Reports of a Chinese purchase of advanced Russian fighter aircraft are raising new questions about the true levels of defense spending in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while also highlighting concerns about the military standing of Taiwan in a potential cross-strait conflict.
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The Chinese government announced prior to last month’s National People’s Congress that PRC defense spending would increase another 11.2 per cent in 2012 to 670 billion yuan (U.S. $106 billion).
This is a "minuscule" fraction of the nation’s economy, some diplomats and intelligence officers said.
"If you believe these official defense spending numbers, then you accept that the PRC are spending only about 1.4 per cent of their GNP on defense, which is just not at all realistic," one diplomat said.
Reports of an impending Chinese purchase of Russian jets seem to confirm such suspicions.
Moscow news outlets report that Beijing is close to an export purchase of the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Sources involved in the sale, who spoke to the Moscow daily Kommersant, said that "the two sides are in practical agreement regarding the delivery to the PRC of 48 Su-35s at a cost of U.S. $4 billion."
The Su-35 is a "4++ generation" fighter aircraft, a proto-fifth generation cousin of the Su-27 and Su-30 fighters that the PRC originally purchased directly from Russia in 1992.
The Chinese established a license-production agreement for the Su-27 in 1995 at the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) in northern China. However, halfway through the license agreement, SAC curtailed the production run and—Russian industry officials say—began producing illegal copies of several Sukhoi-design fighter aircraft.
One of these illegal copies is the carrier-capable J-15, which was reverse-engineered from a prototype of the Russian Su-33 carrier fighter that Chinese intelligence agents acquired covertly from an aerospace research center in Ukraine.
The Varyag aircraft carrier that will operate these fighter aircraft was purchased from Ukraine’s Nikolayev shipbuilding facility in 1998—officially so that it could be turned into a floating casino and entertainment complex—but has instead spent years in the Dalian shipyards undergoing an extensive re-fit to prepare for combat service.
The Varyag in recent months has made shakedown cruises outside the port and has had its carrier flight deck completely refinished.
The expenditure required to make this carrier operational is substantial. The funding required for a host of other high-profile Chinese weapon systems is also significant: the Chengdu Aerospace J-20 stealthy attack aircraft, production of these reverse-engineered copies of Russian fighter aircraft, a constant stream of new air-launched weapons, and new ballistic missiles, many of which are targeted at Taiwan.
These and other programs—part of an overall initiative to modernise the PLA and bring it into the digital era—are collectively well beyond what the "official" funding levels would support, said NATO diplomats based in the Chinese capital.
Beijing follows the same practices as the Soviet Union, hiding its true defence expenditures within the budgets of non-defence ministries, or within scientific programs such as the military-controlled PRC space program, these diplomats say.
The acquisition of the Su-35 by the PLAAF and the continuing modernization of the PLA worsen a deteriorating security situation in Taiwan.
It is no longer valid to assume that Taiwanese and U.S. forces could repel an attack of the island by the PLA, several experts have suggested.
Virginia Congressman J. Randy Forbes of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee (HASC) questioned USAF Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz in late February about the 2009 RAND report "A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute."
The study concludes that the USAF and USN would no longer dominate the PLA in any conceivable Taiwan Straits scenario, reversing the think tank’s decades-long position on probable outcomes of such a conflict.
The PLAAF would emerge victorious regardless of whether the USAF were able to commit its force of Lockheed Martin F-22 fighters—and regardless of whether strikes could be launched from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa—according to RAND’s mathematical modeling and analysis.
Even plugging two US Navy carrier battle groups into the equation would not roll back the Chinese force.
"A credible case can be made that the air war for Taiwan could essentially be over before much of the Blue air force has even fired a shot. Threats to Blue air bases and a more evenly matched qualitative balance combine to paint a very troubling picture," according to the RAND study.
General Schwartz seemed not to be aware of the study or of its implications and requested time to research the subject and respond to the committee at a later date.
"You would think this makes a compelling case for the Obama Administration to reverse the US position since 2006 and release the 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 52+ fighter aircraft that Taiwan have requested to purchase," said one U.S. industry representative familiar with the situation of the ROC Air Force.
Some point to the PRC’s plans to change the name of the Varyag carrier to the Shi Lang as proof of Beijing’s long-term intentions.
Shi was a Qing Dynasty admiral who in 1683 became famous for conquering the Kingdom of Tungning, a territory known more commonly today as Taiwan.
"The PLA armed forces did not pick a name like this by accident," said one US industry executive.