Friday, January 07, 2011

U.S.-China: China's psychological war against the U.S.

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( To be read in continuation of my earlier article of January 2 titled “PLA, THE BAROMETER OF US-CHINA RELATIONS” at )

As Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, gets ready to visit China from January 9 to 12 and as President Hu Jintao’s State visit to Washington DC on January 19 approaches, the People’s Liberal Army (PLA) of China seems to have mounted a psychological warfare against the US by disseminating through the Internet and through the “ People’s Forum” columns of the Party-controlled “People’s Daily” two unverified and unverifiable news items which would add to the concerns of the US and ultimately of India too.

2. The first item, originating from the Japanese media, but disseminated in China without any comments regarding its authenticity, relates to a possible reconsideration by the PLA of the “no first use of the nuclear weapons” policy in order to provide for contingencies where China may undertake a pre-emptive nuclear strike. On January 6, the “People’s Forum” section of the “People’s Daily” carried the following report under the title “Chinese Forces Drop No First-Use Policy ?” attributing it to the Japanese Kyodo news agency without any comments on its authenticity: “ The Chinese military will consider launching a pre-emptive atomic strike if the country finds itself faced with a critical situation in a war with another nuclear state, internal documents showed Wednesday. The newly revealed policy, called "Lowering the threshold of nuclear threats," may contradict China's strategy of no first use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances, and is likely to fan concern in the United States, Japan and other regional powers about Beijing's nuclear capability. The People's Liberation Army's strategic missile forces, the Second Artillery Corps, "will adjust the nuclear threat policy if a nuclear missile-possessing country carries out a series of airstrikes against key strategic targets in our country with absolutely superior conventional weapons," according to the documents, copies of which were obtained by Kyodo News. China will first warn an adversary about a nuclear strike, but if the enemy attacks Chinese territory with conventional forces the PLA "must carefully consider" a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The documents suggest the Second Artillery Corps educate its personnel in worst-case scenarios for conflicts with other nuclear states. Akio Takahara, a professor of contemporary Chinese politics at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy, said an adjustment of the PLA's nuclear threat policy as spelled out in the documents runs counter to President Hu Jintao's pledge that China will not launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike under any circumstances. "It is uncertain whether such policy adjustment represents a policy shift or has been in existence from before," Takahara said. "But a pre-emptive strike as assumed (in the documents) would apply to an extreme situation such as war with the United States, and that is almost inconceivable today. I think President Hu is aware of that."

3. This item was carried by the “People’s Daily” along with another unauthenticated item regarding China’s success in the development of a Stealth aircraft based on a pretended photograph of the Stealth aircraft that started circulating in China’s military-related blogs at the beginning of this year. This item, as reported in the “People’s Forum” under the title “Does China Intentionally Leak The Image of J-20?” said: “A photograph of what is reported to be a new Chinese stealth fighter and "carrier-killer" missile has prompted concerns that a tilt in the balance of military power in the western Pacific towards China may come sooner than expected. The emergence of the hi-tech weaponry - which would make it more difficult for the US navy and air force to project power close to Taiwan and elsewhere on China's coastline - comes at a politically sensitive time. Later this month, President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, will hold a summit in Washington aimed at patching up their differences after a niggling year in bilateral relations. The photograph, of what appears to be a prototype J-20 jet undergoing runway tests, has been circulating on the internet since last week, fuelling speculation that China's fifth-generation fighter may fly ahead of forecast.”

4. It added: “The defence ministry has yet to comment on the image, which seems to have been shot from long-distance near the Chengdu aircraft design institute. The photographer is also unknown, which has added to the mystery about its origins and authenticity as well as the motive of the distributor. But defence analysts believe this is the first glimpse of the twin-engined, chiselled-nosed plane that mixes Russian engine technology with a fuselage design similar to that of the US air force's F-22 "stealth" fighter, which can avoid detection by radar. If confirmed, it would be an impressive step forward for the Chinese air force, which until now has largely depended on foreign-made or designed planes. "I'd say these are, indeed, genuine photos of a prototype that will make its maiden flight very soon," said Peter Felstead, the editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. The J20 is likely to be many years from deployment, but the US defence secretary, Robert Gates - who visits Beijing next week - may have to revise an earlier prediction that China will not have a fifth generation aircraft by 2020. It is not the only challenge to US superiority in the region.”

5. It further said: “China has refurbished a Ukranian aircraft carrier and wants to build its own by 2020. A more immediate threat is posed by China's adaptation of an intermediate-range ballistic missile - the DF-21D - to target US aircraft carriers. This project is also further advanced than previously believed. Admiral Robert Willard, the US navy's commander in the Pacific, warned last month that the weapon - nicknamed the "carrier killer' - had reached "initial operational capability". Faced by this threat US battle groups are likely to take a more withdrawn position if there is a standoff over Taiwan than they did in 1996, when the USS Nimitz sailed through the strait. "The main implication of China deploying this system is that it would certainly make the US navy pause before deciding to project naval power into the South China Sea region during a time of tension," said Felstead. But China's ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, said today that his country had no ambitions to rival US military power in the western Pacific region.”

6. The “People’s Forum” added: “While China's economy grows rapidly and the US remains sluggish, fears of a shift in the balance of power are likely to grow. It will not happen overnight and worldwide, but China appears to be steadily pushing the US back from its shores in a strategy know as "area denial". The government has not confirmed this approach. Chinese nationalists want their country to be more assertive, but they say the priority is to improve defence of an increasingly wealthy coastal region. The "area denial" strategy can be seen as China trying to manage its own market and routes to main trading partners such as South Korea and Japan. "We don't need the US to be the policeman in the west Pacific area," said Song Xiaojun, a former naval officer who now edits military magazines. "China's priority is to develop its near sea defence, because our economy is concentrated on the coast. But we have to reconsider the concept of 'near sea' to fit a modern age in which military threats can come from far away. China must improve its defences, but that does not mean we are a threat. Only arms merchants would say that to persuade the US to raise military spending. The US is far ahead," he said.

7. The second item regarding the Stealth aircraft also appears to have been taken from foreign media, but the “People’s Forum” section does not identify the newspaper or magazine from which it was taken

8.The dissemination of these items has come in the wake of the recent comments by PLA officers and the Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie regarding the possibility of regional conflicts. The greater interest taken by the US during 2010 in developments in the South China and East China Seas and what the Chinese see as the more assertive US policy in the Korean Peninsula are seen by the PLA as containing the possible seeds of a regional military conflict into which China might find itself sucked. The Chinese thus see the Taiwan issue, the South China and East China Sea developments and the tension in the Korean peninsula as capable of triggering a regional military conflict if China and the US do not conduct themselves with maturity and responsibility.

9. While trying to avoid an escalation of tensions over military-related issues in its relations with the US, China has to be prepared for contingencies where a regional military conflict of a conventional nature becomes unavoidable due to reasons beyond its control. That is the message the PLA has been seeking to convey. ( 7-1-11)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.