(From Nikkei Asian review)
The massive military parade in Beijing earlier this month featured an array of fearsome weaponry, from ballistic missiles to fighter jets. China claims that all the combat hardware on display was developed and built domestically. But the origins of much of the materiel are more complicated.
China’s cavalcade, which commemorated the 70th anniversary of its victory over Japan in World War II, was meant to highlight the nation’s technological strengths. To the trained eyes of experts, it also hinted at the soft underbelly of the Chinese armed forces.
Consider the fighter planes. The Shenyang J-11, or Jian-11, is allegedly a copy of Russia’s Sukhoi Su-27. The J-15 carrier-based fighter is believed to be a clone of the Soviet-designed Su-33. The engines — the most important component — in China’s jets are imports from Russia.
There are also indications that performance may not be up to snuff. A video showing the J-15 taking off from an aircraft carrier suggests it can only get airborne when not weighed down by missiles and other armaments. The engine power, it seems, is insufficient for takeoff from a carrier’s short flight deck.
The parade was the first public appearance of China’s new attack and reconnaissance drone, the Caihong 5, or CH-5. It bears a striking resemblance to the American MQ-9 Reaper — the primary offensive unmanned aerial vehicle used by the US Air Force. But the CH-5 is no match for the MQ-9: The Chinese drone can carry only 900kg of weapons, while the US one can handle 1,749kg.
China also showed off its Kongjing 500, or KJ-500, an airborne early warning and control aircraft. US military officials say it is unclear what, exactly, the plane can do.
Despite the skepticism over some of China’s equipment, the parade did offer insights into the country’s military vision. And some of the weapons must be taken very seriously — particularly the ballistic missiles.
China’s rocket program has an impressive track record, including manned missions. Rockets and ballistic missiles are based on the same technology. Since China can put satellites into orbit, it must be assumed the country has sophisticated technology to guide missiles to targets.
From Japan’s perspective, the DF-16 medium-range ballistic missile and the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile could pose direct threats. China has enough of these projectiles to potentially overwhelm Japan’s missile defense system with so-called “saturation attacks.” As a result, in a military standoff between Japan and China, most US forces would probably clear out of Japan temporarily.
In such a case, the Japanese people could find themselves facing an immediate threat to their survival. Yet there has been little meaningful debate in Japan on how to deal with this challenge. This security issue has been ignored for far too long.
China’s Dong Feng DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile, also displayed for the first time at the parade, is another potential threat. This is a road-mobile, nuclear-armed ICBM that could be hidden anywhere in China’s vast territory.
The US is increasingly worried about China’s ability to retaliate with nuclear-tipped missiles. Such concerns could undermine the American nuclear umbrella over Japan. Policymakers in Tokyo need to be aware that Washington might hesitate to deploy US forces to defend Japan and other Asian allies in a military emergency involving China.
Put another way, the DF-31A is a strategic weapon useful for decoupling the US from its Asian partners.
The parade came amid stock market mayhem and soon after the deadly explosions in Tianjin. It seems the Communist Party calculated that the event would divert citizens’ attention from economic troubles, stir up nationalistic sentiment and needle the US and Japan.
But the event also drew international condemnation. And the more Beijing rattles its saber, the more its neighbors shore up their defenses, spurring Beijing to further up the ante. Japan and the US are responding to China’s assertiveness by expanding security cooperation, bilaterally and with other nations in the region.
China appears to have fallen into a vicious cycle of isolating itself by flexing its military muscle. The parade, which underscored the strengths and cracks in its military machine, suggests Chinese leaders are feeling the pressure.
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