What has happened during the last two weeks has surprised many experts,
let alone persons having limited knowledge about China.
The first question: How did it happen?
The incident involving the U.S. EP-3 did not happen in a vacuum, but was instead one incident in a spate of aggressive moves by the Chinese military.
During 2000 and the first months of 2001, China was steadily increasing its
military presence in the airspace and waters between the mainland coast and
the First Island Chain, formed by Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
The goal of
this activity is to push out all other countries' forces – significantly the U.S. Air Force and
Navy – and to establish unlimited Chinese control in this strategically and
economically important zone.
This, by the way, would facilitate China's People's Liberation Army air force
(PLAAF) and navy (PLAN) actions in a forthcoming conflict around Taiwan.
Japanese navy and Philippines navy, indeed, have physically felt the drastic
rise of PLAN pressure in the East China Sea and South China Sea,
respectively, over the last few months.
So, direct collision of Chinese and U.S. forces at some moment was
A U.S. Navy vessel managed to escape a collision with a PLAN frigate
on March 24, but another collision – between a Chinese fighter and a U.S.
reconnaissance plane – did occur.
The second, probably more important question: Why have the Chinese been conducting such bold maneuvers against the U.S. and others?
Indeed, the Chinese side behaved in a surprisingly bold manner during the
months preceding the collision, during the collision itself, and in the
showdown with the U.S. administration after the incident.
There are two major reasons for China's increasing belligerence:
1) China has a mighty strategic rear, i.e., Russia, whose leaders firmly
support any PLA action aimed at expansion and confrontation with the U.S.
July of this year, China and Russia intend to sign a Treaty on Friendship and
Cooperation, and will formalize their strategic military alliance. In fact, this new military axis between Beijing and Moscow has been in de facto
existence since about mid-1999.
The new treaty prescribes, among other items,
"joint resistance to the aggression against either of the two sides."
particularly means unconditional support of China by the Russian side – with
all resources available – in the case of a Sino-U.S. military conflict.
Such a position of the Russian side was confirmed in a telephone call between
Jiang Zemin and Putin in mid-January this year.
Talks between these two
supreme leaders takes place on a regular basis after their summit in July
The strongly negative attitude of the Kremlin to the U.S., especially
toward the present U.S. administration, gives Chinese leaders "unshakable
confidence" in Russian support.
2) PLA combat potential has increased very significantly during the last two years, and Russian military-technological assistance was the
decisive factor here. Particularly:
a) It is common knowledge among analysts that China's PLAAF and PLAN aviation received hundreds, not "several dozen," of Russia's modern fighters and bombers.
By early April 2001, the
PLA finished, or almost finished, staffing three fighter divisions with
Each division includes up to 72 Chinese-made and
Russian-made SU-27 SK, SU-27 UB, and/or SU-30 MKK fighters.
This was achieved
due to the work in the "prewar period regime" of key aircraft industry
enterprises in China and Russia during the last 12-18 months.
In addition, the PLA now has at least four divisions staffed with
drastically upgraded – based on Russian technology – J-8 II M fighters.
each fighter of this kind is still inferior to an F-16 fighter, two of them
are capable of downing one F-16.
Upgrading of several hundred J-7 fighters
also adds to PLAAF potential.
All the fighters are equipped with Russian-made
or Russian-technology-based air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and air-to-ground
b) By April 2001, the PLA deployed in the coastal zone from Beijing to Hong
Kong a theater missile defense (TMD) network, including the following Russian
air-defense missile (ADM) systems:
Together with thousands of Chinese-made ADM systems of various kinds and
many thousand air-defense artillery units, this makes a strong-enough TMD
network, capable of effectively opposing massive air strikes "of Kosovo war
scale", including land-attack cruise missile (LACM) strikes.
c) By early 2001, China, utilizing advanced Russian technology, began
serial production of comparatively advanced ground-based LACMs: the Changfeng
(CF)-1, CF-2, HongNiao (HN)-1, and HN-2 with a range between 400 km and 1,800
km, with conventional and nuclear warheads.
By preliminary data, several
brigades of the PLA 2nd Artillery (Strategic Nuclear Forces) are staffed with
Simultaneously, China started production of the HN-3
3,000-km-range strategic LACM, capable of both ground-based deployment and of
installation on old H-6 bombers and the new-generation HJ-7/FBC-1 bombers.
The number of such bombers in the PLA inventory now exceeds 100.
The offensive potential of these LACMs, aimed at Taiwan as well as U.S. Army
facilities in Japan and South Korea, by April 2001, probably surpassed that
of several hundred short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) deployed around
Also, in 1999-2000, the PLA received a significant quantity of DF-21 IRBMs with a range of 2,000 km to 2,900 km, a certain number of new-generation DF-31 ICBMs, and a
greater number of MIRVed warheads for earlier installed DF-5 ICBMs.
By April 2001, the PLA definitely had acquired a very substantial
missile-strike potential, especially in regard to short- to mid-range
d) PLAN modernization, though only half-completed, has realized great
progress, mostly on the basis of Russian aid.
This mainly includes the
Most importantly, Jiang Zemin received an assurance from Putin that – in
case of a serious crisis around Taiwan, or any other crisis related to direct
conflict between Chinese and U.S. forces – a significant part of the Russian
Pacific Fleet will "block the way of the U.S. Navy."
Only the most important directions of PLA modernization are listed above,
but there is no doubt that PLA combat potential rose to a new level between
mid-1999 and April 2000.
And this gives "unlimited boldness" to China's top
U.S. policymakers can no longer ignore China's emergence, with the help of Russia, as a major Asian military power capable of projecting power well beyong her borders.
The Chinese and PLA almost certainly will not risk direct confrontation before about autumn 2002. China, based on
Russian aid, will accomplish between April 2001 and Autumn 2002 an additional
"great leap forward" in several key areas of PLA construction, such as
staffing several new fighter divisions with SU-27/SU-30 and J-10
4th-generation fighters, at least doubling the number of advanced ADM systems
in the East China TMD network, deploying several hundred more ballistic
missiles and LACMs of all ranges, and upgrading PLAN to the maximum possible
According to available data, it is our opinion that in the second half of 2002 the PLA will
undertake an action against Taiwan, which means unavoidable U.S. involvement.
Several recent statements of Jiang Zemin at high-ranking military meetings in
Beijing confirm this forecast.
Chinese leaders are especially counting on
large-scale direct Russian military assistance, which could include even the
actions of Russian strategic aircraft.
So, what has happened over the first days of April 2001 should not be viewed as an isolated incident, but one in a chain of incidents that are the "first
sparks" of a future grand fire.
To avoid this coming conflict with China, policymakers and the public must wake up to the great threat – namely, the new Chinese-Russian military axis and its direct implications for Western security.
Dr. Thomas J. Torda has been a Chinese linguist specializing in science and technology with FBIS, and a
Chinese/Russian defense technology consultant with the Office of Naval
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