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Segal: U.S. Analysts Increasingly Alarmed about China’s Military Modernization

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program
March 16, 2005

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Adam Segal, a Council expert on Chinese military and technology policy, says that the United States must exert its influence on both the mainland and Taiwan to try and prevent an outbreak of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait. China’s latest move in the China-Taiwan dispute—a law authorizing military force if Taiwan declares independence—is of concern when seen in the light of China’s ongoing efforts to build its military, he says. “In the last six months, you can see an increasing focus [on China’s military strength], especially by Defense Department analysts, and also from the CIA in recent testimony before Congress. The language about China’s military modernization has become more alarmed,” he says.

Segal, the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies, also says that China’s latest weapons purchases seem intended for use against U.S. Navy aircraft carrier groups. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on March 15, 2005.


On March 14, China’s parliament passed a law authorizing the use of military force if Taiwan actually amends its constitution to secede. Is this significant? Are military tensions rising in that part of the world?

Well, I think the anti-secession law is the most visible source of that tension. I think the law itself is, as the [U.S.] State Department said, unfortunate. I think, more generally, in the last six months, you can see an increasing focus [on China’s growing military strength], especially by Defense Department analysts, and also from the CIA in recent testimony before Congress. The language about China’s military modernization has become more alarmed.

Everyone has been focused on the booming U.S. trade with China. You would think, in light of such things as IBM’s selling its personal computing division to a Chinese company, that the United States and China have a very good relationship.

Well, I think things are good, and I think the fact that these things have become compartmentalized is kind of a reflection of how mature the relationship has become. In the old days, all of these things would have been tied up with each other. But the fact that we can have disagreements about such questions as the revaluation of China’s currency, the Taiwan issue, and how to deal with North Korea [while trade and other aspects of the relationship remain strong] shows that things are proceeding in a way they wouldn’t have before. I think relations are still good—and, quite honestly, the Bush administration doesn’t want anything more in its inbox. They want to make sure China remains fairly stable.

Let’s talk about the modernization of China’s military. Would it pose a serious threat to the United States if there was a conflict with Taiwan?

China’s military is certainly not on par with the U.S. military, and I think the Council [on Foreign Relations’] task force, which released its findings two years ago, basically said that China was two decades behind [the United States]. I think that’s probably still the case, but that doesn’t diminish the threat the military poses to the United States. China doesn’t have to be a peer competitor with the United States to be a threat, especially if you look at the weapons it’s been purchasing from the Russians: the Su-27 and Su-30 [combat aircraft], the Sovremenny-class destroyer, the Kilo-class [attack] submarine. All of these seem to be targeted to U.S. Navy carrier groups.

So their assumption is that if there was a conflict with Taiwan, they would try to strike at the American carriers.

Yes. It seems that, basically, much of the modernization is focused on delaying, slowing, or stopping a U.S. intervention in a conflict.

Let’s talk about the political relationship between Taiwan and China. Would it be a popular move now in Taiwan to declare independence and no longer adhere to the view that Taiwan and mainland China are one China?

It’s not a popular position, I think, because most Taiwanese citizens realize that if they were to announce they were an independent state, that would almost automatically initiate a war from the mainland. But the Taiwanese now have de facto independence. They have a standard of living and a democracy that the mainland, of course, doesn’t have. And they increasingly have a sense of Taiwanese identity as being separate from something Chinese.

So the difficulty for the Taiwanese is how to maintain all that, while still holding out to the mainland some hope of reunification, or at least some discussions on what the future is going to look like—with some sort of shared sovereignty or whatever may be decided in the future. President Chen [Shui-bian] of Taiwan, in many ways, seems to be out ahead of the Taiwanese people. A lot of his proposals and efforts to make de facto sovereignty de jure sovereignty, I think, are outside of where the Taiwanese people themselves are comfortable.

In an article in Foreign Affairs, one of your colleagues, Ken Lieberthal, says that even if Taiwan took steps to become independent, it wouldn’t really amount to much if the United States and other nations refused to recognize Taiwan as a separate nation. Could China live with this scenario?

No. I think there’s an occasional moderate Chinese analyst that says, “Oh, if Taiwan declares independence, and the United States doesn’t recognize it, we could possibly live with that.” But I would suspect that the central leadership and most leaders in Beijing would not take much comfort in that idea.

Now, what should the United States do about all this? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Asia this weekend. Will the anti-secession law be important in discussions in Beijing?

I don’t think there’s much for the United States to do about this anti-secession law specifically. I think the impact will depend very much on how Taiwan reacts to the law, and whether we enter into a cycle of action and reaction from Taiwan and the mainland.

