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Flexing its military muscle

With Taiwan squarely in its sights, Beijing rapidly builds up armed forces, write GEOFFREY YORK and MARCUS GEE

Globe and Mail Update

FUZHOU, CHINA — The Min River in southeastern China has broad sandy banks: a perfect place to practise a D-Day-style beach assault of the kind Chinese troops might some day attempt in Taiwan.

One day last month, about 100 green-uniformed soldiers of the People's Liberation Army were milling around in what appeared to be just such a drill. About a dozen landing craft, their front gates flopped open onto the sand, sat moored to the shore as the soldiers moved their equipment and vehicles.

The locals were paying no attention. As China pours huge sums of money into its military machine, Taiwan invasion drills have become a common sight around the city of Fuzhou, which faces Taiwan across the 160-kilometre Taiwan Strait.

The exercises are a vivid sign of one of the world's most dangerous military flashpoints. With its economy booming, China is rapidly expanding its ability to mount an amphibious assault on Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province and routinely threatens with forced reunification.

But while its most urgent priority is gaining military superiority over Taiwan within the next two or three years, the bigger reality is that China's armed forces are undergoing a hugely ambitious expansion that will mean it will eventually catch up to the United States.

By some estimates, China spends the equivalent of $65-billion (U.S.) annually on its military, an amount surpassed only by the United States - and its spending has been rising by double-digit percentages every year for the past 14 years. China's military budget, roughly equal to that of Taiwan in 1994, is now estimated to be three times as big as that of its potential target.

China is engaged in a massive program of buying and building the latest in military equipment. It buys fleets of high-tech submarines and fighter jets from Russia, then adopts their technology for improved Chinese-made versions. It is introducing the latest in laser and rocket technology, including cruise missiles and reconnaissance satellites. And it is developing a deep-water navy, led by Russian-built destroyers.

By 2015, according to a CIA report, China could have 100 nuclear missiles aimed at the United States - too many to be deterred by any missile-defence system.

"The Pentagon is increasingly alarmed at the pace of China's military modernization," said John Tkacik, a research fellow at the Asian Studies Centre of the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"They see China's rising submarine capacity and its rising ability to dominate the Taiwan battle space, and they see that any conflict with China won't be easy any more," he said. "A while back, they would have told you that it was a piece of cake. They're not saying that any more."

A report last year by the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations concluded that China is at least two decades behind the United States in its military technology and capability. But in some key sectors - including ballistic missiles, rocket launch systems and information technology - China is rapidly narrowing the gap.

"The Chinese military has pockets of excellence that are very close to the U.S. standard," Mr. Tkacik said. "In several areas, they are nipping at our heels. In a situation close to its shores, China could hold its own against the United States."

China is overcoming its military backwardness by leapfrogging to new generations of technology, including the latest in information-warfare tactics: electronic and cyber warfare, decapitation attacks, special-forces operations, computer viruses and psychological operations that could cripple Taiwan's command-and-control structures.

Some experts are calling it "acupuncture warfare" - a strategy of paralyzing Taiwan's military by striking it at vulnerable points.

Taiwan has long enjoyed the benefit of U.S. military assistance. But the balance across the Taiwan Strait could tilt in Beijing's favour as early as 2005, experts say. Analysts estimate that China has more than 600 missiles targeted at Taiwan, and the number is rising by 75 every year. "As a specialist and also as a Taiwanese, I am getting more nervous every day," said Alexander Huang, who teaches strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.

Mr. Huang, an officer in Taiwan's naval reserve, notes that China does not need to invade the island to achieve its goal of preventing Taiwan's independence. Even a staged fake attack or a deliberately spread rumour could sow chaos in Taiwan's economy, knocking half the value off its stock market. "What I'm worried about is psychological warfare," he said. "We would have a Black Monday in seven minutes."

Instead of an all-out invasion, Beijing is more likely to fire a few missiles at Taiwan to intimidate the island, mount a naval blockade to paralyze its economy, or attack one of the small islands off China's coast that are controlled by Taiwan. "A form of surgery - one cut here, another there - is more likely," said Philip Yang, a security expert at National Taiwan University.

Military analyst Andrew Yang believes that China's strategy is partly aimed at deterring a U.S. intervention on Taiwan's side. To that end, it has focused on building an arsenal of cruise missiles - based on bombers, submarines and ships - that could be used against U.S. carrier task forces.

Many analysts doubt that Beijing will be capable of a successful invasion of Taiwan in the next few years. Its army is still faction-ridden, corrupt, and dominated by peasant recruits. "China is shifting from a 19th-century army to a 21st-century army and it's a very difficult job," said Yihong Chang, editor-in-chief of Kanwa Information Center, a Toronto-based review of Asian military issues. "Most of their soldiers are from the countryside. How can they manage a digital control system?"

But even the critics are impressed by the speed of China's military modernization. "They have made outstanding progress, especially in the past five years," Mr. Chang said. "The quantity of its third-generation fighter jets will overtake Taiwan's fleet by next year. Ten years ago, China's air force couldn't fire air-to-ground laser-guided missiles. They could only look at them in movies. But now they can do it."

Military matters

Armed forces

...................Expenditures in US $billions.......in active service (thousands)

U,S...............$466.0...................................1,400

China.............$65.0.....................................2,270

Japan.............$44.7.....................................239

Taiwan...........$8.0.......................................290

SOURCE: THE MILITARY BALANCE 2003-2004. GLOBAL SECURITY.ORG

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan (in US $millions)

2002......$71

2001......$270

2000......$135

1999......$559

1998......$440

1997......$353

1996......$451

1995......$208

1994......$381

1993......$6,300

As China bolsters its armed forces and holds invasion drills on its side of the Taiwan Strait, U.S. military support to Taiwan is declining.

Strategic nuclear forces

...........................China..................U.S.

Intercontinental..........20....................1,700

Ballistic missile

Warheads..............................................

Nuclear powered........1......................15....

Ballistic missile.......................................

Submarines..............................................

Submarine-launched ...12.....................360

Ballistic missiles......................................

Total strategic.........300......................5,968

Nuclear warheads.....................................

SOURCE: CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL

PEACE, BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS, ARMS CONTROL, ASSOCIATION

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