National Security

People's Power

Eight ways China's military is catching up to the United States.

Although the Pentagon has routinely dismissed some of China's very publicly touted military advances as being decades behind the United States, they are still significant. Just because someone gets a new piece of tech later than you doesn't mean that you will always be better at using it than they are. So, we thought we'd bring you a list of the eight most noteworthy military enhancements that China is making by buying, stealing, and innovating:

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Stealth jets

First up are China's J-20 and J-31 stealthy-looking fighters. We call them "stealthy looking" because until more information is made public, we won't know how well the jets mask their heat signatures, noise, and electronic emissions -- all critical elements of modern stealth that go beyond radar-evading shapes and radar-absorbent coatings. Nevertheless, China has developed two jets that appear stealthy.

Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group's large J-20 made its first flight in early 2011 and is thought to be either a high-speed interceptor, designed to fly out and shoot down incoming enemy bombers (similar to the famous MiG-25 Foxbat), or a stealthy bomber along the lines of the U.S. F-111 Aardvark or the more recent F-15E Strike Eagle, meant to penetrate enemy defenses and bomb bases and ships. One has to notice the similarities between the cockpit and nose section of the J-20 and the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor.

Less than two years after the J-20 appeared, Shenyang Aviation Corporation unveiled China's second stealthy fighter, the J-31. This jet is smaller than the J-20, and its fuselage bears a striking resemblance to the U.S.'s F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (It has been widely reported that the computers of numerous defense contractors working on the F-35 program were hacked and information on the jet was stolen.) Some speculate that the J-31 will be used as a complement to the J-20 -- similar to the role that F-16 Vipers play for F-15 Eagles or F-35s play for the F-22s. Others point to the twin wheels on the J-31's nose landing gear as sign that it is being developed as a carrier-based fighter. (Land-based fighters usually have just one wheel on their nose gear while naval fighters have two because of the increased strain of landing on ships.)

Chinese Internet/China Defense Blog

Aircraft carriers

Speaking of aircraft carriers...after decades of buying old British and Russian Cold War-era aircraft carriers and turning them into museums and theme hotels, China converted the hull of the incomplete 1980s vintage Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag into its first operational carrier: the Liaoning. Chinese investors purchased the ex-Varyag from Ukraine in 1998, claiming they would turn it into a casino. That obviously didn't happen, and China spent much of the last decade completely modernizing the old hulk, installing new engines, electronic warfare gear, radars, defensive weapons, and modernized interior spaces (right down to the galleys). She took to sea for the first time in August 2011 and was commissioned into Chinese naval service in September 2012. The first carrier landings and takeoffs by Chinese fighters occurred in late November.

Interestingly, China's first carrier fighter, the J-15, is a knockoff of another Soviet/Russian design, the Sukhoi Su-33. China may have purchased a partially completed Su-33 from Ukraine in 2001, after Russia refused to sell it the aircraft because China was reverse-engineering the very similar Sukhoi Su-27s that Russia was selling to China. (Got that?) While many are quick to point out that China is conducting its first carrier ops more than a century after Eugene Ely landed on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, it's worth noting that China plans to have at least three carriers by the middle of this decade. Still, the learning curve is extremely steep for carrier ops. As we've said before, it took the U.S. Navy decades to master the art of landing jets on ships. 

Chinese Internet


Next up is China's very own spaceplane, the Shenlong or "Divine Dragon," which first flew in January 2011 (roughly the same time the J-20 took its maiden flight). While there's been plenty of speculation about the mission of the U.S. Air Force's super secret X-37B robot space shuttle, the United States isn't alone in having a reusable spaceplane. What interests some China watchers most about the Divine Dragon is the fact that China flew such a craft less than a year after the United States did. (Granted, the United States could have done so much earlier, given its decades of experience with the Space Shuttle, which could easily have been flown as a large, unmanned spaceplane.) Speculation surrounds both the U.S. and Chinese spaceplane programs, with observers suggesting the vehicles could be used for everything from spying on and destroying enemy satellities to simply repairing their own nation's satellites.

