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General Questions How Chinese Assets Such As Aircraft Carrier Can Be Merely Defensive

By | June 30, 2008

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      The immense Chinese military buildup continues to run at a breakneck pace, and it is difficult to see how it could be purely defensive, Air Force Maj. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove told lawmakers.

      China has acquired and deployed hundreds of missiles aimed toward Taiwan; intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets in the United States from mainland China; cutting edge fighter aircraft; nuclear-powered submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles of almost 5,000 miles range; anti-satellite capabilities and formidable cyber warfare forces.

      Breedlove, vice director for strategic plans and policy with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke during the non-classified portion of a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the rising Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

      He and James Shinn, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said perhaps the buildup might be to protect sea lanes through which China exports its goods and through which it imports oil and other energy products to power its booming economy.

      Yet Breedlove added, it is difficult "to see an aircraft carrier as purely defensive."

      Two members of the committee repeatedly attempted to get Shinn to repeat a legacy U.S. policy that the United States would oppose China if it attempted to invade Taiwan and take it by force.

      Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) took the first try, asking about the Bush administration commitment to defend Taiwan.

      "We will fulfill our obligations to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act," which says the United States should provide Taiwan with "assistance [for its] defense capabilities" against an attack from the mainland, Shinn said.

      But, Taylor continued, does that assistance mean the United States would only supply Taiwan with military hardware, or does it mean sending American armed forces to thwart a Chinese invasion attempt?

      "There has been no change" in U.S. policy, Shinn said.

      But precisely what, Taylor pressed him, is that policy?

      It is the "one China policy" under the Taiwan Relations Act, Shinn said. That policy historically has favored eventual peaceful so-called reunification of Taiwan with China. While Taiwan for more than half a century has been de facto an independent nation, Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province.

      Pressed further, Shinn said that "we oppose efforts by parties on either side to change the status quo." He also said the United States will "provide the Taiwanese with such weapons systems" as may be required to oppose an enemy using force. The Taiwan Relations Act "is focused principally on equipment."

      Taylor’s time for questioning expired.

      But the committee chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), told Shinn, "You made that perfectly unclear."

      Then Skelton took a crack at it.

      Is it not true that the U.S. Navy at one time stationed its 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Strait? Skelton asked.

      Yes, that’s true, Shinn said.

      But it took a while for him to check that it has been half a century since the fleet was stationed there.

      Then a Republican decided to try getting an answer.

      Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona said that the long-standing policy of "strategic ambiguity" concerning the U.S. stance on Taiwan can lead to dangerous misunderstanding and miscalculation. "Strategic ambiguity is a very dangerous thing," Franks said. He added that the United States might have avoided the need for military action in the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s if it had issued clear warnings to Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait or be driven out.

      Shinn delivered an answer including an observation that deterrence is a delicate and complicated business.

      But Breedlove said, "The United States would oppose any non-peaceful" move by China to subjugate Taiwan.

      Another Republican worried that the United States is not matching the Chinese military buildup, leaving itself vulnerable in any conflict with the communist nation.

      Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the ranking Republican on the committee, noted the enormous array of intimidating weapons and other hardware that China is acquiring.

      China is laying out huge amounts of money on "sea denial capabilities such as nuclear attack and diesel submarines capable of undersea warfare," he said. As well, Beijing is snapping up air-to-air defense capabilities including "new generations of fighter aircraft and several classes of airborne early warning and control aircraft."

      Then there are all the myriad missiles China is acquiring, "including updating the … short-range ballistic missiles deployed to garrisons opposite Taiwan at a rate of 100 [more] per year," he said.

      What is not a mystery is how China can afford to buy all these new weapons and capabilities: it has a gigantic trade surplus with the United States, Hunter noted.

      "China’s ability to accelerate and expand its military modernization would not be feasible without its economic engine" that cranks out mountains of goods shipped to U.S. stores, Hunter noted.

      What isn’t clear is just what China intends to do with all these arms, he said. "There is much uncertainty surrounding China’s future trajectory as an emerging military power and how China will behave as a regional and global stakeholder," Hunter cautioned.

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