China’s Naval Ambitions
Published: January 1, 2011
Beijing’s drive to extend its military and territorial reach is making America’s close allies in the region nervous and raising legitimate questions about American diplomacy and future military procurement. The commander of America’s Pacific forces recently revealed that China could soon deploy a ballistic missile capable of threatening American aircraft carriers in the region.
The Pentagon has a long history of hyping the Chinese threat to justify expensive weapons purchases, and sinking well-defended ships with ballistic missiles is notoriously hard. But what should rightly concern American military planners is not so much the missile but the new Chinese naval strategy behind it.
China seems increasingly intent on challenging United States naval supremacy in the Western Pacific. At the same time it is aggressively pressing its claims to disputed offshore islands in the East and South China Seas. Washington must respond, carefully but firmly.
The Pentagon must accelerate efforts to make American naval forces in Asia less vulnerable to Chinese missile threats by giving them the means to project their deterrent power from further offshore.
Cutting back purchases of the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer (with its deficient missile defense system) was a first step. A bigger one would be to reduce the Navy’s reliance on short-range manned strike aircraft like the F-18 and the F-35, in favor of the carrier-launched N-UCAS, a longer-range unmanned strike aircraft. The Air Force should also drop its plans to buy 2,000 short-range strike planes but no long-range bombers.
The Obama administration must also redouble its diplomatic efforts to persuade Beijing that great power cooperation is far better than a costly and dangerous military rivalry. North Korea is a good starting point. The two countries share a clear interest in reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and reckless threats.
China — North Korea’s main supplier of food and fuel — has been far too reluctant to use its leverage. Fearing a huge influx of refugees, it is focused solely on propping up the Kim dynasty. Before it is too late, Beijing needs to realize that an erratic, nuclear-armed neighbor is anything but a recipe for stability — or for an American military drawdown.
Dealing with a rising China could be Washington’s biggest challenge in the decades ahead. The United States has no interest in heightening tensions. A rapidly developing China has better uses for its new wealth than weapons. But when China pushes, as it is doing now, America needs to push back with a creative mix of diplomatic suppleness and military steadfastness.