'Many Birds With One Stone or Reverse Engineering'
by Claude Arpi (Author of The Fate of Tibet)


George Bush's gift to Taiwan: P-3C Orion Aircrafts

Let us begin with a story. Soon after Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping was rehabilitated and in 1978, he staged a rapid come back to take over the 'Emperor's mantle'. However, in January 1979 when he visited the US, he was a very worried man. During the months to follow, he had planned to invade Vietnam to teach it a lesson to his archenemy in the communist world, but he rightly was not too sure of how reliable the People's Liberation Army's equipment and manpower was. He desperately needed to counter the Vietnamese army supported by the Soviet Union.

The story tells us that the little big man voiced his concern with influential circles in Washington, 'could the Soviet fleet damage the Chinese naval installations in the Paracel Islands?' A certain piece of equipment was of particular interest to the PLA: the Americans had developed a Mark-46 wire-guided air-to-sea torpedo which could be launched from a helicopter. It was a very advanced weapon perfectly suited to the Chinese need of enhancing its naval capacity. This closed loop torpedo did not leave trail in the water when it was fired. It could run at about 40 knots, and it was so silent that it was difficult for the enemy to detect it before it reached its target. After Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972 and the following warmer relations, Chinese naval experts had been trying to obtain this type of technology, but the rapprochement was too new to acquire the US military technologies officially. For China to develop a new torpedo from scratch would be too long and costly. The question was therefore how could be this technology acquired? It is against this background that Deng is supposed to have made a 'deal' with the American defense officials.

In an article China Strategic Review, Larry Englemann quotes from an interview with a Chinese naval officer: 'A group of American ships from Subic Bay, headed by the Coral Sea, came into the South China Sea near the Xisha (Paracel) Islands. While the Americans were patrolling in the area, either an American ship or helicopter with the group dropped several Mark 46 torpedoes near the islands. They beached themselves, unharmed, in the mud near our naval forces. We were able to salvage them successful and bring them ashore. Quite obviously, they were intended for us, and the object of the Americans was to provide them to us both secretly and intact. That was done. The two Mark 46s were armed. Everything. They were complete.'

It is besides the point that the acquired technology did not help the Chinese troops into China-Vietnam war; where they were thrashed by the Vietnamese, however the first steps to maintain a strong naval presence in South-East Asia had been set into motion. The 'reverse engineering' technology played an important role for this objective. In the case of the torpedo, it was not an easy job, but the Chinese scientists of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation were experts in the field. It would take more than 8 years to copy the torpedoes and in 1987, when the Chinese government was able to 'officially' acquire two new torpedoes, they could check the accuracy of the cloning. The Chinese torpedoes were good, but the engineers discovered that the Americans had enhanced their technology and made important modifications which had eventually to be included.

Two Birds with one Stone: The Chinese have a proverb 'yi jian shuang diao' (getting two birds with one stone). The recent incident in the South China Sea, when a US Navy aircraft EP-3E was intercepted by a Chinese fighter plane and forced to land on the island of Hainan (after having collided with another Chinese plane), may be the case of several birds beings hit by only one plane.

First the catch of the spy plane on April 1, should be seen in the context of the above story and the great skills of Chinese engineers to clone 'intercepted' armament, though it is clear that this time, the US did not collaborate. A great deal has been said on the incident itself and on the death of the pilot of the Chinese Jian-8 fighter after the alleged collision with the American plane, but the aspect of 'reverse engineering', which has certainly been for the Chinese PLA, the most important aspect of the incident, has been kept under wraps.

Several other points can be raised in the present situation. For several years, the US has been hunting for information on supposedly newly built Chinese submarines. The latest PLA's acquisitions are said to be two new types of submarines. One of particular interest and worry for the US navy: a modified model of the Russian Victor III. The Americans believe that it has the capacity to threaten their aircraft carrier. This is the reason why, in recent months, the US Navy had intensified its intelligence gathering. The interception of UHF and VHF communications in South China Sea is one of the most reliable sources of intelligence for the Americans. The EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence aircraft (SIGINT) which was on a intelligence and surveillance routine patrol, was one of a fleet of the 11 such planes which monitors and intercepts the communications and the radar around the world, particularly in the South China sea.

Secondly, could the hijacking of the spy plane help to advance China's naval capabilities like the torpedo did twenty years ago? One of the main weaknesses of the Chinese navy has been the electronic warfare (EW) which is the interception, analysis and protection of military communications and radar traffic. The American technology on board the spy plane was badly needed by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

The Pentagon knew since a long time that China had embarked on a modernization of its naval capacities. In its 1998 Pentagon Report, the Chinese weakness in EW was noted: 'The performance of Chinese naval EW systems probably will continue to lag behind state-of-art Western EW system.' The main objective of the PLAN is to be able to operate from its coast into the South China Sea as far as the contested Spratly Islands and even beyond.

