Bluffer’s Guide: Fortress China
Caveat: Amateur web research. This is not intended as authoritative or exhaustive. All illustrations by me unless otherwise stated. Constructive feedback and corrections welcome. I am particularly indebted to Sean O’Connor (SOC) and the Google Earth hawks at his forum, also to the countless Chinese military observers who hang at such places as http://www.china-defense.com/forum/ (thanks Xinhui!) and http://www.sinodefenceforum.com/ (thanks Crobato!).
Militarily, China is a country of contrasts, with undoubtedly among the most powerful militaries in the world. A hot topic is whether China could beat USA in a conventional war – You can make your own mind up on that point, but the mere fact informed people discuss that shows that irrespective of what the naysayers would have us believe, China is a force to be reckoned with.
Like many countries China deploys ground-based air-defenses to protect against sudden air attack. The fact that China’s arsenal is far larger than most countries is more a factor of the size of the country and growing world standing, rather than an indicator of a militarized society IMO. Armed with a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons and rapidly maturing delivery capabilities, China has little to worry about in terms of major invasion.
Nonetheless China is surrounded by potential adversaries, particularly the US pacific forces and Taiwan. With Taiwan, the aggressor is definitely China of course. China also watches the sustained military might of Japan and flowering capabilities of South Korea with a weather eye. Russia flits from being friend to cold neighbor every few years; don’t let the fact that China has been a major arms customer fool you. Elsewhere China continues to have cold relations with its new nuclear rival, and old territorial rival, India. Pakistan is a friend and ally but now has nuclear weapons and thanks to China the capability to deliver them to Chinese cities so in the longer run things may get interesting there. Vietnam also is a potential threat but any conflict with them would be very localized. The last neighbors, the former Soviet states on the Western fringes of China, are somewhat of a mixed bunch but unlikely to be serious adversaries.
In the 1950s a Communist China courted Soviet support, but after Stalin’s death this relationship soon faltered and the Communist countries where thrown into a three-way cold war with each other and the West. Certainly in USSR many saw China as a far more likely adversary than USA in 1960s and some Stalinist hardliners may even have plotted to start a nuclear war between US and China as a means of naturalizing Mao (see “Red Star Rogue”).
What this meant for China’s air defenses wasn’t good. China had only received a handful of early model SA-2 Guidelines which were already nearly obsolete. These were quickly reverse engineered and entered service as the HQ-1 and soon after HQ-2 systems. The HQ-2 remains a major cornerstone of Chinese air defenses. Chinese attempts at indigenous SAMs were somewhat poor even after an injection of Western technologies during the 1970s and 80s when China was an awkward bedfellow of the West against the USSR.
Coinciding with the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia was plunged into financial turmoil and desperate to sell its military technology, even to its old foe China. Consequently China imported advanced SAM systems. This also helped China’s slow indigenous programs.
In the 2000s China deploys are relatively wide range of advanced Russian and indigenous systems, backed up by large quantities of legacy HQ-2 systems.
Summarizing the above, in the 1960s-80s the main strategic adversary was USSR and consequently most air defenses are concentrated in the north of the country, and are often deployed on the north side ofd cities even today. However, in the 1990s and 2000s the focus has returned to the financial hub of Shanghai (and now Hong Kong) and the Taiwan Strait.