DALIAN, China—If the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet one day sails to Taiwan's defense, China's large fleet of submarines could be lurking with a lethal surprise.
The submarines, waiting along Taiwan's Pacific coast, could fire a barrage of "Sizzlers," devastating anti-ship weapons that pop out of the water, spot aircraft carriers or escort ships, then drop near the water's surface, accelerating to supersonic speeds for the kill. Little can be done to defend against a "Sizzler" attack.
"You're pretty much a sitting duck," said Larry M. Wortzel, a former U.S. military attache in Beijing who's now an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
The course of the 21st century will be determined in part by the relationship between China and the United States. In many ways, relations are healthier than ever. But the two nations remain potential adversaries, plotting in war games how to thwart each other. While always cautious of nuclear-armed China, the United States has become even more watchful.
U.S. strategists say the People's Liberation Army has made huge strides in modernization. China now has a submarine fleet that rivals the Pentagon's in numbers, if not in weaponry. Air bases bristle with new Russian-built fighter jets. At testing sites, military engineers toil over anti-satellite lasers and "bolt-out-of-the-blue" weapons systems.
And the buildup is far from over. Shipyards churn out frigates and new vessels by the month, and China fine-tunes a sea-based nuclear missile delivery system designed to keep the White House wary of tangling with a rising dragon in the East.
"It's a military that isn't looking for a fight but wants to have sharper teeth," said James Mulvenon, a China military expert at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington.
China enjoys nowhere near the overall strength of U.S. forces, now tested by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But its analysts are scrutinizing U.S. deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and on the high seas for signs of weakness and are seeking to exploit them in any clash over Taiwan or elsewhere. Moreover, as China modernizes its military forces, it's reshaping military balances in the region.
Washington and regional capitals, particularly Tokyo, view the cumulative effect of China's military buildup with concern, even alarm. In pointed remarks on June 4 in Singapore, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked: "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?"
Defense analysts say the answer is evident: China wants its armed forces to be able to thwart the U.S. Pacific Command from intervening if Beijing orders an invasion of Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island that China claims as its own.
"It's clear that the systems they've acquired and the systems they are developing are designed to ... deny the U.S. the abilities to move in the Western Pacific," Wortzel said.
Those paid to observe the world's largest army, with 2.3 million soldiers, report across-the-board improvements. The PLA has toughened training and now conducts exercises in more realistic fighting conditions. The military also has steadily purchased modern weapons systems from cash-strapped Russian defense industries.
"In every area of capability, the Chinese are modernizing like there's no tomorrow," said Richard D. Fisher, a specialist on China's military at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.
Average Chinese swell with pride at the buildup, viewing it as the entitlement of a once-poor country gaining global stature. They see no contradiction between building a brawny military and Beijing's claim that its "peaceful rise" threatens no one. History largely backs China's contention that it isn't an aggressor.
China's military improvements are hard to observe. A visitor who approached a public Navy Museum in nearby Lushun, the site of a base at the entrance to the Bohai Sea in northeast China, found himself detained, fined for "illegal tourism" and told that the area is off-limits to foreigners.
Yet it's here, anchored along China's 9,000-mile coastline, where the nation's military power is growing with the greatest vigor.
In mid-June, China offered an offshore exhibition of its military prowess in the silty Bohai Sea. A submarine fired one—and perhaps two—missiles that soared all the way to deserts in Central Asia. The test showed that China may soon be able to launch nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles not just from landlocked silos but also from nuclear attack submarines anywhere in the Pacific Ocean.
"They are on the verge of acquiring a survivable nuclear deterrent," said Lin Chong-pin, a former deputy defense minister in Taiwan.
If a confrontation between Chinese and U.S. military forces were to erupt, Lin said China's ability to maintain an undersea nuclear missile platform would "throw a monkey wrench into the thinking at the White House." If the two nations exchanged nuclear strikes, China would retain the ability to launch a second strike.
Cooler heads in Beijing and Washington flinch at the prospect of any sort of military clash. The two nations have vast common economic interests, and relations remain constructive. While no military hotline exists between Beijing and Washington, Cabinet-level contacts occur nearly monthly.
For two decades, China's economy has grown at a torrid pace, and military spending has chalked up a double-digit increase for each of 17 straight years.
In an annual report on China's military released in mid-July, the Pentagon said that China's real defense spending may be "two to three times" the $30 billion budget stated by Beijing—still less than a quarter of the $455 billion that Congress allots the Pentagon.