Chinese Internet

Anti-satellite weapons

Of course, China doesn't need fancy robot spaceplanes to destroy enemy satellites. In 2007, China became only the second nation (after the United States) to shoot down a satellite when it destroyed one of its own weather satellites using a modified version of the DF-21 ballistic missile. Needless to say, the United States and several other nations condemned the test, saying the debris created by the shot posed a serious risk to other nations' satellites, spacecraft, and space stations. The incident also alarmed U.S. defense officials, who saw this development as evidence that Chinese military planners are preparing to knock out a major U.S. advantage in the event of war: its network of spy, communications, and navigation satellites. This worried some in the U.S. military so much that the Pentagon has begun working on terrestrial and airborne backups to its space systems, and the Air Force has even begun practicing operations without relying on satellites under the theme "a day without space."

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Next up is China's growing fleet of UAVs, which for now strongly resemble U.S. drones. Simply look at Shenyang's Pterodactyl, a recently introduced armed drone that appears to be a blatant copy of General Atomics's MQ-9 Reaper -- the U.S. Air Force's premier armed drone. According to Chinese press accounts, Beijing is testing up to 10 different UAVs, including high-altitude drones that may have a strategic reconnaissance mission similar to the United States's RQ-4 Global Hawk. Then there's China's fleet of small, stealthy-shaped models and miniature UAVs, which appear to be the precursors to full-size jet-powered stealth drones. (Remember, models of the design that eventually became the J-31 emerged years before we saw the production aircraft.)

Chinese Internet

"Carrier killers"

Remember the DF-21 China used to shoot down its satellite? Well, the ballistic missile has other uses as well. The missiles are designed to zoom into space and then rain down on U.S. bases or moving ships, such as aircraft carriers, as far as 900 miles from their launch sites -- hence the nickname "carrier killer" and the reason that the United States is sending many of its ballistic missile defense ships to the Pacific. China has been building a fleet of the missiles that is thought to have become operational in 2009 or 2010. And it is fielding the DF-21D in conjunction with a host of advanced radars, surveillance drones, spy satellites, and so-called triple-digit surface-to-air missiles designed by Russia that are capable of shooting down most U.S. aircraft. All of these systems are part of China's "area denial" strategy, aimed at keeping enemy ships and aircraft far from its shores.

Chinese Internet

Aegis Destroyers, SSBNs and amphibious assault vehicles

The Chinese navy has been investing in everything from a new fleet of hovercraft that will land troops ashore during amphibious assaults to the new Type 052D class guided-missile destroyers, equipped with Aegis-style phased-array radars designed to track missiles and aircraft. (This is in addition to the older Type 052C class equipped with similar systems.) The Chinese navy is also fielding a new generation of nuclear missile-carrying submarines, the Type 094, designed to fire the JL-21 nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. Beijing's navy is also beefing up its amphibious assault capabilities with the ZDB05 fighting vehicle. The ZDB05 -- think of it as a swimming armored personnel carrier with guns -- is capable of hitting 16 knots in the water and then using its 30mm cannon, 7.62mm machine gun, and antitank missiles to protect the five to seven infantrymen it can deliver to the beach. Could be useful if China wanted to stake a claim on some islands in the South China Sea.

Chinese Internet


No conversation about China's rapidly expanding military would be complete without mentioning the Chinese military's focus on using an enemy's own computer networks against it. Click here to read the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission's report on the country's use of cyber to gain military advantage. While you're at it, click here to read the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence's claim that Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE, both of which have a large presence in the United States, may be doing the work of China's military and intelligence agencies. China has numerous military units dedicated to corrupting the data in enemy computer networks or taking those networks out entirely. As the Economic and Security Review Commission report notes: "PLA leaders have embraced the idea that successful warfighting is predicated on the ability to exert control over an adversary's information and information systems, often preemptively. This goal has effectively created a new strategic and tactical high ground, occupying which has become just as important for controlling the battlespace as its geographic equivalent in the physical domain."

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The List

Stocking Stuffers for Wonks

Fifteen gift suggestions for that special international relations nerd in your life.

Having trouble figuring out what to get someone who spends all day talking about the merits of collectivizing eurozone debt and the high stakes of the Senkaku Islands dispute? Well, we can't help if you're having trouble living with that person, but as the holidays approach, FP is here with some gift suggestions to make life a bit easier. And if that person happens to be you, well, here's 15 holiday presents to make you or your loved one the envy of the foreign policy community.

