The Soviet takeover of Afghanistan and the January visit of United States Defense Secretary Harold Brown to the People's Republic of China have focused the world's attention on Peking as a potential military ally of the West.
These developments may also mean that vast new business opportunities in China may open up in the future.
In recent years, China has been hailed as a huge new market that somehow never materialized. The hard fact is that China's total foreign trade is only as large as that of Finland or Yugoslavia, and its ability to import foreign goods and technology is severely limited by its need to export some minerals and products that are either badly needed to sustain China's industrialization or that do not find a very ready market in the West. China's textiles are a case in point.
This trade, however, could escalate dramatically if China is perceived as an overt ally of NATO countries to counteract the Soviet threat in Western Europe and Central Asia. As such, China would be a candidate for Western military and economic assistance of massive proportions far surpassing the levels of those huge military sales to Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Israel.
Modernization of China's armed forces, a state objective of the Peking leadership, means the modernization of one of the largest military establishments in the world and its supporting industrial complex.
With a total military manpower of 4.3 million, China's ground forces alone number 3.6 million men, about 1 million more than the Soviet Army and almost four times as many as the US Army. The Chinese Navy operates more than 1,000 vessels and ranks second worldwide only to the Soviet Union in number of units. China's Air Force is unquestionably the third largest in the world and deploys well over 5,000 aircraft and helicopters of all types.
On the other hand, much of China's military equipment is relatively obsolete.More often than not it is based on old Soviet designs or on outdated East bloc imports.
China's latest supersonic fighter F-9, for example, is believed to be a further development of the Chinese-built but Soviet-licensed MIG-19 interceptor which, by itself, is at least a 20-year-old technology. In fact, if China were to modernize its huge Air Force, up-to-date electronics and avionics systems alone would cost about $4 billion, which is equivalent to almost 1 percent of China's gross national product. This amount is also equal to the current estimated output of China's total electronics industry, which is already the seventh or eighth largest in the world, comparable in size to that of the United Kingdom, Canada, or East Germany, although considerably less sophisticated.
Besides obsolescence of its equipment, China's large military establishment suffers from deficiencies that could only be corrected by massive transfers of technology and military equipment sales to China. Chinese armed forces are primarily defensive in nature and, as an example, would not at present have the capability of staging a military action similar to the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, even though China also has a common border with that country. This is equally true in the case of Pakistan, which also borders on China, and has received Chinese military assistance in the past. This is so because China's military air transport mobility is still in its infancy.
Yet China's potential value as an ally of NATO would lie in its ability to prevent further Soviet penetrations into Pakistan, Iran, or Indochina by rapidly moving military supplies or even troops to threatened areas or even deploying military forces within its own vast territories. Geopolitically, it is best suited to counter such Soviet actions because of its geographical position, but without Western and Japanese assistance it would present only a limited deterrent to further Soviet adventures in Asia, unless it resorted to the immediate use of theater nuclear weapons.
Pakistan, in particular, presents an immediate danger area because of a centuries-old Russian ambition to gain access to warm-water ports on the Indian Ocean. Some political analysts fear that Soviet action in Afghanistan is but a prelude to the creation of Baluchistan, a new pro-Soviet country carved out of contiguous parts of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, which contain a common ethnic population. Such a new state would give the Soviets direct control of all the oil being shipped from the Persian Gulf and would make the economies of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan extremely vulnerable to a potential Soviet blockade or embargo.
With so much at stake and a deteriorating situation in the Middle East, the NATO countries are clearly looking for a solution that could prevent further Soviet adventures in that region. China's military potential, its size, location, and awareness of the Soviet threat make it practically the only choice as an effective long-term ally. Thus a closer security relationship between China and NATO countries is now a distinct possibility.
This being the case, it is worthwhile to examine the Chinese military-industrial complex in more detail to assess its potential strengths and weaknesses and to determine where and how Western assistance could bolster its effectiveness, particularly if export control restrictions on sales of strategic goods to China are eased in the future.
On the current "four modernizations" drive of China most Sinologists believe that development of agriculture and light industries has top priority, particularly since the reassessment of the ambitious 1978-85 industrial development plans that resulted in cancellation or delays of many heavy industrial projects during 1979. According to this school of thought, military modernization was not receiving equal development priority with regard to other sectors of the economy.