You know, I think the Bush administration has been good at basically sending a consistent message to both Taiwan and to China about what U.S. goals are. On the one hand, that means reassuring China that the United States is not supporting Taiwan’s move to independence, while at the same time deterring China’s use of force against Taiwan. On the other hand, that means letting the Taiwanese know that the United States is seriously working on improving Taiwan’s defense capabilities, but at the same time, is not giving Taiwan a blank check to push things further. And I think that’s essentially the message that Secretary Rice will bring to Beijing—that the U.S. position hasn’t changed.

Should the United States become a broker between the two sides?

I don’t think the United States should play that role, and I don’t think it’s really a possibility. The Chinese consider this an internal affair. I think, basically, the U.S. role is just to maintain the sort of stability in the region that allows the two sides to speak to each other.

Lately the European Union has been urging the United States to lift long-standing military sanctions on China. What is behind this? Do the Europeans just want to make some money?

You know, I think the EU is interested in lifting the arms sanctions for several reasons. One, it’s not necessarily so much money as it is the sense that defense industries need scale, and the Europeans want to maintain an independent defense capability. One way to get scale is to make sure you sell to the Chinese.

What kind of equipment are we talking about?

Essentially, we’re talking about dual-use or military-enabled technology. I think the U.S. worry would probably be things like avionics [electronic equipment to control aircraft] and what’s called C4ISR, or command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [technologies]—the sort of systems that would allow the Chinese to identify their enemies, identify their own forces, and manage a battle space, which the Chinese are particularly weak at. Actual deadly weapons would remain under sanction, most likely. So we’re really mainly talking about military technologies.

I think, quite honestly, there are two other things that are driving Europeans. One is that they don’t have the same strategic interests as the United States. They don’t actually have a strategic interest in Taiwan, and they don’t see China’s rise as being a threat to their interests. They also don’t see the sale of dual-use technology to China as a threat. They want to strengthen their own economic ties with China. And, finally, the last thing is there are people in Europe who are not opposed to there being an independent kind of power to balance the strength of the United States. To Europe, China might play that role.

Are you concerned that America’s leadership role in the field of advanced technology may be slipping away to China?

I think the United States is still the dominant technological power, but I think there are long-term trends that are worrying. Some of these have to do just with issues at home, such as how R&D [research and development] spending is shifting out of the basic sciences. Even in defense spending, we’re shifting away from basic research to mostly spending on mature technologies. A lot of funding is going into the health sciences, and not so much into the physical and material sciences. Private spending on R&D has been pretty flat the last four years.

There are the continuing questions of how many Americans are going into engineering and math, and also about visa restrictions on foreign students who want to come here. And then, there is this kind of globalization of technology in which the United States—and American multinational corporations—are playing a huge role. So now you have [U.S. corporate] R&D centers in China and India and, increasingly, throughout Asia. There is increasingly the ability to find not just cheap labor in Asia, but very good labor, so you can shift things out of the United States. You know, one of the arguments about globalization—and why the United States benefits from it—is that the United States continues to move up the product cycle. We’re always going to invent the next thing. If we move innovation out of the United States to other places, then I’m worried about the long-term picture.

In general, how concerned should we be about the situation in the Far East? Everyone in Washington has been focused on the Middle East.

On the anti-secession law, we have to wait on the reaction from Taiwan. I think that, in the longer-term, the focus on the Middle East means we haven’t been paying that much attention to the larger issue of China’s rise, its increasing role, and what the United States needs to do to respond to that—how the United States needs to be more engaged in the area, more involved in developing its bilateral relations with Japan and India, and also participate in multilateral relations in the region. We have not really been engaged in the region’s multilateral economic discussions.

Do you get the impression that China sees the United States as so bogged down in the Middle East that it no longer feels threatened by the U.S. military?

Well, I think, on the one hand, China has [U.S.] troops on its borders in Central Asia that it never had before. But I think it has clearly taken advantage of the distraction in the Middle East, and has been able, both through somewhat sophisticated diplomacy and efforts to reach out to its neighbors, to kind of fill the space while the United States has been preoccupied.

The United States has been hoping that China would take the lead on the North Korea nuclear problem. Is China now backing away on this?

Well, we still face the problem with the Chinese that we’ve always faced, which is that although we have similar interests, they’re not exactly the same. Of course, the United States’ primary interest is preventing North Korea from going nuclear. China’s primary interest is preventing North Korea from collapsing, and a non-nuclear North Korea is their number two.

So the problem is getting those interests to overlap. I think Beijing knows that there are people in the United States who would welcome a regime change in North Korea. Well, for China, that’s a huge risk. So I think both parties have to move closer to each other. The Chinese always say that the United States has to offer more incentives to the North Koreans—engage them more directly. That might be true, but China and South Korea also have to be more willing to tell the North Koreans what possible sanctions are—what price they’re going to pay if they don’t come to the table.

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