China military upgrade spells trouble for Taiwan

In a new assessment of China’s military power, the Pentagon on Friday told Congress it sees a disturbing emphasis on modernisation moves that threaten Taiwan, US defence officials said.

One of those areas is a build-up of short-range ballistic missiles within range of Taiwan. US officials have expressed concern that China is adding missiles at a rate of nearly 50 per year. In a war China could use them to target air defence sites, airfields, naval bases and communications centres.

Another area of concern is the recent acquisition of

Russian-made submarines, which could be used to cut off Taiwan’s sea lanes of communication and to hold at risk American forces that might respond.

These and other developments are noted in a report to Congress that provides a wide-ranging assessment of China’s military power, according to officials familiar with it.

Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz signed the report on Thursday and it was delivered to Congress on Friday, the officials said. The report was to be publicly released later on Friday.

The report questions China’s commitment to a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan issue and highlights China’s potential to threaten other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949 after the communist revolution. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province and has threatened to retake the island by force if necessary. US policy is to help Taiwan maintain a capability to defend itself, but Washington does not favour Taiwanese independence.

The sale of US arms to Taiwan is one of the prickliest issues between Beijing and Washington. On Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the sales as a danger to regional stability.

Responding to reports that Washington was considering giving Taiwan access to advanced air-to-air missiles, spokesman Liu Jianchao called military sales to Taiwan a gross violation of China’s internal affairs.

Asked about the Pentagon report on Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had not read it but saw no cause for concern about China’s military modernisation as long as it does “reflect any kind of new strategic purpose”.

“We are monitoring it very carefully,” Powell said.

Powell said China’s new wealth should be used to benefit the Chinese people.

“We know some will be used to modernize the military,” he said.

Kurt Campbell, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an Asia policy adviser at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, said Thursday the Bush administration is right to express concern about the continuing build-up of short-range missiles opposite Taiwan.

“It’s clearly the biggest area of concern,” Campbell said.

Campbell added, however, that the administration has understated the areas in which China’s military is having problems modernising.

It has had difficulties integrating its air, naval and land forces, for example, in ways that would enable China to conduct sustained, joint-service operations offshore, he said.

He and many other analysts believe China - which has repeatedly threatened to attack Taiwan if it holds out against reunification with the mainland - lacks the planes and ships needed for a successful amphibious invasion.

In congressional testimony in March, the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, Admiral Thomas Wilson, said it was doubtful that China would attempt a large-scale attack on Taiwan “unless Taipei moved more directly toward independence”.

The new Pentagon report to Congress says that although it may not try an amphibious invasion, China is acquiring a variety of military capabilities that could enable it to coerce Taiwan. These include the short-range ballistic missiles, as well as naval forces such as submarines.

The Pentagon also is concerned by China’s recent purchase from Russia of two Sovremenny-class destroyers, which are armed with supersonic Sunburn missiles that could sink an American aircraft carrier.

The report to Congress is normally updated each year but the Bush administration put it off in 2001, which was a particularly difficult year in US-China relations.

US-Chinese contacts were severely curtailed not long after a Chinese fighter collided with a US Navy EP-3 spy plane off the coast of China on April 1, 2001. The Chinese fighter crashed into the sea, killing the pilot. The 24-member crew of the American plane - which made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan - was detained for 11 days before being released.

Last month the Pentagon sent a high-level official to Beijing for the first time since the EP-3 incident. Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, met with senior Chinese officials but reached no agreements on plans for resuming normal military-to-military contacts. - Sapa-AP

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