WCBE

As China's Military Grows, U.S. Assesses Risks

Feb 14, 2012
Originally published on February 14, 2012 6:16 pm

At the White House on Tuesday, President Obama greeted China's Vice President Xi Jinping and called for cooperation between the two nations.

Later in the day, the Chinese vice president crossed the Potomac to visit the Pentagon, where the U-S military may hope for cooperation, but has to plan for possible confrontation.

The Pentagon's new budget request, unveiled Monday, signals a shift for the US military, with a greater focus on the Pacific.

China is building more ships and aircraft, and is now patrolling hundreds of miles out into the Pacific.

China's satellites and surveillance aircraft are shadowing American carrier groups. Its warships are provoking Japanese and Vietnamese ships. China's military might, says the new Pentagon strategy, is causing friction in the region.

"Rising powers in Asia are testing international rules and relationships," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "We will rebalance our global posture and presence to emphasize Asia Pacific and the Middle East, because those areas represent the threats for the future."

Panetta didn't say China was one of those threats. Yet no one doubts that China is the reason the U.S. will maintain eleven aircraft carriers, develop a new long-range bomber, and work with allies like Australia and Singapore to base combat troops and ships in those countries.

Chinese Intentions Unclear

For the most part, though, China's intentions remain a question mark.

"What type of force is China building and why are they building it? And what does that mean for the region?" asks

David Finkelstein, a China expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, a government think tank. "We're really at a point now where for the first time China has accrued operational capability to project force further out from their shores and in their airspace than ever before."

Finkelstein says that Chinese military leaders believe they are a global economic power, and must create a military to protect their interests.

That's why the Pentagon is pushing for that new long-range bomber and stealth aircraft. They could be used to penetrate Chinese airspace, largely unseen.

Cyber Threats

But the idea of a Chinese military that can really challenge the United States is still a long way off.

A more immediate concern is China's skill at cyberattacks — the ability to hack into or even destroy computer systems, both commercial and military.

Chinese military strategists have made cyber war-fighting capability a priority. So the new Pentagon budget sets aside more than $3 billion for cyber operations and defense.

At Tuesday's Senate hearing, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, about the growing cyber capabilities of China's military.

Dempsey said he would consider cyber attacks to be a crime, or possibly even a "hostile act."

Graham told Dempsey he would be having lunch soon with China's vice president.

"So what do you want me to tell him?" Graham said.

"Happy Valentine's Day," Dempsey replied.

The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, told Graham to pass on another message: cyberattacks from China are mighty serious stuff and must stop.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. President Obama called today for cooperation between the U.S. and China as he welcome China's vice president to the White House. Later in the day, that same V.P. crossed the Potomac to visit the Pentagon, where the U.S. military may hope for cooperation but must plan for confrontation.

SIEGEL: The Pentagon's new budget was unveiled yesterday, and it signals a shift for the U.S. military. The focus is on the Pacific. And as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the main reason for the shift is to keep an eye on China's growing military strength.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: China is building more ships and aircraft, and is now patrolling hundreds of miles out into the Pacific. China's satellites and surveillance aircraft are shadowing American carrier groups. Its warships are provoking Japanese and Vietnamese ships. China's military might, says the new Pentagon strategy, is causing friction in the region.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Rising powers in Asia are testing international rules and relationships.

BOWMAN: That's Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifying today about the new budget before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

PANETTA: We will rebalance our global posture and presence to emphasize Asia Pacific and the Middle East because those areas represent the threats for the future.

BOWMAN: Panetta didn't say China was one of those threats, but no one doubts that China is the reason the U.S. will maintain 11 aircraft carriers, develop a new long-range bomber, work with allies like Australia and Singapore to base combat troops and ships. For the most part, though, China's intentions remain a question mark.

DR. DAVID FINKELSTEIN: What type of force, though, the China's building, and why are they building it? And what does that mean for the region?

BOWMAN: David Finkelstein is a China expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, a government think tank.

FINKELSTEIN: We're really at a point now where, for the first time, the Chinese have accrued the operational capabilities to project force further out from their shores and in their airspace than ever before.

BOWMAN: Finkelstein says that Chinese leaders believe they are a global economic power and must create a military to protect their interests.

FINKELSTEIN: Here's the concern, though. The concern is that there are certain types of capabilities that the Chinese are developing that appear, if you look through the prism of the Pentagon, to be aimed specifically at denying U.S. forces the ability to operate with impunity in the Western Pacific.

BOWMAN: It's a pretty long list of weapons.

FINKELSTEIN: Precision-guided munitions, anti-ship ballistic missiles, a large number of submarines, those sorts of things.

BOWMAN: But the idea of a Chinese military that can really challenge United States is still a long way off. A more immediate concern is China's skill at cyber attacks - the ability to hack into or even destroy computer systems, both commercial and military. Chinese military strategists have made cyber war-fighting capability a priority. At today's Senate hearing, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey about the growing cyber capabilities of China's military.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Let's say if we could find that the People's Liberation Army was involved in hacking into our defense infrastructure, would you consider that a hostile act by the Chinese?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: I would consider it to be a crime. I think there are other measures that could be taken in cyber that would rise to the level of a hostile act.

GRAHAM: What would they be?

DEMPSEY: Attacking our critical infrastructure.

GRAHAM: And that could be a hostile act...

DEMPSEY: I think so.

GRAHAM: ...allowing us to respond in kind?

DEMPSEY: Well, in my view, that's right.

BOWMAN: Graham told Dempsey he'd be having lunch within the hour with China's vice president.

GRAHAM: So what do you want me to tell him?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEMPSEY: Happy Valentine's Day.

GRAHAM: OK. All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOWMAN: The committee chairman, Senator Carl Levin, told Graham to pass on another message to the Chinese leader: Cyber attacks from China are mighty serious stuff and must stop. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.