Sunday, February 8, 2009

China: New defense posture

By Adam Wolfe in New York for ISN Security Watch
February 2, 2009

On the day that Barack Obama was sworn in as US president, China's defense department issued a white paper on the current status and plans of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) - an English-language report aimed primarily at an international audience concerned about China's growing military presence.

It is the sixth such white paper since 1998, and the sixth demonstration that the country's attempts at transparency can be maddeningly unclear to western observers.

The paper reflects China's growing confidence in its increasingly important role on the world stage, while at the same time downplaying issues that have strained ties with the international community.

As with previous reports, China's National Defense in 2008 is short on specifics about equipment and technology. Also, the US intelligence community remains convinced that China has understated its military budget by about 50 percent and is deliberately hiding its intentions. What is notable about the new paper is that it directly addresses the budget.

In one of its longest sections, the paper states that China's military budget has grown by about 20 percent annually in recent years for three reasons: rising salaries and benefits for servicemen; compensation for the rise in food and fuel prices; and modernizing the PLA's equipment. The paper further argues that as a percentage of GDP, China's defense spending remains much lower than that of the US, the UK, France, Germany or Japan. Even if the CIA's higher estimates of China's defense budget were accepted, this would remain true. [...]
Strengthening US ties

While the old concerns remain for both sides (Beijing's lack of budgetary transparency, Washington's weapon sales to Taiwan), the overall trend is toward closer ties between the Pentagon and the PLA.

The US-China relations probably hit their lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic relations early in the Bush administration when a Chinese F-8 fighter and a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft collided near Hainan, China in April 2001. At the time, the Pentagon had put military-to-military communications on hold pending a review. After the incident was resolved, both sides began to take steps to ensure that a dialogue would remain open between their militaries, even if both continued to see each other as potential competitors.

Chinese and US forces staged their first joint search-and-rescue maneuvers in the Pacific and South China Sea in 2006, and Washington downplayed an unexpected surfacing of a Chinese submarine near a US aircraft carrier later that year. There were some hiccups along the road - such as Beijing's refusal to grant a US aircraft carrier a port call in November 2007 - but the both sides continued to pursue a deeper dialogue.

In April 2008, a military-to-military hotline was established to prevent any misunderstandings as Beijing begins to project its power beyond its littoral waters. Obama's decision to retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to indicate that the trend will continue, though there are likely to be further problems along the way.

The new white paper also highlights some of the steps that the PLA has taken to improve its transparency on the international stage - one of the main sticking points for the Pentagon.
The full article is here

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