Accessibility links

Breaking News

Asia: Is China Becoming A Regional Military Threat?

A new U.S. Defense Department study suggests that China's military buildup is making it a potential threat to regional security in East Asia. Recent remarks by a senior Chinese general about possibly launching a nuclear war with the United States also cast doubt on China's otherwise carefully promoted image as a peaceful country.

As China's economy continues to grow at about 9 percent per year and its foreign currency reserves expand with it, China has developed the need for and the means to acquire ever-growing imports of raw materials, especially metals and fossil fuels. According to a study published in the June issue of the "Far Eastern Economic Review," Chinese energy demand rose 15 percent each year for the past two years, while oil imports surged by 30 percent annually. China is now the world's second largest consumer of energy, having 12 percent of the global demand and a rate of increase that is four or five times greater than any other country.

China has long become a net importer of oil and is now the world's third largest single importer. It attaches great importance to expanding supplies from Russia and Central Asia via new pipelines. Even though these sources are remote from many of China's booming cities, they at least offer the advantage of being accessible by relatively safe overland routes.
"Over the long term, if current trends persist, [Chinese military] capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region" -- U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress

Most of China's other oil imports, however, must come by sea. Beijing has sought in recent years to diversify its overseas sources so as not to become dependent on a single one, but still some 80 percent of China's oil imports must pass through the Strait of Malacca separating Indonesia from Malaysia. This prompted President Hu Jintao to say in late 2003 that China has a "Malacca dilemma" in needing to secure its vital sea lanes although it does not have a blue-water navy, meaning a fleet with capabilities going well beyond coastal defense. As senior General Wen Zongren put it, "China must pass through oceans and go out of oceans in [pursuit of] its future development." This quote might have come from any leader of the world's foremost imperialist countries a century ago.

Until fairly recently, however, China's military appeared to be concerned primarily with deterring Taiwan from declaring independence and Taipei's American ally from supporting it. Beijing's navy established a presence in the South China Sea in the 1970s to back up China's claim to some disputed islands, but its attempt to "teach Vietnam a lesson" in a land war in 1979 brought the Chinese military only humiliation.

The Rise Of The Military

After the crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, the role of the military in internal politics -- and budget allocations -- has grown. It is very difficult to say with any certainty what China's real military spending is, because some spending is deliberately underreported in the budget and much is carefully hidden in amid other, non-military departments and categories. What is certain is that the Chinese military continues to grow impressively in terms of both quality and quantity of its materiel. The only thing that has shrunk is the size of the armed forces, which are scheduled to be reduced to 2.3 million in 2005.

The U.S. Department of Defense argued in its recently released annual report to Congress entitled "The Military Power of the People's Republic of China: 2005" that "China's ability to project conventional military power beyond its periphery remains limited," but that "over the long term, if current trends persist, [Chinese military] capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region" (see One might note in particular not only China's growing muscle in being able to threaten or bully Taiwan, but also its increased capabilities for its aircraft to operate in Southeast Asia.

The Pentagon study notes that "China does not face a direct threat from another nation. Yet it continues to invest heavily in its military, particularly in programs designed to improve power projection. The pace and scope of China's military build-up are, already, such as to put regional military balances at risk." China also has short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that "support a variety of regional contingencies" that Beijing may face.
"China not only poses no threat to anyone, we also are willing to establish friendship and all kinds of win-win cooperation with other countries." -- Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing

Of particular interest to Washington is China's growing acquisition of modern intercontinental ballistic missiles of the Dongfeng (East Wind) series, known as the DF-31 and DF-31A, which could hit U.S. targets, along with JL-2 submarine-based ballistic missiles. (China currently has between 45 and 57 missiles that could reach U.S. cities.) The Dongfengs are mobile, which makes them easy to hide from potential attackers, and use solid fuel, which makes them quicker to prepare for use than the older liquid-fuel missiles. Taken together, they represent China's growing ability to project military power abroad and pose a direct potential threat to the United States should its leaders decide to do so.

