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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Foreign Military Assistance to China--Perspectives of U.S. and Foreign Specialists

July 8, 1997

TO : Congressional China Watchers
FROM : Bob Sutter (tel. 7-4257)

    Senior Specialist
    Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division

SUBJECT : Foreign Military Assistance to China--Perspectives of U.S. and Foreign Specialists

Recent efforts by Russia to assist China's military modernization are of serious concern in Congress. On June 11, 1997, the House approved an amendment sponsored by Representative Rohrabacher to the fiscal year 1998-1999 State Department Authorization bill (H.R. 1757) to bar foreign aid to Russia if it transfers SS-N-22 anti-ship cruise missiles to China. It approved a similar amendment to the fiscal 1998 Defense Authorization bill (H.R. 1119) in a preliminary vote on June 23, 1997, but the House ultimately rejected the amendment by a vote of 204-219 on June 25, 1997.1

The Russian missiles have a range of 60 miles and fly at twice the speed of sound only a few yards above the water, making them hard to intercept. The Soviet Navy began deploying the weapons in the early 1980s on a new class of destroyers. Russia recently sold two of those destroyers to China.

Proponents of the amendments warn that the Russian-built missiles in China's arsenal might pose a grave threat to a U.S. fleet defending Taiwan. (The United States no longer has a defense alliance with Taiwan, but it sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan area in response to Beijing's provocative military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in March 1996.2 The danger would be more widespread if China, in turn, transferred the missiles to other countries (e.g. Iran) hostile to the United States.

Consultations with 30 U.S. and international (Russian, Israeli, French, British, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) specialists 3 on the Chinese military buildup, and the importance of foreign assistance to that buildup, provide some insights as to the recent trends and likely prospects of these kinds of efforts and what they mean for U.S. interests. Those insights follow. The consultations took place during research trips to northeast Asia in late May-early June, 1997, and to England, late June-early July, 1997.4 Mixed Views on China'a Growing Military Capabilities

China's military buildup over the last decade is subject to mixed reviews.

Constraints and Impediments to Rapid Development: On the one hand, many of the China specialists consulted viewed the Chinese military expansion as understandable, especially given China's comparatively low level of military spending in the 1980s and its increased economic resources due to the double digit growth of the Chinese economy each year since 1992. The specialists saw the added Chinese funds going to improve such mundane matters as the living conditions and training opportunities of China's 3-million person armed forces, as well as enhancing and modernizing Chinese weapons and other military capabilities.

Specialists pointed out that modernization of Chinese weapons and military capabilities historically has been a protracted process -- Chinese military engineers and other technicians have endeavored to develop their own technologies and weapons, in the process incorporating acquired foreign technologies and weapons systems or components. As a result, major new Chinese weapons systems have often taken a long time to move from the planning stage to deployment, and many have not made it to deployment. Among various sources illustrating this point, an April 3, 1997 presentation by the Center for Naval Analysis contained the attached chart detailing how long it has taken the Chinese military to incorporate through "reverse engineering" some major foreign-acquired technologies, components or weapons systems in order to come up with a new weapons system for China's military.5

The specialists consulted noted that in recent years there has been considerable discussion in the media, trade journals and other publications about technical assistance being provided to the Chinese military from Russia, Israel and other countries. Occasionally, the U.S. media highlight reports of U.S. technologies (e.g. metal stamping equipment for fighter aircraft, high capacity computers) being diverted illegally for use in Chinese weapons development.

According to the specialists consulted, this kind of Chinese effort could pose a problem for the United States over the longer term, but would be unlikely to enhance Chinese military capabilities substantially over the next 5 to 10 years. They generally expected that Beijing would endeavor to follow past practice in attempting wherever possible to adapt foreign acquired knowledge, technology or equipment into systems of indigenous Chinese design and production. This process seemed sure to take time.

In response to queries as to why the Chinese continued down the path of slow adaptation rather than outright purchases of large amounts of weapons from abroad, the answers focused on coat and reliability. While China's economy is booming, government revenues are not. With persisting large government spending deficits, Chinese leaders are also loathe to devote extraordinary funds to large scale weapons purchases, especially since Beijing is now undertaking a costly restructuring of its money-losing state-owned enterprises. Beijing once relied heavily on one supplier for its weapons systems(the USSR in the 1950s), and was left in the lurch when political relations soured. Chinese leaders are determined not to let this happen again.

Areas of Concern: On the other hand, the specialists warned that it would be a mistake to view Chinese weapons' development today as constrained as in the past. Several new factors have been added to the equation, making it more likely that Beijing will be more effective, efficient, and prompt in developing new weapons systems:

- Russia's much greater willingness than in the past to sell/share military equipment and technologies to China;

- Economic pressure on Israeli, European, and perhaps ultimately U.S. weapons makers to seek markets for their goods in China. Israel has ongoing defense sales to China6; the European Union has maintained an arms embargo since the Tianammen Incident of 1989, but it is under pressure from strong economic and political interests in several European countries to ease the embargo;

- Liberalization of trade in the poet Cold War period and the end of the Coordinating Committee on Export Controls (COCOM) have allowed China to gain far more access to high technologies with potential military applications than in the past;

- The modernization of the Chinese economy has moved in tandem with a modernization of Chinese technology and engineering abilities - improving Chinese abilities to adapt foreign technologies and components to Chinese use.

