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TAIPEI, Taiwan — China's recent military advances have launched a debate in security circles on whether the People's Liberation Army is more bark or bite.
Much of the talk has focused on China's new anti-ship ballistic missile, which is now deployed, according to the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific. Not to mention today's news about a runway test for China's first radar-evading stealth fighter. State media called the news "rumors" and played down the aircraft's capabilities.
But for one top Taiwanese security analyst, rumors of the runway test and China's other upgrades have already achieved their key objective: to mess with U.S. war planners' heads.
"It's a very effective deterrent on the minds of strategic planners in Washington," said Lin Chong-Pin, a former Taiwan defense official who teaches strategy at Tamkang University. "The Chinese don’t have to do anything in the future. Their announcement has already thrown a monkey wrench in strategic planning for U.S. action in and around the Taiwan Strait."
To be sure, no one is arguing that China could beat the United States in a full-out conflict. U.S. military spending, war-fighting experience and technology vastly outmatch China's. That would make any war between the world's sole superpower and its rising challenger a lopsided, if devastating, fight.
But Lin and other experts say China's rapid military advances have exposed the vulnerabilities of one linchpin of U.S. military might: the aircraft carrier battle group. Now, they say, China has advanced just enough to deter or slow such a battle group from joining a fight in East Asia — thereby forcing U.S. strategists to rethink war plans, for example in a flare-up over Taiwan.
China's so-called "carrier-killer" missile is just one of its recent advances. It has also demonstrated its prowess in anti-satellite warfare. And its fleet of attack submarines — now Asia's largest — continues to grow apace.
Add to that the recent news that China's first aircraft carrier (a refurbished Soviet hand-me-down) may sail as early as next year, and that its advanced stealth fighter may be for real, and some are alarmed. "We are seeing the erection of a new Chinese wall in the western Pacific, for which the Obama administration has offered almost nothing in defensive response," security expert Richard Fisher told the Washington Times.
Others downplay the threat. They stress that the anti-ship ballistic missile has not yet been fully tested, involves extremely complex technology and can be countered through various means, including attacks on China's military satellites that would be key to the missile's targeting.
But Tamkang University's Lin said fundamental trends are "not favorable for the U.S. to maintain its dominance in East Asia, and even in space."
"Currently the Chinese are far behind, of course, but one country [the U.S.] is going level or down, the other is going up fast," he said.
For Lin, the real question is not whether the ballistic missile and China's other new equipment would turn the tide in an actual fight. The question is whether such advances can alter U.S. strategic thinking — and by that measure, the answer is already a "yes."
Though U.S. officials may still talk tough, the reality is a gradual, U.S. military retreat from East Asia, Lin said. "The U.S. has economic, social and political problems at home, and defense budgets are on a downward trend," Lin said. "Washington may not change its rhetoric, but in their own minds planners are very clear — they won’t guarantee the capability of intervening in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait."
Lin said the Chinese military has consistently advanced faster than Americans thought it could. "This is a decades long phenomenon — Americans tend to underestimate the activities of the PLA," he said. That's not entirely surprising, he said, since "the PLA's strategic tradition is to conceal."
He cited two examples: China's 1964 nuclear test, which "caught the U.S. by surprise," and China's unveiling last year of a submersible it says is capable of going a world-beating 7,000 meters deep.
Lin said most of China's military advances focus on preventing a repeat of its humiliation in 1996, when the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups near the Taiwan Strait to silence China's saber-rattling ahead of a Taiwan election. "The Chinese had drawn up the plans even in the late '80s, but after '96 they realized that the U.S. aircraft carrier was the major target they had to deal with," Lin said. "Now these plans are gradually bringing results."
He said U.S. analysts often misread China and the PLA due to cultural bias. "The Chinese are students of Sun Tzu's 'Art of War,' not students of Clausewitz," said Lin. "So they'll avoid using the military up front, and instead use the military as a backbone for Beijing's extra-military strategies."
One example of a "lost in translation" moment, he said: Sun Tzu's phrase "bin zhe gui dao ye." Commonly rendered in English as "All warfare is based on deception," Lin said a better translation would be "the essence of warfare is creating ambiguity in the perceptions of the enemy," with deception as just one tool.
He predicts China will successfully challenge the U.S. without resorting to war, by manipulating U.S. perceptions through a broad range of means, with military being just one. Western analysts don't sufficiently "get" this more comprehensive Chinese strategy, he said.
The result, he says, will be that China pushes the United States out of its Pacific backyard without firing a shot. "The U.S. will gradually withdraw without China fighting it," said Lin. "China will achieve that not by military means, but in economics, and diplomacy — this is Beijing's plan, and it's very shrewd."
"By 2025, and probably even before 2020, they will have de facto dominance of East Asia, or at least the western Pacific."