Last week, Beijing decided that Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s fence-mending trip to China was the perfect time to unveil new military capabilities. In the lead-up to Gates’s trip, Admiral Robert Willard, the commander of U.S. Pacific forces, revealed that China’s “carrier killer” antiship ballistic missile is nearly ready for deployment. Then, just hours before Gates’s January 11 meeting with President Hu Jintao, the Chinese Air Force conducted a test flight of the J-20, a fighter jet that appears to have radar-evading stealth capabilities. Washington had an almost perfectly perverse answer, one symbolic of the shape of the emerging Sino-American rivalry: It announced another round of defense cuts. So there is a Sino-American military competition, but only China is competing.
The contours of the strategy driving China’s military buildup are clear enough to allow for a serious U.S. response. First, China is pursuing the ability to coerce and intimidate countries along what it calls the “first island chain.” This geographic area includes such stalwart U.S. allies and friends as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Second, China is seeking more control over what it calls the “near seas,” which include the waters closest to its coasts—the Yellow, East China, and South China seas. Third, it is looking to project power into the Indian Ocean to protect the large volume of maritime trade that flows from the Persian Gulf to Shanghai.
China is developing a layered military capability, which will allow it to strike decisive blows against adversaries closer to the mainland and then employ harassing “guerrilla” air and sea tactics deeper in the Pacific to slow U.S. forces rushing to the region.
This strategy relies heavily on China’s advanced missile program. China’s missile force is not just large in number, but ever more technologically sophisticated. The Second Artillery is developing precision strike capabilities and missile-defense-evading technologies such as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The missile force will be used to “kick down the door” during an attack to allow for China’s fourth-generation fighter-aircraft (and, in the coming years, fifth-generation fighters) to conduct mop-up operations against remaining targets in the first island chain and to establish air supremacy.
At the same time, China will interdict U.S. reinforcements by launching cruise and ballistic missiles against surface ships, jamming Aegis-equipped destroyers’ command and control capabilities, and launching torpedoes and cruise missiles from submarines. China’s robust mining capabilities provide yet another layer of defense in the “near seas.” The idea is to deliver a knockout punch quickly against Taiwan or Japan and then entangle the U.S. military in a web of defenses closer to the homeland.
Many U.S. analysts use the confusing term “anti-access” to describe -China’s strategy, which makes it sound purely defensive. Yes, China wants to deny U.S. access to Asian airspace and waters. But in doing so the Chinese military will itself gain the maneuver space to control the sea and air closer to the mainland and begin to project power farther from its shores.
Indeed, the Chinese military is looking to project power into the Indian Ocean. China is building a nuclear submarine force, much of it based on Hainan Island, which will allow for undetected movement into the Indian Ocean. China is also set to build aircraft carriers. It may be some time before China can perfect the use of flattops and naval-based carrier aviation, but in the meantime nuclear-powered submarines will at least provide China with retaliatory capabilities should its own shipping come under threat.
But while China’s strategy is beginning to take shape, a serious U.S. response is not on the horizon. Instead we are hollowing out our air, naval, and Marine forces at a time when we should be reinforcing and modernizing them, so as to reassure allies that we will maintain the capability to deter Chinese aggression and defeat Chinese forces should they attack. Washington needs to resist the temptation, made stronger by the Chinese ability to attack our forward deployed forces, to adopt an offshore defense strategy. Pulling the bulk of our forces back to Hawaii, Guam, or other Pacific islands would be a mistake. Such an approach would encourage a nuclear arms race in Asia and weaken our alliances. Our presence in the region is also the surest way to push our allies to bone up their own defenses and operate more closely together.