A drone of your own

If your only idea of a drone is the remotely piloted military machine raining death on the hinterlands of Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, think again. 2012 was the year of the drone, and they have now become a huge consumer phenomenon -- so much so that former Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson left the publication this fall to work full-time on his drone startup. Drones are now widely available on the Internet, and sites like udrones are selling them for as low as $550, which includes an autopilot and GPS system (the camera kit comes separately). If that's out of your price range, there are some less expensive options -- though as the price decreases, the features begin to drop off. For $299, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Quadricopter gives you an HD video-equipped drone that you can control using a smartphone or tablet. The lack of an autopilot system, however, limits its range to about 165 feet. The major difference between the larger, more expensive drones and the smaller cousins is autopilot, which allows you to plot missions and set the drone on its merry way. Just keep in mind that federal regulators are unlikely to bless your plan to deliver Mexican food by unmanned aerial vehicle.

The soundtrack of China's political transition

Long before Xi Jinping became a household name during China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition this year, it was his wife Peng Liyuan -- an accomplished Chinese folk and opera singer, and the civilian equivalent of a major general in the People's Liberation Army -- who was the superstar. If China experts are going to put in long hours parsing the mysterious machinations of the Communist Party, they might as well have the Chinese first lady's best tracks -- from "On the Fields of Hope" to "Putting the Horses to Pasture on the Mountain" -- playing in the background. (For music fans hoping to familiarize themselves with 2012's other super-topical musical act, keep in mind that Pussy Riot doesn't record albums.)

Risk meets American decline

In a year that's featured ample talk about doomsday scenarios, American exceptionalism, rising Asian powers, and declining U.S. military spending, Fantasy Flight Games has come out with the perfect board game. In its remake of the 1986 classic Fortress America, the United States, after unveiling a massive satellite- and laser-equipped missile defense system, must repel an invasion by the Asian People's Alliance from the west, the Central American Federation from the south, and the Euro-Socialist Pact from the east. As FP gaming editor Michael Peck wrote in a review, it's "the classic game of Risk meets classic American paranoia, seasoned with a touch of poetic justice. Now it's America's turn to experience foreign military intervention."

A full serving of national security leaks

When the Obama administration came under fire earlier this year for allegedly disclosing classified information for political gain, White House critics cited the leaks in two scoop-filled, agenda-setting books -- Daniel Klaidman's Kill or Capture and David Sanger's Confront and Conceal -- as well as a handful of articles (a Justice Department probe into the leaks is ongoing). Sanger details the government's cyberattacks on Iran's nuclear facilities, while Klaidman delves into the administration's drone program and targeted killing policies. For full effect, deliver the gift in a shadowy garage or dark alley.

Mark the passage of time with Putin

Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is also a strong man, as FP's slideshows -- which include photos of him locked in a tense judo match with a Japanese schoolgirl and fastening a satellite transmitter onto a tiger -- attest. Why not tag along with an (often shirtless) Putin on his many adventures from the comfort of your own home with this 2013 Putin Wall Calendar? If you buy it this month, there's a special bonus: for the remaining few days of December you'll be able to pencil in meetings below a picture of Putin as a boy, looking as no-nonsense as ever.

The complete OBL raid package

If 2011 was the year the U.S. military killed Osama bin Laden, 2012 was the year the entertainment world cashed in on the operations. Members of SEAL Team 6, the unit that carried out the raid, consulted on the video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which earned them strict reprimands from their superiors in the military. Matt Bissonette, another member of the group, wrote a first-hand account of the mission, No Easy Day. National Geographic also got in on the action, with its documentary Seal Team Six. And tickets will soon go on sale for Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming film, Zero Dark Thirty, which has been billed as the definitive dramatic treatment of the raid and has been making waves for its unsparing look at the CIA's use of interrogation tactics. Buy them all, and throw in this Joe Biden-inspired bumper sticker for good measure.

