Renew U.S. Ties With the Changing Chinese Military
By Gerald Segal
Published: SATURDAY, JULY 18, 1992
HONG KONG: China is more secure than at any time in several centuries. Yet the Chinese People's Liberation Army, like many military forces in the post-Cold War world, is ill at ease because of major changes in the balance of power.
China also has particular problems in domestic politics. If the outside world wishes to help influence the Chinese military to make sensible choices, the time has come to lift the Western ban on contacts imposed following the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in 1989 and to re-establish normal working relations with the Chinese military.
The military is a major player in the struggle to succeed Deng Xiaoping, China's senior leader. In recent months, it has been in the vanguard of support for Mr. Deng's distinctive mix of increased economic reform and tight political control.
The military now calls itself the "armed escort of reform." It sees economic growth as the way to enhance professionalism, increase defense spending and obtain more hardware.
Pursuit of professionalism is leading to remarkable changes in the structure of the military. Lack of contact between Western military personnel and their Chinese counterparts means that not enough is known about these changes.
Even Taiwanese officials acknowledge that about 45 percent of the Chinese military is now in strategic reserves, while most of the remainder forms rapid reaction units. These units are intended to cope with various smaller or more regional threats, for example in Central Asia. Parallel with the changes in the People's Liberation Army is a trend to regionalism in China's economic policy and the recent development by the military of tactical nuclear weapons.
The cutoff of Western military contacts has encouraged China to rapidly expand relations with Russia. China has been taking delivery of 24 advanced SU-27 jet fighters bought from Russia, and may be negotiating for 48 more. The initial order will be based in Shanghai and rotated through Hainan Island near the South China Sea. China will thus extend the reach of its airpower over this zone, although the range of the aircraft is limited and only the acquisition of in-flight refueling equipment will make a significant military difference.
Far too much weight has been given to Chinese interest in the Varyag, an aircraft carrier being built in a Ukrainian shipyard. Beijing may buy the ship for investigation and scrap, much as it bought an obsolete carrier from Australia some years ago. But China is far from having the ability to equip the Varyag, let alone acquire the aircraft and smaller ships needed to put an effective fighting force to sea.
But the absence of Western contacts with the Chinese armed forces has allowed speculation to run riot. Such contacts also would help unravel the extent of Chinese contacts with the Russian defense industry. Beijing is trying to entice Russian scientists to work in China. Discussions are underway about coproduction of some weapons, among them the Yak-141, a very short takeoff and landing plane that might eventually be placed on a Chinese aircraft carrier. Some sources suggest that Chinese and Russian officials are considering coproduction of follow-on models of the Sukhoi and MiG fighter series.
The choices that China and the People's Liberation Army make about defense policy will have far reaching implications for security in Asia and the Pacific. Thus, there is a strong case for reopening a dialogue with the Chinese military, especially to encourage it to support economic reform at home. At a minimum, such contacts would help the West learn far more about Chinese defense doctrine. The West also would be in a better position to try to engage China in confidence-building measures that enhance transparency.
Of course, it will be distasteful for the West to normalize relations with the armed forces that carried out the Beijing massacre. But similar contacts with the Warsaw Pact states were part of the effort that helped to defeat communism in Europe.
The writer is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and editor of The Pacific Review. He contributed this to the International Herald Tribune.
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