By Ken Fireman and Allen T. Cheng WASHINGTON/TOKYO, Bloomberg
Last July, as North Korea prepared for ballistic missile tests, Admiral William Fallon picked up the telephone to warn his Chinese military counterparts of the U.S.’s deep concern, and urge them to weigh in against the launches. There was just one problem: The commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, who had spent two years cultivating ties with Chinese leaders, couldn’t reach anyone to deliver his message. “I just couldn’t get somebody to answer the phone,” Fallon says. “Nobody wanted to talk.” His experience shows what analysts and security officials in Japan, India, Taiwan and the U.S. say is China’s lack of openness about its military plans, decision-making and actions during crises. Those traits compound international concerns created by its long-term military buildup — officials announced a 17.8 percent increase in the official defense budget last week — and increase the chances of miscalculation, the analysts say. “The Chinese military is less transparent than any significant military in Asia outside of North Korea,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, a former White House China expert who’s now at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That doesn’t serve China’s interests, he says, because “when you are not very transparent, people assume you have something to hide.” Says General Tetsuya Nishimoto, Japan’s former military chief of staff: “We should consider the buildup as a threat, because their goals and intentions are unclear.”
China says its foreign critics — which include some of its major trading partners — are demanding an unacceptable degree of openness. “If your neighbors are constantly shouting, ‘Why don’t you open your door and let us peek in?’ do you open it right away?” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters on March 1. “Of course not. You may be in your underwear.” General Kui Fulin, China’s former deputy chief of staff, calls the criticism self-serving. “Which country reveals everything when it comes to national security?” he said in an interview in Beijing. China’s official military budget has grown in the past decade at rates that routinely exceeded the country’s pace of economic expansion. China’s gross domestic product has grown by an average of about 9 percent annually during that period, while the defense budget has risen by an average of 14 percent a year.
The official US$45 billion defense-spending level for 2007 is less than 10 percent of the US$622 billion the U.S. will spend on its military this year. U.S. officials and analysts say China habitually under-reports its true budget by a factor of two to three; whatever China spends, some of its senior commanders say, it still isn’t enough. “Our staff are so poorly paid that many talented people don’t even want to join the People’s Liberation Army these days,” Lieutenant General Tan Naida said in an interview. Much of the PLA’s spending goes toward a long-range plan to transform it from a manpower-intensive force designed to defend the homeland to a technology-intensive one capable of waging high-intensity conflicts outside China’s borders. That transformation is far from complete, say analysts who study the Chinese military, and China is at least two decades away from becoming a serious rival to the U.S. Lieberthal says it’s also significant that the PLA lacks recent real-world combat experience. “War puts it all on the table in a way that no exercise can fully capture,” he says.
Still, China demonstrated a capacity to narrow the gap in January when it destroyed one of its orbiting weather satellites with a missile. The shoot-down served as a warning to the U.S., which depends on satellites for advanced battlefield capabilities. China has also been able to alter the balance in the arena that matters most to its policy makers: Taiwan, which the government in Beijing regards as an integral part of China territory.