Asian Wall Street Journal             June 24, 1997

China and the
Weapons Revolution


Only three countries in the Asia-Pacific region are taking seriously the newest wave in weapons thinking, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. Two of them are staunch U.S. allies, Japan and Australia, and they have the capability to assimilate RMA. The third, China, is further behind but intent on catching up, even by unorthodox methods. 

As for the rest of Asia, while it is true that military spending increased by 30% in the past decade for the whole region, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, this growth has come mostly through the acquisition of old technology. 

RMA is about how countries integrate communication and information-processing technology, such as space-based surveillance, as well as how they integrate systems that handle increasingly complex military information in real time. The intention is to attack with stealth and accuracy, as was demonstrated in the Gulf War and in NATO's strikes in Bosnia. Russians first broached the notion of RMA, but it is only the Americans, and to some extent a handful of NATO allies, that can deploy such forces and contemplate what Americans call "a systems of systems." 

As advanced countries, Japan and Australia--both with armed forces that exercise regularly with the United States and other NATO countries--understand the need to stay in touch with RMA. Both appreciate that ignoring RMA will mean undermining their ability to work with major Western powers. Both also know that if there is to be a firming of the commonality of Western interest because of a rising China, defending their interests will require a region-wide RMA strategy. China then is the country which, despite its relative backwardness, is at the center of attention. 

The demonstration of RMA in the Gulf War in 1990-91, and then a vivid reminder of American capability during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1996, came as a shock to China. According to U.S. officials, America told China that because of information technology they would know more in Washington about the deployment of Chinese troops in a war-zone than Chinese leaders knew from Beijing. The implicit message was that even with China's acquisition of 1980s military technology from Russia, the American military advantage was growing. The United States could thwart Chinese ambitions in the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea, or anywhere else for that matter. China could never aspire to become even a near-peer competitor with the United States without RMA. 

Stealth and false information, coupled with American hubris, are said to be China's advantages. 

Chinese military professionals at once recognized the need to take RMA seriously. A recent study by Michael Pillsbury of the U.S. Department of Defenses Office of Net Assessment demonstrates just how closely Chinese are now following the Western RMA debates. Some Chinese officers express confidence in their ability to launch a new form of Mao Tse-tung's People's War--one that strikes at the soft civilian underbelly of the American information networks. There is talk of using computer viruses and engaging in paralysis combat by launching raids against brain centers. 

Stealth and false information, coupled with American hubris are said to be China's advantages. Chinese specialists feel they can make use of the very openness of the American system that makes the U.S. so good at developing the flexibility of command necessary for the RMA. Some U.S. Defense officials worry that some of the 100,000 Chinese students in the United States, specifically those concentrating on science and technology, could be of use in these tasks. 

It is clear just how many problems China faces in competing with the advanced Western world. It is worth remembering that despite its size and recent economic success, China still has only a tiny, albeit well-trained, elite and scant modern infrastructure. A large portion of the Chinese population have never even used a telephone (an executive at a major telephone company once put it at 60% to me). The United States alone outspends the rest of the world on information technology. 

The Chinese armed forces, with more than half its current order of battle engaged in non-military activities, are far from RMA-ready. China talks of robot weapons, virtual-reality training, high-performance microwave weapons, mastering outer-space, and developing precision and long-range weapons, but shows few signs of closing the gap with NATO' capabilities. China lacks a modern logistics systems and is therefore incapable of sustaining modern high-technology combat. The Chinese have little doctrine or practice in joint-force operations, and also have a too-rigid command structure. 

Given the equally rigid political system, the Chinese are also a long way from raising a generation of officers able to take decisions in real time at various levels of command. And of course the Chinese are an equally long way from having the hardware needed for the RMA. Beijing is still in the early stages of acquiring an aircraft carrier, just when American RMA planners are beginning to ponder a world when carrier battle groups are obsolete. 

But given the sharp increase in Chinese interest in RMA, and their sense that they will have to compete in the long term with the United States, Beijing is likely to seek short-cuts to RMA by acquiring components of military systems. Hence the foolishness of many Western countries which, while abiding by a formal ban on the sale of complete weapons systems to China, seem happy to sell China key components. China's recent acquisition of airborne early warning involves components from Russia, Israel and apparently Britain. Britain has also provided key parts of Searchwater radar and the Germans have provided submarine engine technology. French and Italian combat systems were bolted on to the Luda III class destroyers. In a sense, selling such equipment to China is more dangerous than selling it 1980s weapons platforms such as tanks or aircraft. If the West wants to keep China from catching up in RMA, then limiting technology transfer is arguably more important than banning the sale of a finished platform. 

The challenge for the West, beyond controlling the sale of advanced technology, is how to integrate allies in an RMA world. Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan need to play an active part in developing a Theater Missile Defense (TMD) system for East Asia. China is opposed to TMD, but just like with Russia's opposition to NATO expansion, Beijing should not be given a veto over what is good for Western security interests. Would China prefer a worried Japan that acquires nuclear weapons, or one that deploys a TMD? 

The challenge for America's Asian allies is how to get used to the nitty gritty of RMA. The infrequent RimPac exercises with the United States, or the Five Power Defense Arrangements with the U.K. and other Asian Commonwealth countries, should clearly be extended in order to provide far more opportunity to learn how to operate with new systems and practices. As warfare become less linear and armed forces become smaller but more capable of sustained high intensity warfare at a long distance, such training is vital. It is hard to imagine the long-term deterrence of North Korea or China in the Taiwan Straits or the South China Sea without many more East Asian countries taking RMA much more seriously. 

Mr. Segal is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and director of Britain's Pacific Asia Program.