A Primer On China's Military

Melissa Block speaks with Eric Heginbotham — senior political scientist at RAND — about China's military capability today, how it's developed over time and what the Chinese make of ramped-up attention from the US.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to someone who keeps a close eye on both China's military capabilities and what its intentions might be. Eric Heginbotham is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He specializes in East Asian security issues. I asked what he sees as China's core security interests.

DR. ERIC HEGINBOTHAM: Within the region, I would say its number one sort of defensive concern is what it calls countercontainment, and that is to avoid an encircling ring of hostile bases and alliances. In its view, in this scenario, the United States is, of course, the villain, and the United States is the only power that can - that could organize or orchestrate, you know, a collective of states that could encircle China. So I think that is sort of a core defensive value. And at the same time, you know, it's pretty clear China also looks to increase its political influence both in the East Asia region and globally, and probably also, fair to say, that it looks to do so, at least within the region, probably at the expense of the United States.

BLOCK: When we talk about the size of the Chinese military, it's the world's biggest country. Does it also have the world's biggest military, biggest armed forces?

HEGINBOTHAM: It's certainly right up there. It's got a military of roughly 2.2 million people. They had been downsizing as part of their modernization efforts. So that's actually about half the size that it was in the 1980s.

BLOCK: Half the size of the '80s. How does it compare with the size of the U.S. military?

HEGINBOTHAM: The U.S. military today has about 1.5 million people on active-duty service, so it is substantially larger. But more important than the number of people, really, is the technology that these forces have.

BLOCK: And let's talk about that technology. When you think about weapon systems that have been - that the Chinese have been active in developing, what really springs to mind?

HEGINBOTHAM: Well, you know, they've really been pushing on a broad front since the 1980s. These efforts accelerated around 1996, '97 period, around the Taiwan Straits Crisis. And military spending picked up substantially then, and they've invested in, you know, modernizing virtually all areas of their capabilities, from submarines to fighter aircraft, accurate conventional ballistic missiles, as well as nuclear forces, cyber capabilities and space and counterspace. So it's really been a very broad-based effort.

BLOCK: China is, of course, a nuclear power. What - how much is known about its nuclear weapons program? How much transparency is there?

HEGINBOTHAM: The Chinese are very reluctant to share information about their nuclear program. Part of the reason is that their nuclear capabilities are almost certainly quite limited. That's been changing over time. So they've gone from a situation in the 19, you know, mid-1990s, where they had a dozen or two intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States to a situation today where they have a much more robust force. They've tried to improve survivability, so they've manufactured mobile systems, solid-fuel systems, which can launch on warning.

So they've done a lot to increase the sort of robustness of their nuclear posture and its survivability. They're also adding new classes of nuclear ballistic submarines.

BLOCK: Overall, Eric, when you think about the U.S.-Chinese military relationship, at what point are we?

HEGINBOTHAM: I think we're at a point where, you know, it'll be increasingly important for us to think about how we can buttress our deterrent capabilities, maintain our military capabilities, particularly in East Asia, but also think about how to address and hopefully resolve some of the flash points or problem areas that could potentially cause a conflict.

BLOCK: Eric Heginbotham, senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation, thanks very much.

HEGINBOTHAM: Thank you.

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