WASHINGTON (AP) — China’s growing military strength and its drive to end US rule in Asia-Pacific is rocking the US defense institution. US officials see problems piling fast on multiple fronts – Beijing’s growing nuclear arsenal, advancements in space, cyber and missile technologies and threats to Taiwan.
“The pace at which China is moving is astonishing,” said General John Hyten, the number two US military officer, who previously commanded US nuclear forces and oversaw the Air Force’s space operations.
At stake is a possible shift in the global balance of power that the United States has favored for decades. A realignment more favorable to China does not pose a direct threat to the United States, but could complicate US alliances in Asia. New signs of how the Pentagon plans to tackle the Chinese challenge may emerge in the coming weeks from policy reviews by the Biden administration on nuclear weapons, global troop base and overall defense strategy.
For now, officials are marveling at how Beijing is pooling resources, technology and political will to make a quick profit — so fast that the Biden administration is trying to refocus all aspects of US foreign and defense policy.
The latest example of surprising speed was China’s test of a hypersonic weapon able to partially orbit the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and sliding on a manoeuvrable path towards its target. The weapons system’s design is intended to evade US missile defenses, and while Beijing insisted it tested a reusable space vehicle, not a missile, the test appeared to have startled US officials.
Gene. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the test: was “very close” to a Sputnik moment, similar to the 1957 Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first space satellite, which surprised the world and fueled fears that the United States had fallen behind technologically. What followed was a nuclear arms and space race that eventually bankrupted the Soviet Union.
Milley and other US officials have declined to discuss details of the Chinese test, saying they are secret. He called it “very worrying” for the United States, but added that the problems of China’s military modernization run much deeper.
“That’s just one weapon system,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “China’s military capabilities are much greater than that. They are expanding rapidly in space, in cyber and then in the traditional realms of land, sea and air.”
In the nuclear field, private satellite imagery in recent months has revealed major additions to launch silos suggesting the possibility that China plans to expand its fleet of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert with the Federation of American Scientists, says China appears to have about 250 ICBM silos under construction, which he says is more than 10 times the number in operation today. In comparison, the US military has 400 active ICBM silos and 50 in reserve.
Pentagon officials and defense hawks on Capitol Hill point to China’s modernization as a key justification for rebuilding the US nuclear arsenal, a project projected to cost more than $1 billion over 30 years, including maintenance costs.
Fiona Cunningham, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist in Chinese military strategy, says concerns over US intentions are a key driver behind Beijing’s nuclear push.
“I don’t think China’s nuclear modernization would allow it to preemptively attack the US nuclear arsenal, and that was a very important driver of competition during the Cold War,” Cunningham said in an online forum sponsored by Georgetown University. “But what it does do is limit the effectiveness of US efforts to preemptively attack China’s arsenal.”
Some analysts fear Washington will worry about an arms race with Beijing, frustrated at its inability to involve the Chinese in security talks. The Congress is also increasingly focusing on China, supporting a spending boost for space and cyber operations and hypersonic technologies. For example, there is a push to put money in the next defense budget to arm guided-missile submarines with hypersonic weapons, a plan initiated by the Trump administration.
For decades, the United States followed China’s increased investment in defense and was concerned that Beijing was striving to become a global power. But for the past 20 years, Washington has been more focused on countering al-Qaeda and other terrorist threats in Iraq and Afghanistan. That began to change during the Trump administration, which formally took China to the top of its defense priorities list in 2018., along with Russia, replacing terrorism as the No. 1 threat.
For now, Russia remains a greater strategic threat to the United States, as its nuclear arsenal is much larger than China’s. But Milley and others say Beijing is a bigger long-term concern because its economic strength far exceeds Russia’s, and it is rapidly pouring resources into military modernization.
At the current pace of China’s military investment and achievements, Beijing will “surpass Russia and the United States” in overall military might in the coming years “if we do nothing to change it,” said Hyten, who will retire in November after two years. as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It will happen.”
The Biden administration says it is determined to compete effectively with China, building on a network of allies in Asia and beyond who are a potential source of power that Beijing cannot match. That was central to the reasoning behind Biden’s decision to share highly sensitive nuclear propulsion technologies with Australia, allowing it to acquire a fleet of conventionally armed submarines to counter China. While this was a boost for Australia, it was a devastating blow to Washington’s oldest ally, France, which saw its $66 billion submarine sales to Australia plummet in the process.
Taiwan is another major concern. Senior US military officers have warned this year that China is likely to accelerate its timetable for taking control of Taiwan, the island democracy widely seen as the most likely trigger for a potentially catastrophic war between the US and China.
The United States has long promised to help Taiwan defend itself, but has deliberately left unclear how far it would go in response to a Chinese attack. President Joe Biden seemed to give up that ambiguity when he said on October 21 that America would come to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China.
“We have a commitment to do that,” Biden said. The White House later said it was not changing US policy of not supporting Taiwanese independence but determined to provide defensive weapons.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.