military exercises had only been conducted by
troops under a single regional military command.
This has led military analysts to speculate that
one of the purposes of the war games is a test
run for reforming the command system.

The official Xinhua News Agency described the
exercises as a test of the PLA's "long-range
force projection" that will involve high-speed
civilian rail and air links in the rapid
deployment of troops. This will be the army's
"largest-ever tactical military exercise", the agency said.

What Xinhua failed to mention is how such
elaborate, high-profile war games - on top of
perennial double-digit increases in the military
budget for most of the past two decades - are
consistent with China's promise of a "peaceful
rise". Certainly, China's regional neighbors seek
constant reassurance on this pledge. And the
United States, still by far the pre-eminent
military power in the region, is also looking on with a wary eye.

The exercises, however, appear to be aimed more
at bolstering the internal security of China,
with its 9.6 million square kilometers in land
and 1.3 billion people, than projecting military
power abroad. Some analysts even see these games
as a direct response to the recent riots in the
western autonomous region of Xinjiang, which left
nearly 200 people dead and more than 1,700
injured. But the war games were planned long
before the ethnic clashes last month between
Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi.

That said, separatist movements in Xinjiang and
neighboring Tibet have long worried China's
military leaders, and things seem to be growing
worse, not better, in these restive regions. The
Urumqi riots were this year's embarrassment. In
March of 2008, as China prepared to host the
Beijing Summer Olympic Games, the government
crackdown on violent protests in Tibet and other
Tibetan-inhabited areas put a damper on Beijing's
international coming-out party.

These internal trouble spots figure prominently
in the rapid, long-distance deployments the PLA
is now practicing. Disaster relief, however, is
also important to military planners. Last year's
magnitude eight earthquake in Sichuan province
was a grave reminder of the devastating power of
Mother Nature and of the folly of having no
coherent national emergency plan in place. While
the central government responded to the quake
with unprecedented speed and openness - and PLA
troops played a key role in the rescue effort -
in the end the effort was hampered by lack of coordination and inefficiency.

The quake left more than 80,000 people dead and
another 370,000 injured. A better plan, including
a more rapid, coordinated response by the PLA,
could have reduced the death and suffering.

The flawed rescue effort after Typhoon Morakot
struck Taiwan on August 9 is another regional
reminder of the perils of poor emergency
planning. The island's president, Ma Ying-jeou,
is now mired in criticism amid reports that more
than 500 people may have died as rescue
helicopters carrying relief supplies passed
obliviously over villages buried in mudslides.

A US military C-130 transport aircraft has flown
to Taiwan, the first American military deployment
on the island since 1979, to aid in the relief
effort, and two US military helicopters are also expected.

In southeastern China, Morakot forced the
evacuation of 1 million residents of Fujian and
Zhejiang provinces, underscoring improved
disaster relief as an imperative for Beijing.

Although internal concerns may be the primary
motivation for "Stride-2009", China's regional
rivals are increasingly uncomfortable with the
nation's growing military prowess. India's
military, which fought a border war with China in
1962, is particularly alarmed.

It probably doesn't help that the war games
focused on projecting PLA power over long
distances began less than a week after
China-India talks resumed in New Delhi over the
long-standing border dispute. A day before the
games began, India's most senior military
commander, navy chief of staff Admiral Sureesh
Mehta, admitted that his country was now
completely overmatched by China's armed forces and issued a stark warning.

"In military terms, both conventionally and
unconventionally, we can neither have the
capability nor the intention to match China
force-for-force," the Hindustan Times quoted the
admiral as saying. He added, "China is likely to
be more assertive on its claims, especially in the immediate neighborhood."

But Mehta's comments pale in comparison to those
made by former head of the Indian Air Force, Fali
Homi Major, who before his retirement two months
ago called China a greater threat to India than Pakistan.

The perceived China threat is one big reason
India has chosen to cozy up to the US and thus
been rewarded with a complex, painfully
negotiated deal guaranteeing full civil nuclear
cooperation between the two nations.

The Chinese goal of gaining access to ports and
airfields in the South China Sea, across the
Indian Ocean and into the Persian Gulf -
Beijing's so-called "String of Pearls" strategy -
has the potential to jeopardize both Indian and US interests.

Elsewhere in the region, Japan, America's
staunchest ally, will continue to rely on US
might to ward off any challenge from China. As
will Taiwan, whose possible eventual
reunification with the mainland makes its
traditional reliance on American military support appear more ambiguous.

In other words, this is a Sino-US face-off -
although, all the apprehension over China's
military expansion notwithstanding, on paper it
still appears to be more of a face-down. Despite
Beijing's more assertive posture - which has
included refusing US warships entry to Hong Kong
for the Thanksgiving holiday in 2007 and in March
blocking a US surveillance ship in the South
China Sea - China's professed military spending
of US$70 billion for 2009 is dwarfed by the
Pentagon's $500 billion budget. Even if, as many
Western analysts insist, the Chinese figure is a
gross underestimate, the discrepancy remains huge
and US military power in the region unchallenged.

Nevertheless, China's military spending is now
roughly equal to that of Japan, Russia and
Britain, and the outgoing commander of US forces
in Asia has identified North Korea and China as
the Pentagon's chief concerns in the region.
North Korea is the biggest worry because of its
nuclear ambitions, Admiral Timothy Keating told
the Voice of America (VOA) last month, but
uncertainty about China's military aims was second on his list.

"We'd like to understand better their intentions,
their military intentions," said Keating, who
will be succeeded after his retirement in October
by Admiral Robert Willard, current commander of the American Pacific Fleet.

"I'm not so concerned about China challenging our
pre-eminence," Keating told VOA. "We enjoy
significant capability, so China's not going to
challenge our pre-eminence any time soon. That's
not the concern. It's the notion that, absent
[of] dialogue, there's the potential for lack of
communication leading to confusion, leading to a crisis."

The admiral was speaking after China and the US
agreed to resume military consultations, which
Beijing had cut off last October over former
president George W Bush's decision to sell US$6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan.

The current US administration under President
Barack Obama hopes to increase communication and
cooperation with Beijing on all fronts, including
regular talks between the top military brass in
the two countries. And, like his predecessor,
Obama will need Beijing's diplomatic help to rein in North Korea.

But the first Pentagon report of the Obama
presidency, issued in March, echoed familiar
complaints. "The limited transparency in China's
military and security affairs poses risks to
stability by creating uncertainty and increasing
the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation," the report stated.

The report also expressed concern over Beijing's
plans to build multiple aircraft carriers by
2020, its development of weapons for use in space
and its enhanced capabilities in electromagnetic and cyber warfare.

Answering complaints about its lack of
transparency, the PLA has launched something of a
charm offensive. Foreign reporters were recently
invited for a rare tour of an infantry base near
Beijing during which they witnessed a
counter-terrorism drill, and on August 1, the
82nd anniversary of the foundation of the PLA,
the Ministry of National Defense launched a
multi-media, bilingual website in English and
Chinese. The site, unlike its staid predecessor,
aims to be informative and user-friendly.

A ministry spokesman said the site signals the
PLA's new "openness" and is intended to "increase
understanding between countries and raise trust between militaries".

These are worthy aims, but it will take more than
a flashy new website and a public-relations tour
of an infantry base to achieve them.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and
writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk .
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