The Haifa 6th East Asian studies conference 2007 – China’s military power

Every year, one of the Israeli universities holds the annual East Asia conference. This year, during the 6th and 7th of June, the 2007 6th annual East Asia conference was held at the Haifa university, covering various topics addressed by Israeli researchers, mainly about China and Japan. The previous 2006 conference was covered in “TAU Far-east conference : day 1” and “TAU Far-east conference : day 2“.

Despite the distance between Haifa and Jerusalem, I finally decided to go the whole way for just one day in what was my first visit to the Haifa University.

The Haifa 6th East Asian studies conference 2007 - China's military power

Of the few sessions I attended during the conference, I will write the discussion over the hot topic of China’s military power, which was the first session to open the conference.

Prof. Shichor – Background

Prof. Shichor of Haifa University was the chairman of the session and gave the general background:

There were two major events recently that has been widely discussed in regards to the issue of China’s military strength:

  • During October 2006, a Chinese submarine was spotted next to the American aircraft carrier. The Americans weren’t able to detect the submarine before it came up. The Chinese celebrated their technology when the submarine returned to the shores of China.
  • During January 2007, the Chinese launched a missile which took down one of their satellite. The Americans were completely caught by surprise. Many concerns were raised over the future warfare.

The Pentagon released a new report on China’s military power 3 weeks ago. The different with the current report is that this time it is very vaguely suggested that China is developing capabilities that go beyond their region that might threaten the American forces world-wide. Advances are shown in both doctrine and weapons purchase from Russia.

Two basic questions are :

  • Is China really going into massive military development aiming towards international global influences? Are the Americans making this up for domestic reasons?
  • If they are – what for? who’s threatening China? for what purpose?


Yoram Evron

Yoram is a PhD student focusing on the military balance in the East-Asia region.

How is it possible that the Chinese have gone through such dramatic changes in less than 10 years? The Chinese have made remarkable advances – submarines, laser beams against satellite, Internet infrastructure attack, yet the Pentagon report also specifies the Chinese technological problems.

There are global consequences for the world power balance. Since 1979 the Chinese are modernizing but it was only after the 1996 Taiwan crisis that the Chinese really changed direction. Till 1996 modernization took two separate paths : Doctrine changed from relying on the masses of the people’s army into something a bit more professional with reorganization and HR improvements. But, there was no major improvement in weaponry. Since 1996 – the Chinese are no longer talking about homeland defense and being attacked, but rather about limited-time border war.

The first sign of change was at the beginning of the 1990s when the army started to put more pressure on the government and the politicians complied. The first change was when the Chinese started to import new IT systems from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Still, the change was insufficient, especially when considering China’s size – weapons budget was smaller than India, S.Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey and S.Arabia. The real change came in 1996 during the Taiwan crisis. The Chinese did massive naval maneuvers and launch missiles next to Taiwan which resulted in the Americans bringing in two aircraft carriers. The Chinese then realized that they have no answer for the American superpower threat. What made it more complicated was that the US wasn’t threatening China land, but rather China’s dominance and influence over the area, a threat that was a bit difficult for the Chinese to explain. The Chinese became much more realistic in their goals and short-term oriented, focusing on deception measures, psychological warfare, and other low-cost means which cause serious damage but reduce the need for grand scale investment.

Suddenly, it became harder for the military experts to diss the Chinese army. In  recent years there’s a big surprise, maybe even panic, over the Chinese war capabilities. But, we have to remember that the achievements are very limited in are in very specific fields. The Chinese government didn’t let go of the grand scale plans “Beyond Taiwan” long-term goals. The question remains – what is the ratio between short and long term plans? Today, we assume that the short term goals are on a higher precedence… so far, although the long-term goals are impressive as they are frightening they still seem to be virtual goals.


Prof. Eli Yoffe

Prof. Eli Yoffe is an Israeli expert on “Modern Chinese history and politics focusing on the Chinese Military” :

The Pentagon report is the main source for the “China threat”. The report has been coming out every year since 2000, but the most threatening reports are from 2005. There are many problems with the report, the non-army Americans accept the facts described but disagree with the conclusions and interpretations.