And it is Beijing's ultimate intentions that remain the big mystery. President Hu Jintao once remarked that he wants China to become a "world power second to none," but it is not clear how he intends to achieve that goal. If the leadership's intentions are peaceful, one wonders why the need for the rapid buildup. Is it simply to compensate for past weakness and serve notice at home and abroad that China has joined the ranks of the great powers, or is there something more involved, which the leaders of this non-transparent, unelected, dictatorial regime keep concealed, especially from foreign publics?

In any event, Beijing did not try to hide its views of the Pentagon study. On 20 July, Vice Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi summoned the U.S. charge d'affaires in Beijing to give him a statement saying, among other things: "The report groundlessly criticizes China's defense-modernization drive, and makes unwarranted charges about its normal defense construction and military deployment. The report, with no concrete basis, claims China has become the world's third largest military spender, and that its rapid military modernization poses a threat to the U.S. and other powers in the Asia-Pacific region. The assertion that Taiwan needs to develop countermeasures against China's military modernization drive was an excuse for the U.S. to sell its advanced weaponry. The report tries to spread the rhetoric of a 'China threat,' a move that interferes into China's internal affairs and foments dissension between China and its neighbors. China is strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to such an act that severely breaches the basic norms governing international relations and runs counter to the principles in the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques" that have defined bilateral relations since the 1970s (

Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing also criticized the report, arguing that "China not only poses no threat to anyone, we also are willing to establish friendship and all kinds of win-win cooperation with other countries."

Meanwhile in Taipei, President Chen Shui-bian drew other conclusions. "The U.S. report proves that the rise of China over the past decade [means] not a rise in peace and opportunity but a rise in threat," he said.

The Nuclear Response

But perhaps it was remarks made by senior Chinese General Zhu Chenghu in Beijing to visiting Hong Kong-based journalists on 14 July that attracted the most attention recently regarding China's military aims. Referring to a possible U.S.-China clash over Taiwan, Zhu said in English: "if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to...China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons." He stressed that "war logic" requires the weaker power -- China -- to use all the means at its disposal. "We have no capacity to fight a conventional war against the United States. We can't win this kind of war," he added.

Zhu became even more explicit: "We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xi'an [in central China]. Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of [their] cities will be destroyed by the Chinese." Considering that the area "east of Xi'an" means virtually the entire ethnic Han Chinese heartland, this was particularly strong stuff. Zhu nonetheless added that his comments reflected only his "personal opinion." noting that he did not think that such a conflagration would actually take place.

China is not a country where generals are usually given to making off the cuff remarks about nuclear war to the foreign media, so speculation quickly took wing as to why Zhu said what he did. One theory was that the Chinese military wanted to make the United States especially cautious in its dealings with China by suggesting that Beijing has its share of unpredictable generals. A second view was that Zhu's message was directed at the countries of East Asia to signal them that China is not afraid of the United States, which is an ally of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and several other countries in the region.
"If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to...China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons." -- Chinese General Zhu Chenghu

In any event, the State Department was quick to respond to the general's remarks. Spokesman Sean McCormack said on 15 July that he hopes that "these are not the views of the Chinese government." McCormack added that Zhu's remarks were "highly irresponsible."

The spokesman might have added that the general's statement was also highly unusual. In 1957, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong made headlines by saying that it would be no problem if half the world's population perished in a nuclear war in order to destroy "imperialism," but since China exploded its first atomic device in 1964, its policy has been that it will not launch a first nuclear strike. Departures from this line have been exceedingly rare, such as the time in 1995 when senior General Xiong Guangkai told a visiting former Pentagon official that China might use nuclear weapons against the United States in a conflict over Taiwan. Xiong added that he did not think matters would go that far because the Americans value "Los Angeles more than Taipei."

Only on 22 July did Foreign Minister Li finally try to clear the air regarding Zhu's remarks. In a statement to a group of academics from China, the United States, and Japan, which was reported by the official Xinhua news agency, Li said that his country "will not first use nuclear weapons at any time and under any condition." He stressed that this has been its policy since 1964 and "will not be changed in the future."