The defense spending has brought a qualitative change to China's military:
_ China by late this year will have as many as 300 Russian-built SU-27 jetfighters and SU-30MKK fighter-bombers, and is acquiring aerial refueling aircraft from Russia. It also is converting older aircraft into unmanned aerial drones.
_ Space-based and over-the-horizon radar and weapons could enable China "to identify, target and track foreign military activities deep into the western Pacific ..." according to the Pentagon annual report. By 2010, China expects to have some 100 surveillance and communications satellites, and it's working on micro and nano-satellites.
_ China is reportedly probing the use of ballistic missiles against U.S. naval carrier groups—either by arming them with maneuverable warheads that can home in on ships or through electronic "pulse" weapons that explode in the air and knock out communications, rendering a carrier effectively inoperable.
_ Even as shipyards churn out new vessels, an increasing number of shipyards are building everything from diesel-electric submarines to frigates. The nation has built 10 destroyers in the past decade, gaining new ability to project naval power.
"They are doing something like 37 vessels in 25 yards at once," said a U.S. official with access to intelligence reports who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It suggests that it is urgent."
At first blush, it would seem that China's lack of an aircraft carrier is a major weakness. Yet analysts say its submarine fleet of 50 to 60 vessels constitutes a surprisingly formidable force, even if some aging diesel-electric submarines date back decades. The U.S. Navy has only large nuclear-powered submarines.
China's older submarines can turn off their noisy diesel engines and operate on battery fuel cell power, lurking quietly for days. Their home water—the Yellow, and East and South China seas—are turbid and shallow, with swiftly changing temperature and salinity levels that make sonar detection particularly challenging. Moreover, the seas above the submarines swarm with maritime traffic.
"They are outdated but very effective," said Andrew Yang, a military expert at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a think tank in Taiwan.
Any U.S. naval commander sailing toward Taiwan might grow wary that old People's Liberation Army submarines, moving on battery power, are poised to fire wake-homing torpedoes.
"The American fleet commander, depending on how quickly he needs to get in there, is going to want to locate those submarines," said Bernard D. Cole, a China naval expert at the National Defense University in Washington.
That's no easy task. Since the end of the Cold War, and the demise of the Soviet Union, U.S. spending on anti-submarine detection has fallen sharply. An incident last November underscored China's efforts to gain from that shortfall. A Chinese Han-class nuclear submarine left its port of Ningbo and sailed all the way to Guam, the site of major U.S. naval and air bases, and was returning home before Japan detected it in its territorial waters.
"If they can go to Guam and nobody knows, why can't they go to Pearl Harbor?" asked retired Adm. Nelson Ku, a former commander of Taiwan's small navy.
China has leveraged its arms-buying relationship with Russia into bigger and higher-end purchases, spending at least $3 billion a year. In addition to four guided missile destroyers, China is buying eight new Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, all equipped with "Sizzler" SS-N-27 missiles, the anti-ship weapons that can fly at Mach 2.3 as they ram ships.
Some U.S. military analysts, though, are wary of overemphasizing China's military strength, saying the issue has become politicized. The U.S. Navy and Air Force are "looking for a traditional enemy" in the wake of the global war on terror, which has better suited the Marine Corps and Army, said Mulvenon, the Washington-based China analyst.
For their part, senior PLA officers rarely talk about China's strength, heeding Sun Tzu, the ancient general and author of "The Art of War," who advised: "Although you are capable, feign incapability."
Restraint may be advisable, given the lack of combat experience of PLA officers and rank-and-file alike since a short war with Vietnam in 1979. Moreover, training of conscripts and soldiers, while improving, still trails that of the U.S. military.
"Everybody who comes into the U.S. military knows how to drive a car. They can drive a Humvee away. But I don't think that's true for the PLA," said Dennis J. Blasko, a former military attache in Beijing who is an author on Chinese military matters.
Even so, some of China's top officers seem to be feeling emboldened.
In remarks that sent ripples across the Pacific, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu told foreign journalists in Beijing in mid-July that China should be ready to attack the United States with nuclear weapons if U.S. forces intervene in a confrontation over Taiwan.
"We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds ... of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese," said Zhu, a "hawk" who teaches at China's National Defense University.
China's Foreign Ministry later brushed aside his remarks as personal reflections.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): china+military
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050816 China navy
Need to map