The lessons apparently learned by the Chinese during their Vietnam invasion in early 1979 may have increased their emphasis on modernization of their military forces, and the reassessment of the 1978-85 development programs also must have been influenced by that action.
But perhaps the most specific indications of the directions in which China wants to pursue the modernization of its military forces can be found among the priorities of its relatively little-known science and technology development plan, whose objectives do not appear to have been reassessed like those of its industrial counterpart.
The 1978-85 science and technology development plan, which runs parallel to the original industrial development plan for a similar period, singles out eight major priority areas. These include agriculture, energy, materials, electronic computers, lasers, space sciences, high-energy physics, and genetic engineering. China's interest in the other priorities, except in the areas of agriculture and genetic engineering, suggests significant military potential.
These priorities, which are first in line for allocation of development funds , also indicate technological deficiencies of China and are a good guide to the type of assistance that might be required to modernize China's armed forces and their supporting industrial complex.
China's military establishment consists of eight service arms of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), supported by a military-industrial complex of six machine-building ministries, which supervise the production of military hardware and supplies. A national defense scientific and technological commission directs weapons research and development, which takes place at institutes within the six defense industry ministries, the Chinese academy of Sciences, and presumably at other leading technical universities and colleges.
Overall control rests with the Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee.
The nuclear weapons program is supervised by the Second Ministry of Machine Building, which operates a uranium-enrichment gaseous diffusion plant in Langzhou, a plutonium plant at Yumen, and other nuclear materials plants at Baotou. Ironically, the Chinese nuclear weapons program was originally based on Soviet assistance which was withdrawn after 1959. Uranium mines and the Lop Nor nuclear weapons testing range are also believed to be under the supervision of this ministry. China tested its first atom bomb in 1964 and three years later exploded its first hydrogen bomb. Since then, more than 20 nuclear tests have been made in China, most of them in the atmosphere.
Within the energy priority of the 1978-85 science and technology development plan, China proposes to develop nuclear power and continue its fusion research program. In its laser development program, the plan also indicates an interest in laser-induced nuclear fusion and in isotope separation, a laser technique expected to lead to more efficient uranium-enrichment methods. The gaseous diffusion process uses a great amount of electric power, which is in very short supply throughout China; therefore improved uranium-enrichment methods would be of great strategic value to China.
Otherwise, the energy development program within China's science and technology development plan calls for research and development of a number of diverse energy sources, including geothermal, tidal, solar, wind, oil shale, coal, marsh gas, and biogas. This is somewhat surprising because China is well endowed with oil and coal resources.
Almost 67 percent of China's energy comes from coal, which is widely available, but oil supplies at least 23 percent of the total and is irreplaceable in production of military fuels. However, most Chinese oil comes from oil fields situated relatively close to Soviet borders, and even in a limited conventional Sino-Soviet conflict, these could easily fall under Soviet control. Thus development of alternative sources of energy and potential oil fields in southern regions of China are vital to its national security.
One of the most critical technology development priorities of China pertains to strategic materials. It is not widely known that, on average, China spends 25 percent of its foreign exchange annually on imports of raw materials such as iron and steel, copper, aluminum, nickel, chromium, cobalt, platinum, magnesium, and vanadium. These metals are vital to an independent military-industrial complex and, contrary to popular beliefs, China is not entirely self-sufficient.
Whereas China's import dependence in strategic materials is considerably smaller than that of the US, Western Europe, or Japan, it is nowhere near as self-sufficient as the Soviet Union. China also knows what it means when strategic imports are embargoed, and it experienced severe shortages of chromium , nickel, cobalt, and even oil when the Soviet Union reduced the exports of these strategic materials to China after the Sino-Soviet rift of 1960.
To escape the Soviet strategic-materials embargoes, China undertook a series of imaginative foreign aid programs in Albania, the world's third-largest chromium producer, and in East Africa. Up to 20,000 members of the People's Liberation Army's Railway Engineering Corps in Tanzania and Zambia built the Tazara railroad into the hinterland of southern Africa's strategic mining regions, which supply the bulk of those same strategic materials also required by NATO countries and Japan. Later, the Soviet threat to that region, created by the introduction of Cubans into Angola and Mozambique in 1975, also contributed to the development of a common strategic interest for China and the NATO allies.
