Naval officer Chen Zhou, 54, teaches strategy at the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing. SPIEGEL spoke to him about China's plans for upgrading its military.
SPIEGEL: Why does China spend so much money on its military?
Chen Zhou: We understand very well that many countries are concerned when China grows not just in economic terms but also in military terms. But these fears are unfounded. We are not seeking a position of supremacy. We are in favor of peaceful development.
SPIEGEL: Then why the pronounced military buildup?
Chen: If we grow economically, we must also strengthen our military. We must protect our sovereignty, our unity and the country's security. Historically our military consisted primarily of land-based forces that were meant to protect our homeland. Since 1980, we have also been arming ourselves for other local conflicts and wars. Please do not forget the activities of the separatists in Taiwan ...
SPIEGEL: ... who you have threatened with military force, should Taiwan declare its independence.
Chen: We will defend our sovereignty with all means. If, in fact, we are forced to stop a secession attempt with military means, our navy and air force are not yet effective enough. In that sort of a conflict, we must be superior in the water and in the air, at least locally.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that you plan to measure up militarily to Taiwan's most important ally, the United States?
Chen: It is not necessary for China to challenge America's position of supremacy. Our concern is to prevent an intervention by the Americans during a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and no one else, should resolve the Taiwan issue. Whether this is done peacefully or militarily is purely a matter for the Chinese.
SPIEGEL: How does Beijing intend to prevent the Americans from intervening?
Chen: Both sides hope to preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. China wants to develop economically. We don't want a war, not even a crisis. But to ensure that this is the case, we must be militarily prepared.
SPIEGEL: In other words, Beijing stresses deterrence?
Chen: Exactly. Deterrence is one of our strategies. Our goal is to preserve peace and stability on the Taiwan Strait. In the past, we did not pay sufficient attention to studies about deterrence. Now we are very interested in the effects of deterrence. We must be able to prevent, resolve and control crises. Crisis management is our top priority. We can resolve a crisis if we are in a position to deter.
SPIEGEL: You have demonstrated that you are able to give the Americans a shock. For example, one of your submarines surfaced directly next to the aircraft carrier "Kitty Hawk" without having been previously detected.
Chen: That was a coincidence. Our navy is still very small compared with the US Navy. Our range of operation has just reached the so-called first island chains, that is, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
SPIEGEL: Do you plan to venture farther afield in the future?
Chen: Traditionally China has seen itself as a land power. In our recent history, foreign powers were able to invade us because we had no navy. Now we want to defend ourselves at sea. To more effectively protect our national interests, we will develop our capability to operate on the high seas. Our navy will travel farther afield. But our goal is always defense. We are not an offensive power.
SPIEGEL: And yet your navy also appears to be interested in aircraft carriers. Why are you flirting with such purely offensive weapons?
Chen: There is a debate over this issue in China. I believe that aircraft carriers remain important for waging war at sea. Others see these huge ships as nothing but floating targets in an age of missiles. Whether China will in fact acquire aircraft carriers depends on three things: its political strategy, how it sets its priorities in outfitting the military and how much money it has.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't the massive technological superiority that America possesses in all theaters of war also play a role in your military buildup?
Chen: That's obvious. The 1991 Gulf War helped change the direction of our defense modernization policy, in that it prompted us to devote ourselves to information technology, which is revolutionizing the military sector. Our goal is to develop a military capable of winning an information war by 2050.
SPIEGEL: Does that include attacks on the military and government computers of Western powers, including computers in Germany?
Chen: There is absolutely no basis to such accusations. That is simply not the case. I can assure you that China's armed forces did not hack into your government's computers. We abide by international laws. Such an attack, assuming we were even capable of carrying it out, is not consistent with our foreign policy objectives.
SPIEGEL: How long will it take until the People's Liberation Army has made up the US's enormous head start?
Chen: A very long time. However, we are convinced that we can narrow the gap. This doesn't mean that we wish to enter into an arms race with some other major country. We simply want to acquire the latest military developments.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you concerned that your policy could trigger an arms race in the entire region, which could even spell disaster for China?
Chen: In our case, economic and military development go hand in hand. The Chinese are wise and will not invest too much money in the military.
SPIEGEL: Many experts believe that the official budget figures are vastly understated. Do they include the costs of military research and of the People's Armed Police and the space program?
Chen: They do include the costs of research, but not for the People's Armed Police. Only the military portion of our space program is paid for under the defense budget.
SPIEGEL: Is it not the case that more transparency could lessen your neighbors' suspicions?
Chen: We have already become more open over the last 10 years. But we must also make allowances for our critics at home. They want to know why we grant foreigners access to military secrets. But I do admit that more openness leads to greater trust.
Interview conducted by Siegesmund von Ilsemann and Andreas Lorenz.