The next question which arises was the crew able to disable the software equipment and destroy the sensitive information and components. The problem for the Americans was that the time between the collision and the 'emergency' landing in the island of Hainan, was very short. The pilot was specifically asked to give first priority to the human lives, but one can presume that out of the 24 staff on board, some of them were assigned to the quick destruction of all vital information. However, the time was still very short, no more than 15 minutes.

Another question which only the Americans can answer is: what was the percentage of software vs. hardware equipment on board of spy plane. Software is certainly a better catch for the Chinese, as it can help them to find ways and means to protect their own communication systems. At the same time, software is easier to disable in a short time, though the staff may not have been fully trained as it is rather unusual for a plane to land on the 'enemy's airport'. The 24-personel crew who was released on 15 April has certainly been debriefed and the US authorities must already be aware of the damage, if any. This could explain the tough stand of President Bush at the start of the second phase of negotiations for the release of the plane. The American analyst website Stratfor.com concluded one of its papers by noting: The American spy plane on Hainan Island could provide Beijing not only with technology and information to help hide its own military activities from the United States and others, but also with critical knowledge of how to monitor other militaries' movements and gauge their motives. Although an increasingly difficult task, technological know-how gained from reverse engineering the electronic components and other high-tech eavesdropping devices could propel China, and the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in particular, further toward its long-term goal of being a major conventional military power in the region.

In geo-strategic terms, the Chinese have clearly decided to expand their field of hegemony. The American spying activities along the Chinese coast, came into direct conflict with the Chinese interests. We should not forget that for the past 50 years (particularly since the start of the Korean war in June 1950), the US saw itself as responsible for stability in the region. On January 1, 1950, the Xinhua News Agency had declared that the PLA's objective for the year was the 'liberation of Tibet , Hainan and Formosa (Taiwan)'. Tibet was taken over the same year, Hainan was 'liberated' a few years later, but Taiwan still remains the rebel island. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Dalai Lama was in Taiwan when the incident occurred. In any case, today the island of Hainan is strategically of vital importance to China, if it is to 'reunite' one day with Taiwan. Furthermore Hainan is used as a launching ground for the Chinese space program which comes in direct economic competition with the American and European ones. Some of the sites can also be used by ballistic missiles.

The island is the main 'listening' post in the area and any eventual military intervention to 'liberate' Taiwan will depends heavily on the structure and equipment installed in Hainan. In trying to stop the US spying activities, Beijing protects its future role in the region and its position as a leaders of nations, which does not accept the role the US want to play. The hijacking of the spy plane raised yet another question: who cleared the sudden aggressive flying of the Chinese fighter planes? It appears that there are differences of views between hardliner PLA leaders and the civilian administration: the Army needs to assert itself while Beijing better understands the importance of compromise with a 'strategic competitor' as China was termed during the Bush campaign.

The insistence on a full-fledged apology from the Bush administration was not only a way to gain time to study the plane and harvest whatever could be collected from the equipment, but also a test to see how the Bush Administration would react in a tricky situation. China could not afford to take a too strong action as the UN debate on human rights was going on in Geneva and though they had managed to get nine 'no-action' motions passed in the past 11 years, the leadership was not ready to take a risk. On receiving, a 'very sorry' from Washington, the crew was freed and China obtained another 'no-action' motion.

We should mention the last 'bird' touched by the EP-3E incident: Behind all this one can see the emergence of some powers like China and Russia which are contesting the role of the US in an 'unipolar' world. The open conflict began with the Kosovo crisis when these two nations opposed the intervention of the NATO forces (led by the US) against Milosevic. After the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade the situation deteriorated further. The idea of a multipolar world where a certain number of large powers would be 'partners' to solve local problems has recently emerged. The Chinese would certainly be happy to lead the movement, and their expansion in the South China Sea (as well as the current trip of President Jiang Zemin to South America) should be seen in this perspective: a refusal to accept the US as the policeman of the planet, particularly in their own strategic area. The recent overtone to India on Afghanistan should also been seen in this context. A few days ago, Ms Zhang, the spokeswoman of the Chinese foreign ministry declared that: 'China welcomes and supports all efforts that are conducive to a peaceful resolution of the Afghanistan issue,' She was commenting on whether China saw a role for India in resolving the Afghan tangle.

The Chinese would not mind enrolling India, who has often preached the necessity for a multipolar world. Beijing is watching with some apprehension the new relation that the Bush administration is forging with the Vajpayee government particularly after the Indian Foreign Minister was recently received in the Oval room by the American President.

President Bush is in a bind: If he reacts too strongly, he might not be able to carry out his threats and could make a fool of his administration (the Chinese are well aware of this problem, having been at the receiving end in 1996 when they militarily threatened Taiwan during the presidential campaign in the island); if he is too weak, the Chinese will score several points in the geo-strategic balance of the area. In any case, Beijing has advanced the first pawn and it is now for the US to play the next move.


Claude Arpi is a French dentist tuned Tibetologist living in India. He is also the author of 'The Fate of Tibet' and an advisor to Friends of Tibet (INDIA)

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