For the United States, the 1991 war against Iraq vin-dicated more than a decade of spending on high-tech armaments. Equipped with so-called smart bombs, Patriot surface-to-air missiles and powerful M-I Abrams tanks, American forces led by Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf dispatched Saddam Hussein's military in a matter of days.
But for China's political and military leadership, the conflict over Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was a wake-up call, many defense experts say. “They were very impressed with U.S. power and realized that their military was decades behind ours,” says Harvey Feldman, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Asia Studies Center.
Since then, the Chinese have been trying to catch up, embarking on a massive effort to buy and develop new weapons and professionalize their military. “They clearly want to be able to challenge U.S. power in the Pacific,” says James R. Lilley, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Throughout the 1990s, China's military budget has steadily increased, usually growing by 10 percent or more each year.
In some military areas, the Chinese have made substantial progress in recent years. For example, they have developed intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States, as well as other possible adversaries such as Russia, India and Japan. “By next year, they should be able to hit any target in our country,” Feldman says.
In addition, the Chinese have made strides in efforts to miniaturize nuclear weapons -- aided by stolen U.S. technology, American officials charge. “This allows them to put more than one [nuclear] warhead on their long-range missiles,” Feldman says.
In most military areas though, China still lags far behind the United States. For instance, while the 3-million-strong People's Liberation Army is the world's biggest fighting force, many of its troops still use weapons from the 1960s and '70s. And training and tactics are also still antiquated. The navy, and to some extent the air force, fare little better by comparison. “They're still completely out of our league,” Feldman says. “In an all-out engagement, we would destroy them.”
The Chinese are trying to close the gap by buying sophisticated weapons from abroad, especially from the Russians. They already have purchased two Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers with the Sunburn anti-ship missile, one of the most effective weapons of its kind. “This is a particularly bad development, because these missiles can threaten our [aircraft] carriers,” Lilley says. “They are difficult if not impossible to defend against,” says Michael Pillsbury, a Department of Defense consultant on the Chinese military.
In addition, Beijing has bought a number of Russian fighter planes, including the SU-27 and the more advanced SU-30MK. While these aircraft are a substantial improvement over the rest of China's aging air force, they cannot effectively stand up to F-16, F-18 and other front-line American fighter planes, many experts say.
Actually, the Chinese do not expect these and other weapons purchases to put them on a military par with the United States any time soon, Feldman says. Instead, he says, the Chinese just want to be powerful enough to deter the U.S. from intervening if China were to attack Taiwan, which it has threatened to do if the island declares independence.
“Their short-term goal is to be able to hold us off long enough to destroy the military and economic capability of Taiwan,” he says. “And you know, I think they're getting there.”
Ross Munro , The Coming Conflict with China, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Veteran journalists Bernstein and Munro argue that China and the United States are headed toward ever worsening relations and possibly war. The problem is that China wants to become the dominant power in Asia and sees America's presence in the region as the primary obstacle.
Soled, Debra E. , China: A Nation in Transition, CQ Press, 1995. A writer with a special interest in Asia provides a useful introduction to China detailing its history, economy, society, and foreign policy.
“Can China Change?” The Economist, Oct. 2, 1999. The article asks whether China can continue to develop economically without corresponding political changes. It concludes that if China is to become a more open society, it will almost certainly do so in spite of rather than because of the Communist Party.
Gibney, Frank , “Birth of a Superpower,” Time, June 7, 1999. Gibney details China's efforts to modernize its poorly equipped military.
Jost, Kenneth , “Taiwan, China and the U.S.,” The CQ Researcher, May 24, 1996, pp. 457-480. A slightly dated but enlightening report argues that Taiwan's surging economic self-confidence and China's increasing assertiveness pose difficult policy choices for the United States.
Arthur Waldron , “Taiwan is a 'State.' Get Over It,” The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 1999. Lilley and Waldron contend that treating Taiwan as a de facto independent country is the best way for China to bring about reunification.
Masci, David , “China After Deng,” The CQ Researcher, June 13, 1997. A report on issues facing China nearly two decades after Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms.
Pomfret, John , “Dissidents Back China's WTO Entry,” The Washington Post, May 11, 2000. Pomfret details support for China's membership in the World Trade Organization by members of the country's dissident community.
Ziegler, Dominic , “Now Comes the Hard Part,” The Economist, April 8, 2000. Ziegler predicts extraordinary and beneficial changes in the country's economy, but he is less certain about China's future political landscape.
Reports and Studies
Wortzel, Larry M. , “Why the Administration Should Reaffirm the 'Six Assurances' to Taiwan,” The Heritage Foundation , March 16, 2000. Wortzel, director of the foundation's Asian Studies Center, argues that the United States should work harder to reassure Taiwan and stop trying to “appease” China.