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Modernisation in sheep's clothing

Date: Friday, 26-August-2011
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The Economist
Aug 26th 2011, 7:57 by J.M. | BEIJING

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THE good news, as suggested by  the Pentagon's latest annual report on China's military power, is that Chinese leaders are still eager to avoid confrontation with other powers and focus on beefing up the economy. The bad news, it hints, is that this might not last. With its rapidly improving military capability (described by the Pentagon in great detail), China has the wherewithal to challenge the security status quo in the Pacific as well as potential motives to do so.

The report is diplomatically couched—though from China's perspective, not nearly enough. It hints at considerable unease about long-term trends in China's military buildup. The last few months have seen some headline-grabbing aspects of this: an assertion by the Pentagon in December that China was making faster progress than expected on an aircraft-carrier-killing ballistic missile, the DF-21D; a new stealth fighter, the J-20, making its first test flight just as Robert Gates, then defence secretary, was visiting Beijing in January; and then this month the maiden launch of China's first aircraft carrier, a refitted Kuznetsov-class ship (as yet unnamed) from the former Soviet Union.

About these particular weapons, the Pentagon avoids sounding alarmed. Of the DF-21D missile, it says that it is still being developed. It does not repeat the claim made by Admiral Robert Willard of America’s Pacific Command in December that the missile has reached “initial operational capability”. The J-20, it says, is not expected to reach “effective operational capability” before 2018 (China, it says, has yet to master high-performance jet-engine production). China is likely to build “multiple” aircraft-carriers with support craft over the next decade. But it will take “several additional years” for China to achieve a “minimal level of combat capability” with them, says the report.

The Pentagon does say, however, that China is steadily closing its technological gap with modern armed forces. The country’s lack of transparency about this, it says, is fuelling concern in the region about China’s intentions, with some of its neighbours fearing that China’s growing military and economic weight is “beginning to produce a more assertive posture, particularly in the maritime domain”. A senior Pentagon official, Michael Schiffer, told reporters that China’s capabilities could “contribute to regional tensions and anxieties”.

Like previous such reports, this one lists forces which could cause China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful development” to become less so. One of these, which was not listed last year, is a growing expectation at home and abroad that China will become more involved in addressing global problems and pursuing its own international interests. This is causing some of the Chinese leaders in responsible positions to worry about taking on more than they can handle, says the Pentagon. Nationalists at home, however, are pushing for a “more muscular” posture.

China is outraged that anyone could doubt its commitment to a peaceful ascent. The Pentagon’s assertions, said China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, were “utterly cock-and-bull” and based on “a wild guess and illogical reasoning”. Thumping furiously on the table, China apparently believes, is a good way of convincing the world of its pacific intent.

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