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No Longer a Junkyard Army
Wall Street Journal, International Commentary

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on June 26th, 2000

After a bit of hemming and hawing, the U.S. Department of Defense finally released its yearly appraisal of the Chinese military's modernization program and the threat it poses to U.S. security. If U.S. lawmakers had hoped for a Chinese version of the Reagan administration's definitive "Soviet Military Power" series when they first demanded the reports, they must be disappointed. The reports are largely unremarkable, running just 30 non-classified pages without evidentiary photographs.

The reports are the obvious product of a struggle between administration political appointees seeking to prevent a "China threat" document, and professional intelligence and Defense Department officials trying to tell it like it is. The politicians, very likely, stress the reports' language that Beijing has "consistently emphasized its desire" for peaceful reunification with Taiwan, and that while "some" in China may seem for it, war with Taiwan would be "devastating."

It's likely the career military professionals, however, who warn that Beijing will "continue to prepare its military forces" for possible war with Taiwan. Fairly routine stuff, this.

But a careful reading shows at least two new concerns. On the Taiwanissue, thisyear's reports states for the first time that, "After 2005. . .if projected trends continue, the balance of air power across the Taiwan Strait could begin to shift in China's favor. . . ." This is a consequence of a build-up of new Russian fighters and fighter bombers, plus Israeli radar planes and better tactics and training. But this new warning should be added to those of last year about the Chinese military's gathering short-range missile threat, which should be substantial by 2005, and a warning about Taiwan's inability to break through a naval blockade.

Second, this year's report adds more information about the high-technology focus of the People's Liberation Army. The PLA is "investigating the feasibility of ship-borne laser weapons for air defense." Only the U.S. is known to be doing the same. China's "theoretical understanding" of stealth technology is said to be "excellent," and it is building a new, stealthy jet fighter.

And in the face of China's megaphone campaign against U.S. missile defenses, this year the Pentagon says China "can be expected to try to develop a viable ATBM [anti-tactical ballistic missile] and ABM [anti-ballistic missile] capability by either producing its own weapons or acquiring them from foreign sources."

This year's report also adds more details on how China's civil space cooperation with Brazil, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and South Korea may be assisting China's military space program. Russia and China alone "have 11 joint space projects." China's manned space program, which only "began within the last five years or so" will benefit military space programs like it did for the United States.

By emphasizing the PLA's high-tech trajectory, the Pentagon is finally giving lie to the long-cherished view among some academic and intelligence analysts that the PLA is a "junkyard army." This term is said to derive from Israel as a term of endearment, when in the 1950s it had to fight with old weapons and equipment. But in recent years many PLA analysts from prestigious institutions have used the term as one of derision, and to dismiss the PLA's potential to become a serious threat.

For example, in 1995 the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-funded think tank, laughed at the PLA Air Force, saying its "capabilities relative to most of its potential rivals will diminish over the next ten years." Dr. Paul Godwin, a pioneering PLA scholar and leading exponent of the "junkyard army" school, in 1998 wrote that "China does not have the [military] capability now, and will not in the next 10 years, to be anything more than a nuisance." Dr. Bates Gill and Michael O'Hanlon of the liberal Brookings Institute, writing in the Summer 1999 issue of The National Interest, concluded, "China's military is simply not very good."

Some of the "new" assessments made by the Pentagon this year were contained in last year's bipartisan Cox Report. It was Congressman Christopher Cox, along with his Democrat colleagues, who first detailed the degree to which foreign technology is helping the PLA's high-tech research and build-up, especially in satellites and military lasers.

The Clinton administration all along has known about the PLA's developing capabilities but has chosen not to warn sufficiently Americans and their allies, and has refused to take the necessary steps to deter China's growing military might. A well-known secret is that the Cox Report was based almost entirely on testimony from U.S. government and intelligence sources known to the administration for years. These same sources would have allowed the administration to produce a "PLA Military Power" report that would today be a benchmark reference in the long-running debate over the PLA's strength and direction. Congress and our allies would be better informed, and perhaps U.S. and Taiwanese forces would be better able to deter the PLA.

One can only conclude that the Clinton administration's decision not to produce such a warning follows from other serious national security blunders of late --lost State Department classified laptop computers, the "misplacement" of Energy Department nuclear weapons computer hard drives, the China nuclear espionage scandal. On China issues, particularly, this administration seems to go to extraordinary lengths to overlook that country's most belligerent behavior. The warning that Taiwan's military edge is eroding has not resulted in the full sale of arms Taiwan has requested, like the Aegis air defense ship that could add to Taiwan's missile defenses, conventional submarines to counter blockades, and modern missiles for fighters to sustain the air power balance. The absence of leadership over defining the PLA's future challenge has also allowed the "junkyard army" school to dominate the public debate.

It will fall to the next president to decide whether to produce a real analysis of the PLA that can inform both Americans and their allies. This president will also have to decide whether to sell Taiwan an unprecedented amount of high-tech weaponry to reverse accelerating negative trends in the cross-Strait military balance, which Mr. Clinton's Pentagon, now in its autumn, has finally chosen to reveal.

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