Sat, 26 Feb 2000

What about China's new warship?

By Santo Darmosumarto

JAKARTA (JP): Two weeks ago the Chinese navy (PLAN) showed off its most recent acquisition when the Russian-built Sovremenny class destroyer sailed through the Taiwan Strait en route to its base in south China (The Jakarta Post, Feb. 12). Although the overall capabilities of this 7,600-tonne warship -- the first of two procured by the Chinese -- may not compare to most Western vessels of its class, much has been talked about its weapon system, which includes Sunburn cruise missiles that can hit targets up to 120 kilometers away.

As soon as news of the Sovremenny's voyage broke out, there were arguments and claims that the addition of a single vessel to the navy's outdated inventory should not be seen as cause for concern.

This may be true if one is to focus solely on the vessel's delivery and view matters within a short-term period. However, such an analysis fails to recognize fully the significance of the purchase within the larger context of China's naval development program and its implications on regional security in the long term. Doing so will allow us to understand why so much fuss has come out of this seemingly insubstantial event.

The Sovremmeny's acquisition is part of a scheme to achieve greater maritime influence, which in turn stems from an overall shift in China's strategic focus. Because of growing cordial relations with India and Russia, China has been allowed to redirect its attention towards what it increasingly sees as more immediate security concerns: Taiwan and the China Seas.

In addition to this, the Allied Forces' tactical supremacy during the Gulf War was a wake-up call for Chinese leaders as they realized that the military, especially its naval branch, seriously needed technological and doctrinal improvements. Although numerous issues may have influenced China's greater regard for naval supremacy, analysts usually identify these two as major factors.

In the last decade, growing "sea power mentality" in Beijing has been at the bottom of efforts to reassess the navy's doctrine, which had been based on Mao Zedong's defensive, protracted guerrilla warfare.

The "active green water defense strategy" now emphasizes the primacy of China's maritime claims -- some almost 1,000 nautical miles away from the mainland -- within the scope of the People's Liberation Army's defense planning. Ultimately, this strategy is a transition towards obtaining blue water capabilities comparable to those of the French or the Americans. Although such a plan may seem overly ambitious, many Chinese military leaders continue to regard it as viable and attainable.

The navy's doctrinal transformation is important, as it lays the basis for an objective-oriented program of hardware acquisitions. This program has mostly been carried out through purchasing weapons and technology from foreign countries, thus indicating the limits of China's indigenous defense industry.

Nevertheless, there are continued efforts to support local weapons assembly through acquiring production licenses and engagement in reverse engineering. With Russia strapped for cash and seeking markets for its weapons surplus, the Chinese have not only been able to make quality purchases at rock-bottom prices, but have also benefited from the exodus of Russian scientists and technicians.

With the aircraft carrier program presently unattainable, China's maritime development has focused on the modernization of the navy's surface combatants and submarines. Plans for these, as well as modern surface-to-air missiles and sensor arrays -- radar, sonar, communications and navigation equipment -- indicate a move towards enhancing power-projection capabilities, as they address not only the navy's weaknesses in firepower but also its inability to sustain long-range operations.

Recent developments feature Luhu and Sovremenny class destroyers as well as Jiangwei class frigates, some of which have been equipped with state-of-the-art missile and communication systems. The acquisition and development of Kilo and Song class submarines will undoubtedly enhance the capabilities of a naval force that also possesses nuclear-powered, ballistic missile submarines. The enhancement of maritime air surveillance, on the other hand, has mostly been channeled through building up the air force (PLAAF).

Although its success remains debatable, China's efforts at naval development have already raised concerns among Asian countries, especially when considering the region's uncertain security climate. In Southeast Asia, added destabilizing factors such as maritime territorial disputes and enduring historical rivalries have compounded fears regarding the navy's modernization program.

China's intentions in the area are often ambiguous, thus forcing governments to assume the worst in formulating their foreign and military policies. For example, although officials have not openly identified China's posture as potentially destabilizing, Malaysia and the Philippines' emphasis on beefing- up maritime surveillance and defense capabilities have frequently been linked to perceptions of growing Chinese threat in the South China Sea.

Recognizing the commotion that its military modernization may have stirred, in 1998 the Chinese came up with its first ever defense white paper. By outlining its intention to promote international security through regional cooperation, confidence building, peacekeeping, arms control and disarmament, China affirms an adherence to norms of conflict solution that are based on nonmilitary means.

Furthermore, it argues that contrary to popular thinking, its military development should not be seen as a threat when considering that its budget is nowhere near that of France, Great Britain and especially the United States.

In addition to such Chinese assurances, studies of inherent weaknesses within the military's present conditions have put a check on an all-out rash of alarm calls against the navy's strive for greater maritime influence.

Efforts to integrate doctrinal changes and new weapons acquisitions have been challenging, as they involve a complex process of familiarization, retraining and maintenance. Modernization has occurred mostly within certain "pockets of excellence". By and large, the navy is unable to immediately shed its defensive, coastal tradition, thus causing continued difficulties in sustaining long-distance missions for an extended period.

Nevertheless, concerns among regional policymakers over these developments should not be treated as overreacting. Although China claims its new weapons will be deployed mainly as defensive mechanisms, their potential for projecting power remains real.

This situation is precarious when considering that Beijing has been very careful not to give away its strategic designs, which in turn is caused by fears of exposing the military's actual limitations. In spite of the defense white paper's publication, China's tendencies towards saber-rattling in its approach to Taiwan independence and the South China Sea disputes have often left its neighbors in the dark -- and growingly anxious -- in efforts to gauge the navy's enhanced capabilities and their implications for regional security.

Based on aspirations for a revolution in military affairs comprising integration of forces as well as changes in modes of operation and combat means and strategy, there is no doubt that the navy is progressing towards becoming a more streamlined and effective force.

Whether these developments will make the military, especially its naval branch, more threatening depends on how China's intentions in the region are being perceived. From some Southeast Asian leaders' perspective -- particularly shaped by feelings of historical distrust and Chinese antagonism in disputes such as the Spratly Islands -- it does not come as a surprise that navy's modernization is taken up with much concern.

The Chinese navy -- in spite of its continued upgrading -- will unlikely ever compare to the navies of Great Britain or the United States, but to Southeast Asian countries it can pose a potential threat indeed. The concern is especially valid given that the central government's determination and the country's growing economy -- complemented by Russia's willing assistance -- will provide the means necessary to sustain such efforts.

The writer is a Jakarta-based researcher and analyst of Southeast Asian security issues.