US ‘overstating’ China’s military power

Pentagon doing this to justify its weapons build-up, but it may lead to new arms race, report warns.

THE United States has been exaggerating China’s military power, a practice that could lock the two countries in an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War, a study has said.

The report by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) – two arms control groups – revealed that the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies had been “embellishing” China’s submarine and long-range missile capabilities to justify an arms build-up.

In response to the US weapons upgrade, China is modernising its forces, underscoring a growing risk that military rivalry could ultimately colour bilateral relations.

This could push the two into “a dangerous action and reaction competition” that fuelled tensions between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“The Pentagon has been sounding the alarm about China’s nuclear intentions for a long time, but our analysis shows that they are overstating the threat,” said Dr Robert Norris, an NRDC nuclear weapons expert and co-author of the report. No comment was given by the Defence Department on the 250-page study titled Chinese Nuclear Forces And US Nuclear War Planning.

The study, based on an assessment of declassified and unclassified US government documents as well as commercial satellite images of Chinese installations, was released last Thursday.

The Pentagon’s reports on China’s military power last year and this year offer a worrisome account of Chinese plans and intentions.

Defence planners believe that Chinese military build-up in the near term appears to be focused on preparing for Taiwan Strait contingencies, including the possibility of US intervention in the area.

“The People’s Liberation Army is no peasant military,” a Pentagon official told The Straits Times in a recent interview.

He said: “How can it be if it has short-, medium- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, space-based targeting capabilities and a range of other technological advances with military application?’’

He also noted that Beijing was developing capabilities to “alter regional military balances’’.

The US has maintained that Chinese military planners are also looking beyond Taiwan.

Once weapons such as a next-generation submarine-launched ballistic missile are fully operational, China would have more credible second-strike capability.

The Pentagon’s perspective has clearly been shaped by uncertainties about Chinese intentions.

The study by the two arms control groups also criticises Beijing for not being transparent in its nuclear force build-up.

But the authors reserve sharper rebuke for Washington, which is engaged in a scare campaign with the aid of conservative think-tanks and the media. The bottom line is in the numbers. The US military has 10,000 nuclear weapons. China has just about 200.

“Military planners always need a rationale – a real or potential danger – for why they must have new weapons or new strategies and plans,” the study notes. “With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which occupied that role for almost 50 years, the US has turned its attention to China to help fill the vacuum.”

While China is modernising its nuclear forces – a process that started in 1979 – it is moving rather slowly and reacting to US force posture and deployments. “Unlike the US or Russia, the Chinese have taken extraordinarily long periods of time to field new weapons systems,” said Dr Hans Kristensen, project director at the FAS and lead author of the report.

“And in many cases, their weapons have been obsolete by the time they were finally deployed.

“But the Chinese still need to be more open about their plans, or they will continue to feed the perception among US military officials that they pose a significant threat,” he added.

Both sides under fire

The study says the Pentagon and US intelligence have embellished China’s submarine and long-range missile capabilities to justify an arms build-up. The authors say Washington is engaged in a scare campaign with the aid of conservative think-tanks and the media. It adds that the bottom line is in the numbers: The US has 10,000 nuclear weapons, while China has about 200. But the report also says China needs to be more transparent with its military development to avert US suspicion and hostile response.

“Military planners always need a rationale…for why they must have new weapons or new strategies and plans. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union…the United States has turned its attention to China to help fill the vacuum.”
REPORT BY THE FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS AND THE NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENCE COUNCIL

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