It is no wonder, therefore, that China considers the development of materials technology of "paramount importance of modernization." Its plan calls for intensified exploration for copper and bauxite, and for becoming a leading producer of titanium and vanadium. China also plans to become a leading refiner of nickel and cobalt, even though it is not believed to possess significant deposits of those metals. It is obvious, however, that through cooperation with NATO countries China can be assured of these strategic supplies, particularly as the demand of its growing industries increases rapidly.
Chinese plans to become a leading titanium producer clearly point to its determination to continue as a major aircraft manufacturing country. Ever since the Korean war, Chinese military strategists have been extremely impressed with the importance of a modern air force, and this resulted in a huge effort to develop an independent aircraft industry. Titanium, on the other hand, finds its greatest use in manufacture of jet engines and supersonic aircraft. TThe Third Ministry of Machine Building is in charge of aircraft and jet engine production in China, which until recently were based mostly on Soviet designs and licenses. Nevertheless, China's aircraft industry is already among the largest in the world and has to maintain and equip a fleet of over 6,000 military and civilian aircraft of all types.
For many years now, China has been producing jet fighters, some medium-range bombers, and Soviet-type MI-4 helicopters. China's greatest weakness is its lack of a modern jet transport manufacturing capability that would provide badly needed air transport mobility to its armed forces and military equipment.
China already took the basic step to modernize its aircraft industry by purchases of licenses to manufacture British Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan jet engines in 1976. The negotiations with McDonnell-Douglas for the assembly of the DC-9 Super 80 jet transports in China is clearly another step to modernize the aircraft industry. Another logical expectation is the transfer of modern technology to manufacture helicopters. France and West Germany are likely sources, particularly if export controls continue to ban such exports from the US.
China's strategic forces are relatively small and unsophisticated, but include bombers and ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
China's aerospace industry produces the CSS-1 and CSS-2 medium-and intermediate-range missiles and more recently is believed to have produced the CSS-3 ICBM with 10,000-kilometer range enhancing China's nuclear strike capability against targets in Asia. Under de velopment is the CSS-X-4 missile, which is believed to be a truly intercontinental ballistic missile for which testing ranges may have to be arranged in the Pacific Ocean.
Since 1970, China has launched at least eight earth satellites of its own, some of which are estimated to have weighed between three and five tons, and several have been brought back to earth.
The 1975-85 science and technology development plan stresses space sciences as a major priority. Specfically, the Chinese want to develop the use of satellites for remote sensing, launching space probes and orbiting laboratories. Satallites, of course, play a primary role as military intelligence vehicles, and it is logical to assume that an intensive surveillance satellite development program is taking place in China, because this has been one of its major strategic weakness. On the other hand, this activity is further complicated by the fact that Soviet so-called "killer" satellite tests have taken place at orbital altitudes corresponding to those of Chinese satellites.
Here Chinese insistence on giving priority to the development of lasers and high-energy physics becomes quite significant, because those are the two disciplines that provide the technology for the future "energy weapons." High-powered lasers already are regarded as effective, and antisatellite weapons and future satellites themselves may be equipped with such lasers. Chinese space strategists must have been concerned about 1975 reports of a reconnaisance satellite that was "blinded" by a ground-based Soviet laser system. With several hundred Soviet satellites overflying China every day, an antisatellite laser weapon should be very attractive to the Chinese.
All of those modern weapons systems depend heavily on advanced electronics for accurate tracking, telemetering, controls.
China is well aware that if it is to present a credible modern military deterrent against the Soviet Union, it must obtain the most advanced electronics technology.
It is estimated that Chinese ground forces operate about 10,000 tanks of all types, which is comparable to the number of tanks in the US armed forces, although it is only one-quarter of what the Soviets have in service.
China also has about 3,500 armored personnel carriers, 38,000 heavy and light artillery pieces, including 6,000 heavy mortars, which is twice as many as in the US Army. As for small arms and ammunition, China must be in a position to supply not only the 4.3 million men in the PLA, but also an estimated 7 million armed militia security forces and possibly several million members of the of urban militia, which are presumably under the command of the Ministry of Internal Security, whose previous minister was the present Chairman Hua Guofeng.
It is clear that China's military-industrial complex is already enormous by any standards, but the technological, production, and management problems facing it during modernization are equally great.