AS CHINESE PRESIDENT HU JINTAO sits down with President Bush at the White House this week, much of the discussion will focus on economic developments, international relations, human rights, and the global war on terrorism. But as China's economy continues its booming growth and modernization, a similar Chinese effort is underway to catch up with the United States in military might. It's a drive conducted largely in the shadows--with the flow of information from the People's Liberation Army muzzled by its secretive leaders.

A recently completed study by the Rand Corporation (Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Transformation and Implications for the Department of Defense) shows that China is watching the United States closely and is devoting significant resources toward the development of highly technical, novel approaches to both defense and the projection of power. The potential for a conflict with the United States over the status of Taiwan is the driving force for Chinese military planning, the study says.

America's preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan seems to have accelerated U.S. military transformation and advancement, "Yet the concomitant acceleration of the pace of Chinese military modernization also suggests that the Chinese are not dissuaded by U.S. military prowess, but instead are driven by a range of strategic and military motivations to continue their efforts apace," says the Rand report.

Written by seven Rand China researchers who studied dozens of Chinese military publications, international documents and open-source material, the new study indicates that the Asian giant is working on several complimentary strategies to confront the United States if it opts to defend Taiwan or otherwise inhibit the growth of China's power in Asia. These options include massive missile attack, computer network sabotage, and radical technological advances to build a networked military loosely paralleling American initiatives to fuse intelligence and communications. Though China's economy and technology base is formidable (and growing) the study concludes that the country faces challenges that could hamstring military development.

"Budget deficits have risen substantially since the late 1990s and government banks are badly overextended by non-performing loans to insolvent state factories," the study says. "Rising social unrest will also heighten 'national security' resource competition."

The Rand study poses four primary "counter-transformation options" China could take to deter the American military. "Although these options are discussed in isolation, developments in China suggest that all or portions of each strategy are being pursued in earnest, and some combination of the options will likely characterize the final configuration," the study contends.

* Conventional Modernization "Plus": A defense strategy marked by further purchase and development of submarines, aircraft, space weapons, and anti-ship missiles "to strike at perceived U.S. vulnerabilities." The study suggests this is the most likely strategy for China to adopt, largely because of the availability of sophisticated Soviet-bloc weaponry. To counter this the American military needs to boost its defensive training and continue developing anti-missile and anti-sub countermeasures.

* Subversion, Sabotage, and Information Operations: An offensive strategy that aims to scare the population of Taiwan into believing it has no option but capitulation. This, coupled with computer network attacks to cripple U.S. logistics, could "delay U.S. intervention long enough to allow information operations and other coercion against Taiwan to have the desired affect." Rand researches suggest increased training for American logistics forces without the use of computer networks to simulate a potential attack and work through it.

* Missile-Centric Strategies: Continue the development and deployment of conventional ballistic and cruise missiles to overwhelm Taiwan at strategic points and deny U.S. forces' defense in depth. This approach attacks "weak points in the enemy rear, denies the U.S. military the ability to use regional bases (Guam for example) as sanctuaries, changes the dynamics in the early stages of a conflict and provides an effective response to strategic attacks by American conventional forces." In response, the American military might have to create even more missiles and missile defenses to counter Chinese threats, change its basic strategy to confront China "to render irrelevant the capabilities of the missile forces," or even pull back from a potential conflict.

* "Network-Centric Warfare" strategy: A Pentagon-invented term, network-centric warfare (NCW) envisions weapons systems and sensors tied together with a computerized network of communications and intelligence gear that will give a commander a wider and deeper view of the battlefield. It would allow for rapid and complex decision-making in combat, helping to overwhelm an adversary's ability to react. China's development of similar technology and operational concepts could threaten America's major military advantage and put some of its most important assets--such as aircraft carriers--at great risk. But the Rand researchers admit China is a long way from matching the United States in this kind of complex technical challenge.

THOUGH THE STUDY paints an alarming picture of Chinese military progress and a dogged focus on countering American military advances, the Rand researchers admit America has one major military advantage: people.

"Ironically, a confrontation between two technologically advanced, network-centric militaries will likely reduce the importance of technology in favor of people and their ability to make rapid but accurate decisions with incomplete or overwhelming amounts of information," Rand notes. "In such a contest, volunteer military personnel drawn from an open, educated society like that of the United States would appear to have the advantage over a stove-piped military embedded in an authoritarian state. But the blinding pace of social, cultural and technological change in China strongly suggests that this conclusion will not always remain true."

Christian Lowe is a senior writer for Army Times Publishing Company and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.

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