The constantly recycled line that the United States spends as much on defense as the next 13 nations combined seems a comforting statistic for those looking for strategic reassurance in a world fraught with potential dangers.
Yet in the world’s most economically dynamic region, the Asia-Pacific, Washington’s military dominance is being challenged on a daily basis in the form of an arms buildup that within 10 years or less could potentially force America out of the Pacific entirely unless concrete action is taken.
During the past two decades, the People's Republic of China has undertaken an extraordinary military modernization and that is transforming the global balance of power. Having studied America’s technologically enhanced combat operations in the Balkans and the Middle East — dubbed a “revolution in military affairs” — China has rebuilt its armed forces along similar lines.
Beijing has focused on capabilities that would turn the near seas around it into a virtual no man’s land. Going by the name Anti-Access/Area Denial, China’s fearsome arsenal includes cruise and ballistic missiles that can sink surface vessels on the high seas, more than 80,000 sea mines, ultraquiet diesel submarines, along with cyber- and anti-satellite weapons.
When combined together in a highly coordinated fashion, Beijing could seek to deny American forces entry into a combat zone such as in a conflict with Taiwan or in the tense waters of the East and South China Seas. China’s forces have evolved to such a point that a recent study by Taiwan’s military concluded that by 2020, China will be able to hold off U.S. forces and invade the island democracy by 2020 if it so chooses.
As though all of this is not bad enough, China’s armed forces are developing an even more potent batch of military technologies. When combined with existing weapons, Beijing’s buildup could not only exasperate tensions throughout the region, but also negate American security guarantees to nations such as Japan, the Philippines and others.
In an effort to dominate the skies of the Asia-Pacific, Beijing is working on multiple fifth-generation fighter jets that, if successfully deployed, could defeat allied radars and challenge older America fighters for dominance in the skies.
On the high seas, China is slowly developing a blue-water navy capable of deploying further and further away from its coastline. In the next decade, China may sport the capability to deploy multiple aircraft carriers. While it will take Beijing a number of years to train the crews necessary to harness the power of such a complex weapon of war as well as the supporting vessels that are needed to deploy a true carrier battle group, Beijing will join only a handful of nations able to count on such a capability.
Beijing’s warships below the waves, its submarines, deserve special attention. With a large purchase from Russia in the 1990s and continued indigenous development today, Beijing’s submarines are becoming quieter and are armed with some of the world’s most powerful cruise missiles.
In 2006, a Chinese submarine came within nine miles of the U.S. aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. The submarine was not detected until it breached the surface.
Even more frightening is China’s recent tests of a Mach 10 hypersonic glide vehicle. Such a weapon, according to experts, could be the next generation of Beijing’s mighty “carrier-killer” suite of weapons. While Beijing is a number of years away from possibly deploying such a system, recent information suggests defending against such new technology could be a challenge.
While the future certainly seems grim for America’s prospects in Asia, it is in Washington’s national interest to retain its place as the guarantor of the status quo in a region that has enjoyed unparalleled peace and economic prosperity.
A peaceful Asia-Pacific that continues its economic rise is vital to America’s own economic success. If Washington were to lose strategic credibility, rendered obsolete by China’s growing military capabilities, a deadly arms race could ensue.
As nations across the Asia-Pacific watch China’s military continue to add capability after capability, they may see no alternative but to build up their own armed forces. The combination of overlapping territorial claims along with a deadly brew of nationalism and state-of-the-art weapons could make Asia a very dangerous place.
The United States has no choice but to meet the challenge of China’s military buildup now through focused action. This means providing clear leadership in Asia — and not just in times of crisis.
Washington must also continue to fund efforts such as its AirSea Battle integrated doctrine to ensure U.S. forces can access all parts of the Pacific Ocean, now and in the future. Our allies must also have access to vital military equipment to ensure their own safety and security.
Washington has options for dealing with China’s growing military muscle. Ignoring the facts, though, is not one of them.
Harry J. Kazianis is managing editor for the National Interest and a nonresident fellow of the Center of Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed here are his own.