The Chinese military, undeterred by a U.S. veto that blocked the purchase of Israeli planes, has developed its own radar surveillance aircraft and is test-flying the first models for early deployment in the Taiwan Strait, according to military specialists.
The Chinese airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, uses domestically produced advanced radar mounted on a Russian-made Il-76 transport aircraft. Analysts said the AWACS marks an important step in the government's campaign to develop the modern military necessary to back up its threat to reunite Taiwan with the mainland by force if necessary.
Electronic weaponry -- in this case, equipment to monitor the skies and control warplanes over a wide battlefield -- has been a major focus of extensive military improvements in recent years. In particular, AWACS has long been seen by the military as an indispensable tool for air superiority over the 100-mile strait separating Taiwan from the mainland.
"You've got to have those AWACS up there or you're not going anywhere," said a foreign military attache in Beijing describing China's need for such a system in the event of conflict with Taiwan.
Chinese military technicians have been struggling to acquire AWACS-type equipment since the United States pressured Israel in 2000 to back out of a $1 billion agreement to sell China four of its Phalcon phased-array radar systems. The systems also would have used Il-76 aircraft as a platform.
The main U.S. concern in blocking the sale was that China would gain a military advantage over Taiwan. Moreover, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. government has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself against any Chinese attack, meaning U.S. forces could become involved should fighting erupt.
For the same reasons, People's Liberation Army (PLA) air force leaders were determined to acquire such a plane. "After the 2000 Israeli fiasco, the PLA made it a matter of high pride to prove to the Americans they would not be denied AWACS," said Richard D. Fisher Jr., a U.S.-based specialist on the Chinese military.
At first, China turned to Russia, its traditional source of military equipment. The Beijing government concluded a deal to buy four Beriev A-50 Mainstay radar planes, which are roughly the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Air Force's E-3 Sentry AWACS. The purchase was believed to be the first phase of an agreement for up to eight of the Russian aircraft.
At the same time, however, Chinese scientists were at work on their own radar equipment. It is not known whether any of the Russian craft were ever delivered, which would have provided a look at the technology, or whether the technicians obtained help from Israeli or Russian counterparts. In any case, the Chinese AWACS that has begun test flights bears a strong resemblance to the A-50, which also uses the Il-76.
The AWACS could be operational within one or two years assuming the tests are successful, the specialists said. It was not known how many are planned for production, but Fisher noted eight would allow for a 24-hour patrol at both ends of the Taiwan Strait.
The Defense Ministry, which treats most military subjects as secret, did not reply to a request for information on the AWACS project.
Whatever the ultimate production schedule, AWACS development fits into a steady growth in the amount and sophistication of armaments on both sides of the strait, making a confrontation between China and Taiwan potentially one of the world's most dangerous.
The leadership has steadily increased military budgets in recent years and sought to reform the manpower-heavy but technology-short PLA as swiftly as possible. According to U.S. and Taiwanese officials, the government has deployed nearly 600 short-range ballistic missiles in southern China aimed at targets in Taiwan. The number grows by about 75 a year, they say.
Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, who began a second four-year term in May, has insisted the 13,500-square mile territory is independent and should stay that way. Soon after taking office in May, his government decided on an $18.2 billion arms purchase from the United States, including 12 P-3C Orion submarine-hunting planes, eight diesel-electric submarines and six PAC-3 batteries equipped with more than 350 Patriot anti-missile missiles.
But the opposition Nationalist and People First parties, which have a majority in the legislature, declined this week to approve Chen's budget for the purchase, arguing it was too expensive and in some ways inappropriate for Taiwan's needs. The issue is unlikely to be resolved until after the next legislative elections, scheduled for Dec. 11.
In the meantime, both sides have continued individual purchases that notch up the technology level of their militaries by matching threat for threat.
China, for instance, in 2002 bought from Israel a number of Harpy anti-radar drones, which can loiter over enemy territory and drop munitions on radars turned on to guide air defenses. Meanwhile, Taiwan has obtained authorization from the Bush administration to buy high-speed anti-radiation missiles, which also can target air defenses by homing in on radar emissions, Chin Hui-chu, a Taiwanese legislator on the National Defense committee, recently told the Taiwan News.