Friday, January 06, 2012

China plays with fire as Year of the Dragon looms

The United States has raised concerns within the Chinese leadership after Obama revealed plans to reinforce its military presence in the Asia Pacific region.

Evidently undeterred by the scary images on China's new stamps commemorating the coming year of the dragon which has prompted much criticism within China [WSJ / Washington Post / Telegraph / BBC], the US says it was planning for a "smaller and leaner" military focused on potential threats from China and Iran, with a reduced presence in Europe.

US accused of "Warmongering"

On a rare visit to the Pentagon, Obama said the US needed to rethink its military strategy, placing a greater emphasis on naval and air power while reducing the size of the army, because of both the fiscal crisis and the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan [FT / BBC].

However, the shift of emphasis to Asia Pacific has drawn sharp criticism from China who describe the move as "warmongering".

A long article published on the state news agency website Xinhuanet asserted that by boosting its military presence in the Asia-Pacific, the United States could threaten peace in the region.

"The United States should abstain from flexing its muscles, as this won't help solve regional disputes," the article attributed to Yu Zhixiao, continues. "If the United States indiscreetly applies militarism in the region, it will be like a bull in a china shop, and endanger peace instead of enhancing regional stability." [BBC]

The article also raises concerns over the Pentagon's annual expenditure of $600 billion for  "baseline budget and war-fighting tasks" and drew analysis to the smaller budgets employed by other leading nations, though it failed to draw attention over China's increasing military budget.

America spends in excess of $700 billion on its military and has a the most powerful defence force on the planet. With 6,302 battle tanks, 3,252 fighter/ground attack aircraft, 71 submarines and at least 450 land-based intercontinental ballistic missile launchers as well as a large naval force, the US is well defended.

China's growing military

But China is fast catching up with an annual budget of $89 billion and growing according to official figures. However many experts believe the amount spent on China's military is far greater than stated.

Nonetheless the spending is building a vast force. China possesses the largest standing army of 2,285,000 personnel, much higher than America's 1,569,000 military personnel.

It is also on a more than equal footing with many other components with its estimated 7,400 battle tanks, 1,669 fighter/ground attack aircraft and 71 submarines. However, China falls behind the US with a much smaller navy and significantly smaller nuclear deterrent. China is only believed to have around 66 land-based intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and a total of 180 nuclear warheads compared to the US's 1,950 active warheads [Sources:  International Institute for Strategic Studies / Wikipedia / BBC].

Concerns over China

It is these concerns as well as a perceived growing threat of cyber-attacks coming from China that is making the decisions in the Pentagon. China's poor choice of friends and allies is also raising concerns in US military circles.

China is close with Iran and relies on the country for a significant amount of its oil. As such China is resistant to the imposition of any sanctions against the country which many believe to be developing a nuclear bomb.

Risks of war

Following recent calls to place further sanctions on Iran, especially heightened after the downing of a US drone and the attack of the British embassy in Tehran, one military general is reported to have said China would be willing to come to Iran's aid to protect its interests.

Major General Zhang Zhaozhong is quoted by some sources as saying China would not hesitate in coming to Iran's defence should missile or nuclear sites be attacked, even if it meant the start of World War III. Bullish rhetoric perhaps, but disturbing if China's military leaders are espousing such opinions [Fox News / Press TV].

And according to some reports China is circumventing international sanctions against Iran by enlisting North Korea's help in providing the Islamic state with its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as technical expertise to make the nuclear warhead-capable missiles operational.

Iran is not shy of showing the world its new capabilities either. Within days of the new year Iran tested several rockets with a range of at least 200 km [CBS].

In Xinhua's editorial it states "the United States should learn from its past painful experiences and play a constructive role in the Asia-Pacific instead of recklessly practising militarism". However, China should perhaps be a little less reckless, especially with whom it befriends.

Sharing secrets

In early December Iran claimed it had downed a hi-tech US drone, something which the Pentagon soon acknowledged [Washington Post]. The RQ-170 stealth aircraft later appeared on Iranian TV apparently undamaged, raising questions as to how the Iranians brought the plane down unscathed [Telegraph].

NATO claimed they had merely lost control of the device, though Iran said they had brought the plane down themselves [Press TV]. They even claim that they brought the drone down by hacking, something the Pentagon disputes [Fox News / D Mail]. The technology to hack such an aircraft would have to be sophisticated and the Iranians, not known for their prowess in the hacking community may well have needed some help from a friendly ally. Some unamed officials with the military give the hacking theory some credence, and suggest either Russia or China may have been complicit.

Pictures shown on television would have been particularly unnerving to Pentagon officials [Guardian / Business Week]. The plane was in pristine condition and may reveal particularly sensitive secrets. Such information would not only be useful to Iran but many other nations. In fact Iran has claimed that Russia and China have requested to see the drone and Iranian officials already begun to reverse-engineer the drone and decode its technical information.

It would not be the first time China has got it hands on sensitive US military information. After a US F-117 Stealth fighter was downed in the 1999 Kosovo war, China is believed to have obtained parts and incorporated some of the technology in its own J-20 stealth fighter [BBC / tvnewswatch: China stole stealth fighter technology / tvnewswatch: China's stealth fighter takes to air / tvnewswatch: US - China accused of aggressive spying].

China accuses the US of playing with fire, but is itself playing a dangerous game as it cozies up with Iran, Pakistan and North Korea as well as becoming belligerent in the South China Sea as it tangles with Vietnam, Japan and others.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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