Assessing Beijing's defense modernization programs in the midst of increasing apprehension over the growth of China's military power is a daunting task. During the Cold War, despite some concern over the long-term implications for the United States, assessments were viewed through the prism of China's role in containing the Soviet Union. Improvements in Beijing's military power were seen as serving U.S. interests by requiring Moscow to divert resources from the possible confrontation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. By the mid-1990s, this perspective had shifted. Many observers perceived Beijing's confrontation with Taiwan and its aggressive, nationalistic approaches to territorial claims in the South China Sea as indicators of the belligerent policies China will pursue as economic enrichment and improvements in indigenous science and technology capabilities enhance its military power. Swelling defense budgets and military technology links with Russia, Israel, and Europe are viewed as giving China the potential to destabilize East Asia and challenge U.S. military preeminence. Analysts are divided by two factors in regards to the progress in defense modernization. The two factors are the changed perspective from which China's defense modernization is now viewed, and the differing estimates of the speed with which China can develop and produce weapons and technologies associated with the revolution in military affairs (RMA). The purpose of this essay is not to resolve these differences or bridge this divide. Rather, the differences will be identified to underscore the difficulties in assessing the progress China has made in two decades of defense modernization.
Asian Perspectives on the Challenges of China: Papers from the Asia-Pacific Symposium, March 7 and 8, 2000, p.15-28