Russian Weapons Sales

The specialists consulted showed particular concern about what they saw as the more immediate impact of China's recent acquisitions of Russian advanced weapons. Notable sales in recent years have included 72 SU 27 fighter-ground attack aircraft; 100 S-300 surface-to-air missiles; 10 IL-76 transport aircraft; four KILO class submarines, and two Sovremenny class destroyers. The destroyers would be the largest and most formidable Chinese naval surface combatants. They reportedly will be equipped with the SS-N-22 anti-ship cruise missiles that prompted the recent House amendments noted above.

Russian specialists said that Russia and China had finalized a deal to coproduce 200 SU 27s in China. One Russian specialist said that China would have 300 SU-27s in operation by 2003, but other specialists were much less sanguine that the deal would go through so quickly, and that production and deployment could be accomplished over a relatively short period of time. Meanwhile several specialists asserted that a venture involving Britain, Israel, and Russia to produce an AWACs plane for China was well along and could result in delivery of a finished product in the next few years.

The majority of the specialists consulted judged that this special Chinese focus on specific weapons systems was designed to fill a near term need focused on Taiwan. They argued that the Chinese military was seeking systems to offset the recent modernization of Taiwan'a military power, as well as to deter possible U.S. intervention to support Taiwan in the event of PRO military pressure against the island. China also is seen to need more modern air and naval systems now to assert its claims in the disputed South China Sea.

Implications and Options for the United States

Given the strong U.S. commitment to Taiwan and to maintaining the peace and stability of the Western Pacific, the specialists judged that the recent Chinese military buildup, and especially the continued acquisition of advanced Russian air and naval systems, had serious implications for the United States.

In response, some advocated a strengthening of the U.S. engagement policy toward China, especially military-to-military exchanges. They judged that such visits would not only reduce some Chinese suspicions of U.S. intentions toward China; they would also have the benefit of showing the Chinese military just how far advanced the United States was in military capabilities vis-a-vis China, and how determined it was to stay far ahead. It was hoped that this experience would dissuade China from seeking a military confrontation with the United States over Taiwan or other issues.

Another suggested option was to endeavor to strengthen international controls on arms sales and defense technology transfers, though as noted above such controls are more difficult to achieve in a post Cold War environment. The United States also could take action unilaterally or with other powers threatened by Russian arms sales to China (e.g. Japan) to pressure Moscow to curb its sales of advanced weaponry.

Other options related to beefing up U.S. forces in the region, and providing more support and/or encouragement to Taiwan and U.S. regional allies to beef up their militaries to deal with China-related contingencies.

China's Reverse Engineering Record

PlatformDates Acquired Date Production Started Time Elapsed
Jianjiji-8 Fighter 1964 1992 28 Yrs.
Jianjiji-7 Fighter 1961 1979 18 Yrs.
Yunshuji-8 Transport 1969 1986 17 Yrs.
JL-1 SLBM 1967 1983 16 Yrs.
HY-1 Missile 1959 1974 15 Yrs.
SD-1 SSM Early '50s Late '60s 15 Yrs.
C-101 SSM Late '70s Mid-199Os 15 Yrs.
Zhi-8 Multi-role Helo 1976 Early-'9Os 14-15 Yrs.
HQ-7 1978 1990 13 Yrs.
Tu-16/H-6 Bomber 1957 1968 11 Yrs.
Z-9 Surveillance Helo 1980 1992 12 Yrs.
Yunshuji-7 Transport 1975 1984 9 Yrs.
F-6-MiG-19 1958 1963 5 Yrs.
F-10 1988 2008 (est.) 20 Yrs.

1. For background on the congressional action and the Russian missile, see Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, June 28, 1997, p. 1535.

2. For background, see Taiwan, CRS Issue Brief 96033.

3. The specialists included Ellis Joffe of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, David Shambaugh of George Washington University, researchers at the China Institute of International Strategic Studies in Beijing, Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College and others.

4. For background on the Chinese military buildup and the role of Russian arms sales in the Chinese buildup, see China'a Rising Military Power, CRS Report 96-66 F. January 16, 1996; and Russian-Chinese Cooperation: Prospects and Implications CRS Report 97-185 F. January 27, 1997.

5. For background on each of these weapon systems, see among others Gregory Man, "Modernizing the Chinese Military," in Debra E. Soled, (ad.),China: A Nation in Transition. Washington, D.C., Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1995, pp. 262-282.

6. See moat recently Defense News.May 19. 1997, p.12.

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