Chinese focus on navy leaves big political wake

Times Staff Writers

President Hu Jintao's call last week for a strong Chinese navy won't threaten U.S. military dominance any time soon. But in China, where symbolism often is as important as substance, the address was seen by analysts as serving two functions: to help build a policy consensus and signal his near-complete grip on the political field before a key party congress next fall.

"This is very significant," said Ni Lexiong, a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Political Science and Law. "Though this does not mean immediate budget increases, it is a strong signal that lays out our future direction."

State media gave prominent play Thursday to comments by Hu a day earlier at a Communist Party meeting on the need for a powerful navy prepared "at any time" for military struggle.

"We should make sound preparations for military struggles and ensure that the forces can effectively carry out missions at any time," Hu reportedly said.

China's navy has been the country's weakest link under a military structure that has emphasized a homegrown manpower advantage for its army and borrowed Soviet technology for its air force. But even as it restructures, China is keen to bolster its weak third arm.

The aim is to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence and to safeguard the seaborne trade, oil and other resources needed to power China's booming economy. China has considered Taiwan a part of its territory since a split between the Nationalists and Communists in 1949 after protracted civil war.

China's growing military profile has raised eyebrows at the Pentagon, which fears an erosion of its military dominance in the Pacific and beyond.

"Previously, China did not have the capability to maintain anything but symbolic naval presence on the approaches to the mainland," the Defense Department said in its 2006 report "Military Power of the People's Republic of China." "The PLA [People's Liberation Army] navy, however, appears interested in expanding its presence through the Straits of Malacca and into the Indian Ocean."

Of significance in China's one-party state with its emphasis on political theater, analysts said, was Hu's choice of venues. Rather than addressing an audience from all major service branches, he chose a meeting of naval specialists, a signal that the navy can expect special treatment in the bureaucratic battle for attention and resources.

Also significant was the timing. The military has been an area of political weakness for Hu. The president's resume doesn't boast the years of military service many of his predecessors had. Nor did it help that ex-President Jiang Zemin held on to his last military post until late 2005, more than two years into Hu's administration.

But the notably careful leader's confident military tone Wednesday and his appearance in military green immediately after a purge of a key Jiang loyalist in Shanghai suggests he faces no significant opposition across the Chinese political spectrum.

China has made no secret of its desire for a credible "blue water" navy, and its blistering economy, $1 trillion in foreign reserves and growing confidence place it in an increasingly strong position to fund its objective.

"It may be time for them to get their fair share," said Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS, a think tank. "A lot of other sectors of modernization took priority."

In an 83-page defense white paper released Friday, China said it also would strengthen its air force to enhance its airstrike, missile defense and early-warning systems.

In March, China announced a 14% increase in overall military spending to $35 billion, the latest in a string of double-digit increases. Some U.S. defense analysts say the actual figure may be two or three times higher.

Beijing faces significant challenges before it can pose a military threat to the U.S., some analysts say. Politically it is also wary of any step that might appear too provocative to Washington under its "peaceful rise" strategy, given the importance of U.S. trade for domestic stability and development.

China's military spending, even at a higher figure, is still a fraction of U.S. levels. China's dream of acquiring a working aircraft carrier is years, perhaps decades, off. And it faces enormous challenges in revamping a labor-intensive, technologically challenged military into a modern, flexible fighting force.

In his comments Wednesday, Hu called for "strict management of the navy according to law."

Some analysts read this as a veiled reference to corruption in the ranks. This month, a military court handed down a life sentence to Vice Adm. Wang Shouye on embezzlement charges, according to Hong Kong's pro-mainland Wen Wei Po newspaper. He reportedly is the most senior Chinese military officer ever jailed for corruption.

"It's not only a reference to the vice admiral, but the corruption, irregularities and general lack of discipline," said Andrew Yang, a military analyst with Taiwan's Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. Hu "plans to emphasize discipline and rule of law."

Beyond China's aircraft carrier plans, U.S. military planners are watching closely any steps Beijing takes to expand its deep-water anti-submarine capability, to develop large numbers of nuclear attack submarines or to increase open-water training.

Washington has also called on China repeatedly to be more forthcoming on its military budgets, plans and capabilities.

China first voiced a desire for an indigenous aircraft carrier in the late 1970s, according to Pentagon reports, before buying, in 1985, the carrier Melbourne from Australia. The hull was scrapped, but not before engineers studied the ship and built a replica of the flight deck for pilot training, the Defense Department said.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Chinese purchased two Soviet carriers -- the Minsk in 1998 and the Kiev in 2000 -- which they turned into floating military theme parks after carefully studying their designs.

Some analysts say the Chinese could have an operational carrier by 2015; others say it probably won't be before 2020. A working carrier would require a huge increase in its military budget, analysts said, as well as overcoming significant technological hurdles and significantly upgrading the skill of its navy personnel.

"They're still far behind for the foreseeable future for the United States, and also for India," Yang said.

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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