Tuesday, June 27, 2006


China treated to a sight of US might
By David Fullbrook

LONDON - Lest China's generals were in any doubt about the edge enjoyed by US forces, the Pentagon gave them grandstand seats last week as it showed off its military muscle with the massive Valiant Shield exercise in the western Pacific near Guam.

It was the first time a delegation from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had been officially invited to observe US war games in the Pacific, where the two countries face potential conflicts over Taiwan.

Rear Admiral Zhang Leiyu led a 10-strong PLA delegation, including generals from the army and air force, to watch Valiant Shield and meet US commanders. Unlike their US counterparts, the Chinese did not hold press conferences. However, China's

state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that the exercises "deeply impressed" the generals. Zhang was quoted as calling the visit to the war games "a positive step in China-US military ties".

"The visit helped China obtain a better understanding of US weapons, training, skills and exercise arrangements," said Zhang, a navy vice chief of staff and commandant of China's Naval Submarine Academy.

To be anything else is hard to imagine. Three of America's 12 aircraft carriers joined Valiant Shield. For now, even one remains but a dream for Zhang. Overhead flew billion-dollar B-2 stealth bombers for which China has yet no serious countermeasures.

This exercise demonstrated a joint-forces operation in which troops, sailors and pilots practiced working together. Few militaries have much experience of conducting such operations on a large scale, even fewer successfully so. US forces, though not perfect, are thanks to their experience and technology more adept than the Chinese.

US strategists think that if their officers meet regularly with the Chinese, the two sides will understand each other better, avoiding misunderstandings and miscalculations that might put them on the road to war. So the Pentagon invited, for the first time, a top-level delegation from China, expecting the secretive PLA to reciprocate. China's state media, however, reported that the PLA offered just that in 2003 and 2005.

Pentagon planners hope the backstage tour will influence the Chinese generals to caution their political masters. China's leaders have been stoking nationalism, trying to fill the legitimacy gap left by communism taking on a capitalist hue. Propaganda paints China as a victim, and promises to bring Taiwan, by hook or by crook, under Beijing's rule.

The current Taiwanese government, however, has another idea, wanting independence. Many people on the island want at least the status quo to be maintained. Worryingly for Beijing, opinion polls report that more and more people, even children and grandchildren of Kuomintang soldiers and refugees fleeing the communist victory in China in 1949, think of themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese.

Whenever independence is broached, China's leaders respond by huffing and puffing, threatening an invasion. Taiwan, naturally then, takes a dim view of US and Chinese warriors meeting regularly, for its security rests on somewhat ambiguous US laws promising to defend the island.

Taiwan's cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees relations with China, quickly issued a statement, probably aimed at US lawmakers, noting that more frequent meetings might allow Chinese officers to influence their US counterparts to Taiwan's detriment.

That seems unlikely, though, as long as the Taiwanese do not unnecessarily provoke mainland China by holding a referendum on independence. But with the island's ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party tarred by corruption scandals and facing a tough election in 2008, a referendum could well enter its manifesto.

Despite its bluster, mainland China's military is far from being able to launch a massive amphibious invasion across 100 miles of sea to Taiwan's beaches. Instead, a rapid buildup of missiles in Fujian province, opposite Taiwan, would allow Beijing to crush Taiwan's will to resist by attacking its leaders, generals and command networks.

This is a one-shot strategy, because if the Taiwanese resist and the United States makes good on its commitment, as one would expect of it to maintain the credibility of its alliances in East Asia, then the mainland could face defeat.

US and Chinese troops could also face off if North Korea, an ally Beijing could do without, attacks either South Korea or Japan, both strong allies of the United States, or China decides to grab the potentially oil-rich Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands that Japan also claims.

Stopping these cold issues' turning hot is in everybody's best interests. A US exercise as large as Valiant Shield - 30 warships, 280 aircraft and 22,000 personnel - not far from the smoldering disputes of East Asia carries a strong political message.

It shows the United States' allies and potential adversaries that despite significant commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington can still quickly amass troops, ships and planes for battle in the Pacific.

Giving the order to enter battle, however, is another matter. China's leaders might believe the American public will not stand for another conflict, strengthening the case for attacking Taiwan before the election and the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. China's generals might perversely then be the best defense against Beijing calling America's bluff.

Question Girl