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Chinese Army Drives Crisis
(UPI) -- The Chinese military appears to be driving the current
standoff between China and the United States over the April 1 collision
between a U.S. Navy spy plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter in an effort
to force an increase in Beijing's defense budget, administration officials
told United Press International.
"There's no doubt that the China's Defense Ministry is the force behind
the increasing difficulties we're experiencing," said one senior administration
analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another U.S. official said: "What we're trying to determine is, what
interest does the People's Liberation Army have in resolving this
stand-off and releasing our crew? Not much so far."
John Pike, of Alexandria, Va.-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org,
told UPI that the Chinese military is facing "an extraordinary resource
squeeze" after it was ordered last year to divest itself of its huge,
octopus-like business empire.
According to Pentagon officials, the PLA operated more than 10,000
businesses, among them international hotels, discos, prostitution
rings, railroads, postal services, karaoke parlors, telecommunications
companies, and toilet paper manufacturers, among others. The PLA's
business assets on paper were estimated to be $9.7 billion, but were
in fact probably "worth a lot more," one official said.
While administration officials said that the divesture has been only
partly successful, Pike said that the PLA "has lost a lot of operating
The PLA's divestiture of its various businesses coincided with a whopping
18 percent increase in the Chinese defense budget, but that went largely
towards pay increases for officers and enlisted men, and for improvement
in living conditions. Observers believe the PLA believes it still
needs additional funding as part of a modernization effort. For example,
China recently tried to buy Phalcon high-tech surveillance planes
from Israel, but the sale was blocked by the United States.
Commenting on the recent statement of Chinese Defense Minister Chi
Haotian, who said: "We want to convert our indignation with hegemonism
into a huge motivating force ... to build a stronger country and a
Pike retorted: "What Chi is saying basically is that we'll call this
off when we get more money."
But James Lilley, Asian studies expert at the American Enterprise
Institute, disagrees. Yes, Lilley said, the PLA were the first to
file a false report that a United States aircraft had deliberately
rammed a Chinese fighter, but the PLA's position is being supported
by the senior Communist Party leadership.
"This is being controlled by the (Chinese) State Council, a joint
group of civilian and military leaders where the civilians predominate."
Lilley said that the PLA has, over the past year, been ratcheting
up harassment of U.S. surveillance flights, sending up F-8s which
are "a rickety, lousy plane" to "fly over, under, alongside" U.S.
aircraft. The Chinese pilots were "poorly trained with very few flight
hours, and they scared the hell out of us," Lilley said.
Once the F-8 hit the EP-3 on April 1 and forced the plane and its
crew of 24 to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, the PLA
"immediately issued its version of the story," Lilley said. The information
was immediately embraced by the senior Communist Party leadership,
and even when facts emerged that showed the collision was caused by
the Chinese pilot's error and not U.S. aggressiveness, the leadership
was "stuck with the story -- the Infallible Emperor can't be wrong,
even though he went off half-cocked," Lilley said.
The strategy that emerged, Lilley said was: "Get as much as you can
out of the Americans. The Americans have short memories."
Lilley believes the PLA said something like: "We need additional resources
to deal with our enemies so let's turn defeat into victory. Whip up
popular outrage, turn the squeeze on."
Pike agreed, noting that the PLA gets is resources "from the Chinese
central budget," which so far "has proved inadequate." U.S. officials
said that the Beijing government with its growing fiscal debts lacks
the resources to fully support the PLA, which is the Chinese Communist
Party's ultimate defender, as shown by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Observers say the PLA has maintained, and even strengthened, its position
at the center of power since that time.
The crew of 24 Americans is currently in custody on the southern island
of Hainan. Chinese technicians have cannibalized the electronic surveillance
equipment on the aircraft, most of which is believed by U.S. officials
to have been disabled by the crew following the collision.
The EP-3E, based in Kadena, Okinawa, is part of an NSA/Navy airborne
surveillance network whose Asian headquarters is in Misawa, Japan,
with real-time links to NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade, Md. The flights
enable the United States to track emissions from air defense radars,
ships, planes, ground stations, submarines, and telecommunications
centers, among others.
China has insisted that the United States apologize for the incident,
which the Bush White House has refused to do. The other concern about
the PLA is its indifference to what the United States views as positive
incentives for China to quickly end the crisis, such as Beijing's
entrance to the World Trade Organization. "The PLA has no interest
in seeing China integrate itself in the world economy," said Pike.
But at home, the PLA is actively being opposed by what one U.S. official
called "regional government elements" -- boards of civilian and sometimes
military officials who are eager to build relationships with foreign
private companies and organizations as a way of developing their own
regions. "Links to the outside world are their way to prosperity,"
he said. These boards "definitely don't want to see a long crisis,"
the administration official said. "They want to avoid any economic
fall-out." But he was also doubtful what weight the regional bodies
would finally have in determining the outcome of the standoff.
One thing is clear, U.S. officials say: The PLA uses every opportunity
to try and re-assert its power. When the United States mistakenly
bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 8, 2000, the Chinese
military tried to exploit the incident to increase its popular support
by busing in angry demonstrators to protest in front of the U.S. Embassy.
"Our bombing of the embassy was a real gift," Pike said. A Pentagon
source said that the PLA "are trying to determine what Chinese national
interests are, and they want policies adopted that will give them
the bulk of the government's resources."
Pike said that while the PLA "won't let the crisis spin out of control,"
it will "milk it for all its worth.
"Those who think that the Chinese military leadership are going to
be nice to host the 2004 Olympics don't get it," said Pike. The PLA:
"is in a win-win situation: They will get more arms for China, slow
China's entry into the WTO, and do it at the cost of the political
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.