China’s muscle-flexing, they say, will most certainly upset the balance of power in the region and force the U.S. to rethink its long-term military and geopolitical strategies for Asia and the Pacific Rim.
Opinions diverge, though, over the real implications of China’s growing super-charged military might.
To be sure, the U.S. is unlikely to be so quick to send another aircraft carrier battle group to the Taiwan Strait as it did in 1996 when the USS Nimitz plowed into those waters.
But no one’s certain about China’s true capability—or will—to take out a U.S. carrier. There’s even less certainty about just what China plans to do with its pumped-up military forces. While some feel the Asian leader will expand its reach in a fashion similar to the old Soviet Bloc, others say China will use its growing force to secure the home front, shipping lanes and what it claims to be its national assets.
Certainly, China is determined to protect its homeland and avoid another political collision. The key to that was the development an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM)—the so-called carrier killer, the DF-21D.
Months ago, the missile achieved the equivalent of what for a U.S. weapon would be called initial operational capability (IOC). The Pentagon has played down that milestone a bit, pointing out that the missile is yet truly untested in any battle scenarios, real or simulated; and analysts wonder about the true capability or lethality of the DF-21D.
“Assessing this carrier-killer missile, as with the J-20 fighter, is impossible without knowing more about China’s true [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and network capabilities,” says Richard Aboulafia, analyst and vice president of the Teal Group consultancy. “A platform, or a weapon of any kind, is only as good as the targeting information it receives.”
Christian Le Miere, International Institute for Strategic Studies research fellow for naval forces and maritime security, says: “There are questions about its terminal guidance system. The mobility of the carriers is a problem, but you can fire toward a basket of coordinates and guide the terminal stage. This is why the accuracy of the guidance system is so crucial.”
The Pentagon recently noted in its annual report on China’s military: “The navy is improving its over-the-horizon targeting capability with Sky Wave and Surface Wave OTH radars. OTH radars could be used in conjunction with imagery satellites to assist in locating targets at great distances from [Chinese] shores to support long-range precision strikes, including by anti-ship ballistic missiles.”
With small numbers of carrier groups or ships and a comparable number of Chinese ASBMs to counter, U.S. forces should be fine, says defense analyst John Gresham, an author of several books on military tactics and equipment. But carriers and other ships face greater risks as the Chinese grow the inventory and improve their targeting capability.
The real question, though, is whether China would take a gamble and take out a carrier. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes in a recent report, the Asian giant has developed too many entanglements—especially financial ties—with the U.S. to commit such an act of war.
“They’re more likely to use those missiles to threaten other ships, ones that are a threat to their shipping lanes” Gresham says. “They’d use a missile to make a point—to send a signal—to, say, a tanker fleet using a transit lane they claim as their own, or some ship that threatens one of their ships.”
The CRS reported: “Some observers say that China may be building, or may want to eventually build, a series of naval and other military bases in the Indian Ocean—a so-called string of pearls—so as to support Chinese naval operations along the sea line of communication linking China to Persian Gulf oil sources.”
And it’s this “string of pearls”—along with the Chinese homeland, Taiwan and rather large, claimed territorial waters—that China has built its navy and missile batteries to protect. The big concern on the minds of many, though, is whether the U.S. and its allies have to worry about China turning those defensive capabilities into an offensive expansion force the way the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.
China, La Miere says, does not have quite the ideological opposition to the U.S. as it did to the former Soviet Union. “So the relationship is very different; but in terms of being a potential strategic competitor to the U.S., then, yes, Washington may well consider China in the future as its greatest challenge since the Cold War.”
As the CRS reported, “Chinese maritime military forces could influence the political evolution of the Pacific, which in turn could affect the ability of the United States to pursue goals relating to various policy issues, both in the Pacific and elsewhere.”