Israeli war games

With Israel and Hamas at each other's throats again this fall, the depressingly violent conflict in the Middle East increasingly looks like a stalemate -- one in which the players keep making moves but the game never comes to an end. If that sounds like fun, then your favorite, die-hard Israel-Palestine watcher should enjoy "A Reign of Missiles," a new board game that puts the player in control of the Israeli military, balancing both diplomacy and kinetic action while trying to halt rocket attacks from Gaza. Carry out too aggressive a military campaign and the international community imposes penalties detrimental to Israel's long-term interests. Bungle the military campaign and Hamas scores a major diplomatic victory. Obviously, it's a bit of a downer. But the game is free and hosted on our website -- all you'll have to do is print out the component parts.

Kiss and tell

Do everyone on your list this year a favor and buy Paula Broadwell's cringingly fawning biography of David Petraeus. They all want to read it -- they're just too embarrassed to be spotted walking out of Barnes & Noble with the unfortunately titled All In: The Education of David Petraeus under their arm. That can easily be solved with an Amazon bulk order. Just make sure you do a better job of hiding your email records than they did.

Sounds of Silvio

Know someone who's particularly excited about the improbable comeback Silvio Berlusconi might stage in the upcoming Italian elections? Or maybe just excited about his engagement to the 27-year-old former TV host Francesca Pascale (the woman Berlusconi described as beautiful on the outside, but even more beautiful on the inside")? Drop them a link to this syrupy Bunga Bunga mix -- inspired by Silvio's infamous orgies -- and call it a day.

A stake in the European debt crisis

Take a page from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs -- where giving Israel bonds as presents is par for the course -- and buy Greek bonds. Sure, they're a risky bet, but if Greece manages to stay in the eurozone they could prove to be a smart investment. With S&P's decision to upgrade Greek bonds by five notches from selective default to B-, this might be the perfect time to buy. Still, it might be better to think of the purchase as an act of charity.

Obama's "gifts"

After his resounding loss to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney famously complained to his donors that he had been defeated because his opponent had handed out "gifts" to various constituencies in an effort to win votes. True, it might be difficult to put a bow on the Affordable Care Act and leave it under the Christmas tree, but that doesn't mean you can't give gifts in the style of the 44th president. Just visit his official store, give mom something to wear to the inauguration, and tell her this is her payment for voting for Barry.

Mongolian coal

Got a Grinch on your list this year? Send them packing to the third annual Coal Investors Conference and Exhibition in Mongolia. With passes to the conference in the thousands of dollars, however, it's worth noting that this would be one expensive lump of coal. The conference is occurring against the background of a Mongolian economic bubble. GDP was up 17.5 percent in 2011, a spike in output largely driven by the country's coal, copper, and gold boom. But there are dark clouds on the horizon for future economic growth in the country, so punch your coal enthusiast's ticket to the country before Mongolia's boom withers away.

Clothes from Karimova

It seems like the world's authoritarian rulers are falling fast these days, but Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, is still standing strong. And his daughter, Gulnara Karimova, has cashed in on her father's status by launching her own fashion line, which is available online. But her father's reputation -- human rights groups have accused his government of harsh crackdowns on opposition groups and using torture extensively -- has made it difficult to get her line off the ground. She was disinvited from New York Fashion Week after human rights groups pressured the organizers (never mind that the show, which she moved to the restaurant Cipriani, was panned). It might not be your ticket, but it's big in Moscow.


Know someone who's sunk into a depression now that the second Homeland season is over? Cheer them up with official gear from the show. For the wannabe undercover agents on your list, Showtime offers a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "What Would Carrie Do?" Just make it clear to whomever you give it to that bursting into tears or gulping down pills Carrie-style over Christmas dinner is not an option.

Cidade Maravilhosa

Seats don't go on sale until August 2013, but who cares? A promised ticket to soccer's biggest stage is undoubtedly the best present any soccer fan could receive. Never mind the geopolitical implications -- like the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the 2014 World Cup will mark Brazil's arrival on the world stage -- or the rampant violence in Rio de Janeiro's favelas, into which the police have launched repeated military-style assaults to reclaim the neighborhoods from druglords; a trip to soccer's Mecca in 2014 will be a pilgrimage for soccer fans to one of the sport's holiest sites. Set that against the backdrop of the hype that will surround Lionel Messi -- the greatest player of his generation (and perhaps of all time) who hasn't yet won a World Cup -- and the months of June and July in Brazil will be a spectacle unlike any other.

Of course, if that seems a bit pricey and your tastes are a bit more refined, we may have just the thing.

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