Forces: China's Misrepresented Military Power


November 20, 2005: China's military build-up has been discussed a great deal, often with alarm from some quarters. Yet, how much truth is there to the rumors of growing Chinese military power? In the past, opponents have been built up in the media, but when the shooting started, they have turned out to be nowhere near their media-built reputation (see the Republican Guard prior to Desert Storm in 1991 for a classic example). China does seem like a potential
opponent in a major war. In the past decade, two Chinese generals have made threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States. A Chinese spy ring was recently unearthed in Los Angeles. How much is China's military build up real? Is it even the biggest military on the block in Asia?

China is clearly trying to modernize its forces. Major purchases include, from Russia, the Su-27 family of fighters, Kilo-class submarines, and Sovremenny-class destroyers. China has also been building new classes of destroyers, including one, the Type 52C, which is arguably on par with the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Other ships are entering service, including the Jiangkai/Ma An Shan-class frigates and the Yuan-class submarine. China's navy and air force are numerically large. However, this is an old force. Many of the destroyers, frigates, and submarines currently in service are state of the art - for 1960. The Chinese air force will have large numbers of J-7 and J-8 fighters, which are older designs.

Two other countries are competitors with China for the position of being the top power in Asia - India and Japan. Both countries are also carrying out major modernization programs, particularly involving their fleets and air forces. Both are already far ahead of China in qualitative terms of having capable naval and air forces.

India has operated carriers for decades, having initially acquired INS Vikrant in 1961. Vikrant was decommissioned in 1997. Since then, India has acquired a second carrier, the Viraat. It also finalized a deal to acquire the Admiral Gorshkov from Russia. The Gorshkov will be renamed Vikramaditya when it enters service in 2008. India is also building a carrier, and is reportedly trying to acquire the recently-decommissioned HMS Invincible. India is also building a second group of Delhi-class destroyers and a modified variant of the Talwar-class destroyers. India is adding large numbers of Su-30MKI Flankers to its air force, and is also looking to acquire a new multi-role fighter, possibly the F-18E/F Super Hornet (other contenders are the Rafale, Eurofighter, and MiG-29).

Japan's navy is large, based on 31 destroyers and 9 guided-missile destroyers. Japan's new destroyers, the Kongo, Atago, Murasame and Takanami classes, are qualitatively better than China's, and Japan has more of them. Japan is also improving its force of helicopter-carrying destroyers. The new 13,500-ton design looks like a small aircraft carrier. Japan also has a large air force, with a large force of F-15s and F-2s, potent aircraft flown by well-trained pilots.

China is behind both India and Japan in the arenas of airpower and naval forces. In Asia, China has the third most-powerful military. India and Japan are close contenders for the top spot. China only ranks first in the amount of hype it receives. - Harold C. Hutchison


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