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Chinese begin to worry U.S. militarily
Officials say equation has shifted in event of a Taiwan crisis

New York Times | April 8, 2005
By Jim Yardley and Thom Shanker
 
ZHANJIANG, China When the flagship of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet came into view on a recent Monday afternoon, a Chinese naval band onshore quickly began playing as two rows of Chinese sailors snapped into formation and workers hurriedly finished tacking down a red carpet.

The command ship, the Blue Ridge, answered with music from its own band and raised a Chinese flag below Old Glory.

But the most apt symbolism in the stagecraft of the ceremonial visit came when the two navies staged a tug-of-war - evoking their emerging competition in East Asia.

While the American military is consumed with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global terrorism, and the threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, China is presenting a new and strategically different security concern to America in the western Pacific, as well as to Japan and Taiwan, Pentagon and military officials say.

China, these officials say, has smartly analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the American military and focused its growing defense spending on weapons systems that could exploit the perceived weaknesses in case the United States ever needs to respond to fighting in Taiwan.

This rapid military modernization is the major reason President George W. Bush has warned the European Union not to lift its arms embargo against China.

A decade ago, U.S. military planners dismissed the threat of a Chinese attack against Taiwan as a 160-kilometer infantry swim. Now, the Pentagon believes that China has purchased or built enough amphibious assault ships, submarines, fighter jets and short-range missiles to pose an immediate threat to Taiwan and to any American force that might come to Taiwan's aid.

Even the most hawkish officials at the Pentagon do not believe China is preparing for an imminent invasion of Taiwan. Nor do analysts believe China is any match for the United States military.

But as neighboring North Korea is erratically trying to play the nuclear card, China is quietly challenging America's reach in the western Pacific by concentrating strategically on conventional forces.

"They are building their force to deter and delay our ability to intervene in a Taiwan crisis," said Eric McVadon, a former military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. "What they have done is cleverly develop some capabilities that have the prospect of attacking our niche vulnerabilities."

Japan, America's closest ally in East Asia, and China's rival for regional dominance, is also watching China's buildup. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi echoed Bush by warning Europe against removing the arms embargo. A think tank affiliated with Japan's Defense Ministry criticized China's increased military spending and warned it was rushing to prepare for possible conflict with Taiwan - an assertion China sharply denied.

The growing friction between Japan and China, fueled by rising nationalism in both countries, is just one of the political developments exacerbating tensions in East Asia.

In March, China passed a controversial new "anti-secession" law authorizing a military attack if top leaders believe Taiwan moves too far toward independence - a move that brought hundreds of thousands of people in Taiwan out in protest last month.

China's most recent military white paper also alarmed U.S. policymakers because it mentioned the United States by name for the first time since 1998. It stated that the American presence in the region "complicated security factors."

China, meanwhile, blamed the United States and Japan for meddling in a domestic Chinese matter when those two countries recently issued a security statement that listed peace in Taiwan as a "common strategic objective."

"The potential for a miscalculation or an incident here has actually increased, just based on the rhetoric over the past six months to a year," one U.S. intelligence analyst in Washington said.

At the welcoming ceremony for the Blue Ridge here at the hometown of China's South Sea Fleet, the American commanding officer, Captain J. Stephen Maynard, and his Chinese counterpart, Senior Captain Wen Rulang, sidestepped questions about the anti-secession law and military tensions.

Wen, Asked about China's military buildup and how America should view it, praised the U.S. Navy as the most modern in the world.

"As for China," he said, "our desire is to upgrade China's self-defense capabilities."

But in China's view, self-defense involves Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province and which the United States has, by treaty, suggested it would help defend. In 1996, when China fired missiles in warning over the Taiwan Strait prior to Taiwanese elections, President Bill Clinton responded by sending a battle group to a position near Taiwan. Then, China could do nothing about it. Now, analysts say, it can.

In fact, U.S. carriers responding to a crisis would now initially have to operate at least 800 kilometers, or 500 miles, from Taiwan, which would reduce the number of jet fighter sorties they could launch and cut their loiter time in international airspace near Taiwan.

This is because China now has a modernizing fleet of submarines, including new Russian-made nuclear subs that can fire antiship missiles from a submerged position. America would first need to subdue these submarines before moving ships close to Taiwan.

China launched 13 attack submarines between 2002 and 2004, a period when it also built 23 ships that can ferry armored vehicles and troops across the 160-kilometer-wide strip of water to Taiwan.

"Their amphibious assault ship building alone equals the entire U.S. navy shipbuilding since 2002," said an intelligence official in Washington. "It definitely represents a significant increase in overall capacity."

In the worse-case scenario for a Taiwan crisis, any delay in U.S. carriers reaching the island would mean that the United States would initially depend on fighter jets and bombers stationed on Guam and Okinawa, while Chinese forces could use their amphibious ships to traverse the narrow Strait. Some U.S. military analysts believe China could now defeat Taiwan before America could arrive at the scene.

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