TAIPEI — Are Western experts on China’s military modernization efforts misreading and downplaying the level of ambition, sophistication and just plain guts the Chinese are showing in the country’s quest to be a top arms player?
Time and time again, Western analysts have described China’s fighter development as years behind the U.S. They say China’s new aircraft carrier couldn’t last a minute against a U.S. naval task force. And they say landing a fighter on the aircraft carrier is years away.
Yet over the past two years, two new stealth fighter aircraft have emerged from behind the veil. When photographs appeared, naysayers called them Photoshopped. Then when videos appeared showing them flying, analysts dismissed them as prototypes that will never go into production.
China’s military aviation industry has its weaknesses, especially in engine development, but its learning curve is impressive. Events in November provided numerous examples of how China appears years ahead of schedule, instead of years behind, as so many Western analysts claim.
First, China showed off many of its best military aircraft at the ninth Zhuhai Airshow Nov. 13-18. The only Western analyst willing to push aside his laptop and jump into the fray was Andrew Erickson, a professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College.
What Erickson saw, and his colleagues did not, was a wide range of new weapons: the air-to-ground LD-10A anti-radiation missile; the SD-10A surface-to-air missile; a model of the new Harrier III UAV; the Blue Fox target drone, based on the L-15 fighter jet trainer; the Minshan Engine, set to replace the Ukrainian engine in the L-15; and an upgrade to the Guizhou FTC-2000 (JL-9) fighter, now with more hard points.
The second thing that upset the apple cart for Western analysts was news that China might buy 24 Russian-built Su-35 fighters. Too many analysts predicted Russia had been badly burned by the Su-27/J-11B scandal and would never try another deal with China.
Yet rumors of the deal emerging at the Zhuhai Airshow appear correct. Russia has caved to demands by China to begin with an initial buy of 24 Su-35s, rather than the 48 originally demanded by Moscow.
The problem is the Russians are still terrified the Chinese will simply reverse-engineer the fighter and produce clones, as they did with the Russian Su-27 when they began manufacturing the Shenyang J-11B.
There are also suspicions that the Chinese do not actually want the Su-35, but instead will use the engines for the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. The Saturn AL-117S engine is outfitted in both the Su-35 fighter and the T-50 stealth fighter prototype. If the Chinese procure one spare for every four engines installed on the 24 Su-35s, alarm bells should begin going off in Moscow, said a U.S. defense industry analyst.
The third thing that caught many Washington analysts off guard was the release of videos showing a Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighter landing and taking off from the new Liaoning aircraft carrier. Previous photographs appearing on the Internet showed black skid marks on the carrier’s flight deck, hinting that the Chinese were preparing the carrier for landings. Naysayers in Washington said the marks were most likely touch-and-go marks by fighters and that landings or take-offs were not possible this early.
They were wrong again.
“If you are talking about ‘is China achieving carrier capabilities like a U.S.-like naval power,’ then the answer is, ‘no, it’s not,’” said Gary Li, an analyst at U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis. “If U.S. analysts are looking at it with their own [past] knowledge of how naval powers develop and the U.S. Navy experience, then no.” But the “Chinese are not playing that game,” Li said.
“The recent air operations by the Chinese aircraft carrier demonstrate that the PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] is developing an operational aircraft carrier capability much faster than many Western observers anticipated,” said Sam Bateman, senior research fellow in the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Bateman is not surprised.
“I have always believed that given Beijing’s perceptions of a more threatening strategic environment and China’s technological achievements in other areas, the aircraft carrier capability could be developed quite quickly if it were given high priority,” he said.
Li, who grew up in Beijing, said the fact the chief engineer responsible “for the J-15 literally worked himself to death should say something to Western commentators as to the dedication of these people.” For China to achieve so much in the “middle of every arms embargo under the sun and with such a little research and development base to start with is impressive.”
York Chen, a former member of Taiwan’s National Security Council in the Chen Shui-bian administration, said Taiwan’s intelligence assessments in 2006 indicated that China’s aircraft carrier program, along with its efforts to develop the J-15, were impressive. For that reason, “we decided to speed up our supersonic anti-carrier missile program in 2006.” The result was the unveiling of the Hsiung Feng 3 anti-ship cruise missile in 2011.
So what is it about the tendency of Washington analysts to get China’s military modernization effort wrong so many times?
“China is one of these things that can look like different things from different angles. The West loves calling it a dragon while China sees itself as a panda,” Li said. “I would say the key issue is that the West continues to view China and Chinese development from a Western-centric/Westphalian international relations tradition that places China into the ‘realist/revisionist’ camp,” he said. “However, as far as the Chinese are concerned, they are just getting on with national regeneration, with little outside help.”
However, there also is a concern that Beijing is misunderstanding Washington.
“The military dimensions of the U.S. pivot toward Asia, for example, has the undesirable consequence of fueling Chinese perceptions of a deteriorating and more threatening regional strategic environment,” Bateman said.
Bateman’s biggest fear is that a regional arms race will develop as a result of this current process of action and reaction — the classic security dilemma, and an urgent and more focused strategic dialogue is required to prevent this from occurring.