Is China developing capacities “Beyond Taiwan?”. Let us discuss the Chinese goals in the international arena that requires army capabilities :

Defense – Mao’s doctrine was based on the masses, not technology. Mao’s death didn’t bring change due to lack of money, but the doctrine began to change. In 1990 there were a few slight changes due to internal politics between the party and the army, and the affect of the American technological display at the Gulf War. The first major change was in 1995 over Taiwan – the Chinese will not accept Taiwanese independence so if Taiwan will declare it, the Chinese will invade and they will probably face the Americans. The Chinese also assume that in this case the Americans will attack Chinese soil.

Superpower – there are historical and psychological reasons, declared since 1949. For all those years the superpower intentions didn’t affect the army since it was lacking resources. But the Chinese now agree that they have to develop a military power which fits with their new international status. They know that they can’t become the US, yet this has became an operational objective. Even if the Taiwan issues resolved, it will not stop the Chinese from arming. With that said, they are still very far from their objective as they lack aircraft carriers, a strong naval fleet, long range missiles, remote bases and they’re actually doing nothing today to achieve those. The Chinese army today doesn’t have much, but it’s enough that they’re serious about making their new super-power goal operational.

The Chinese threat started when the Chinese responded to what they perceived as a threat from the US to what they would do over the Taiwan straits. It’s a remarkable self fulfilling prophecy. The Americans then perceived the Chinese as a bigger threat and are arming accordingly, which in turn will make the Chinese arm etc. It’s a classic case of cold-war. So, it seems that Taiwan is the basic cause for the upcoming arm race between China and America.

“Truth is in the eye of the beholder” – If China is a raising power then it’s acceptable that they try and to close the big gap between their status and their capabilities, which means that the Americans are over-reacting. The Chinese development is mainly aimed at “sea denial strategy” over a possible Taiwan conflict and not much beyond that. The Americans are exaggerating the threat for internal political reasons.


Dr. Alon Lefkobitch

Dr. Lefkobitch is an East-Asia expert focusing on the Koreas.

Costa Rica recently cut Taiwan off because they received 20mUS$ instead of 200mUS$. The Taiwanese just claimed to be independent in their recent trip to Japan, but no one seemed to notice or care. The Americans attitude towards Asia is almost racist – with China, as it is with the Koreans – every achievement is a big surprise.

Taiwan – there’s a big concern for escalation, as S.Korea and Japan have to ‘help’ the US when they engage China. S. Korea sees China as a threat, but, in practice, S. Korea tries to improve relations and get closer to China. S. Korea is very concerned about the arms race. N. Korea has an interest that the world will focus on China.


Prof. Shichor – Summary

Since when is China a threat to the US? Others say 1995/96, but it was actually since 1989 with the collapse of the USSR. China instantly became a much bigger threat , but that threat is mutual. We like to neglect the Chinese perspective, but fact is that the Chinese are afraid of the Americans. It’s a process and it takes a while for things to mature, which is why the results of the  change are only apparent in 98/99. Taiwan 1995 was an interesting event, but it wasn’t that influential. If we were Chinese we would all be worried about the US bases situated all over Asia. Come to think of it, we can also understand the Iranians are feeling the same thing.

What really happened in 95/96? it looks odd that the Chinese wouldn’t predict the US response, like some colleagues suggested. The Chinese knew exactly what was going to happen, but still decided to send out a strong message.

The Chinese budget is 45 bUS$, which is big, but not even top 3 in the world. The American budget is 460bUS$, and that doesn’t even include expenses over Iraq, Afghanistan.

The cheap alternative for the Chinese is electronic warfare, cyberspace warfare. Looking at the Estonia example on April, there was a dispute with Russia, and the Russians blacked out all the online systems in Estonia. The Chinese are already showing attack capabilities into basic homeland infrastructure. If the Chinese want to build carriers, they can, but it’s doubtful whether they want to do this since it’s not a good investment.

The potential war between US and China everyone keeps referring to is almost impossible, due to the tight economical ties. It’s a symbiotic relationship. And so – why invest in an army? all the “threat” is specific overblown events, but if you look into it – the overall interpretation is different.


Comments from the audience – Aaron Shay

There’s already a war going on between the US and China, and it’s the biggest one of all – the war for materials and markets. This will continue to create tension between China and the US.


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