MANILA – AT The rise and fall of the great powers, historian Paul Kennedy argued that “there is [often] a notable “lag” between the trajectory of a state’s relative economic power and the trajectory of its military / territorial influence. “
Yet China has been a gigantic aberration to the theory, having quickly modernized the world’s largest armed forces amid decades of sustained economic growth. On the contrary, Beijing is improving both its asymmetric and conventional military capabilities.
Over the past three decades, the million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has expanded its fleet of fifth-generation fighter jets, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines all over the world. by consolidating its global system of control, communication, reconnaissance, computer surveillance and intelligence, or C4ISR.
Already possessing the largest maritime fleet in the world, with gigantic coastguard ships eclipsing the warships of neighboring small states, China is also expanding its military and commercial footprint through a series of strategic bases and port facilities in the Indo-Pacific.
At the same time, China is also rapidly improving its anti-access / area denial (A2 / AD) capabilities, namely “aircraft carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMS) such as DF platforms. -21D and DF-26, which allow the Asian power to better exploit its geographical proximity to potential theaters of conflict in Asia.
Its development of hypersonic missile capability further enhanced China’s peak asymmetric and nuclear capabilities.
China’s rapid improvement in its conventional and asymmetric capabilities is particularly relevant to Taiwan, an autonomous island that Beijing sees as a renegade province.
China’s ultimate goal is to win any war without fighting a major battle by making any potential US counter-intervention on Taiwan’s behalf too costly to bear. As one Chinese military insider put it, “the ultimate goal… is not to act but [instead] to deter attempts by foreign forces to intervene in the Taiwan question.
Renowned historian Niall Ferguson and former deputy national security adviser Mathew Pottinger have warned that the United States could face a “Suez moment” over Taiwan, referring to how the Suez of 1956 effectively ended the British and French Empires, if it fails to deter a full- scale Chinese invasion in the near future.
The military element is particularly important in the context of cross-strait tensions since it is precisely the American naval interventions that have repeatedly proven to be decisive in preserving Taiwan’s de facto independence since the end of World War II. .
For Beijing, the autonomous island is a constant and demeaning reminder of the primacy of the United States and, by extension, of its relative weakness in its own backyard.
The handover of Hong Kong to Great Britain and Macao to Portugal in the twilight years of the 20e century meant that Taiwan remained the last and most powerful reminder of China’s avowed “century of humiliation”.
There are growing concerns that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has bet his heritage on the “great rejuvenation” of his nation, would not hesitate to “reunify” Taiwan by force under the domination of the continent.
In October 2019, several leading Chinese experts told their American counterparts that Xi was determined to return, even by force if necessary, to the autonomous island before the end of his tenure.
While it is not clear how long Xi will remain in power, given the removal of presidential term limits, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng has warned that a potential “large-scale” invasion of the island could be a matter of years, as opposed to decades.
In this direction, one of Xi’s main priorities has been the modernization of the Chinese armed forces. In fact, a more accurate estimate of China’s defense spending, in purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than market exchange rates, puts the Asian power’s actual defense spending at over $ 500 billion. of dollars per year, which is only second and not far behind, the United States.
While the United States still enjoys significant qualitative advantages over China, the latter is quickly closing the gap. According to an authoritative study by the RAND Corporation, in the event of direct conflict “[b]the other parties would suffer significant military losses ”and that, by 2025, American losses“ could range from significant to heavy… ”
Meanwhile, a bipartisan study by the National Defense Strategy Commission warned that “America’s ability to defend its allies, partners and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt,” and that Washington ” could [even] fight to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.
The best American experts have gone so far as to describe China as the “near-peer” of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, where “60% of the American navy [stand] against a counterpart navy, army and air force – on [China’s] home ground.
In its most detailed report to date on China’s military might, the Pentagon recently warned of the expansion of China’s “land, sea and air nuclear delivery platforms”, which could “supply more credible military options in Beijing in the event of Taiwan ”.
At the very least, a former senior Pentagon official warned that China hopes to employ a “no-fight winning strategy,” whereby it “does[s] everyone believes they climb the escalator to nuclear weapons if they have to. “
Of major concern to the United States is China’s race to hone its hypersonic missile capabilities, which could potentially violate existing U.S. missile defense systems as well as cripple all of its communications systems in the event of a disaster. conflict.
In the past five years, China has launched hundreds of hypersonic tests compared to just nine by the United States, according to U.S. Air Force General John Hyten, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By all indications, China is redoubling its efforts in the development of maneuverable and highly undetectable hypersonic missiles, which could be deployed both for conventional nuclear forces as well as for its asymmetric carrier killer missile systems.
The state-supported Chinese Aerodynamics Research Institute AVIC is preparing to launch a new wind tunnel with the specific purpose of testing the “separation and release” of weapons from hypersonic vehicles, which would “strengthen research and the development of China’s hypersonic weapons and equipment ”.
Twice the size of its existing facility, the new wind tunnel, which has been under construction for two years, is designed to simulate conditions eight times the speed of sound.
According to the Pentagon, China’s latest hypersonic missile test in August demonstrated its ability to potentially pierce much of existing U.S. missile defense systems.
The Asian power plant, which is expected to more than double its stockpile of nuclear warheads over the next decade, already has hundreds of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that can travel even faster than hypersonic glide vehicles.
Rapidly mastering missile technology, China is now deploying its wide array of medium-range “aircraft carrier” missiles, including the state-of-the-art DF-16 and longer-range DF-21C, on its eastern coasts, placing all of Japan and much of the western Pacific in its range.
China is also said to have built mock-up American fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets, which were placed in the PLA’s Rocket Force Korla range in Xinjiang. Previously, test fire simulations involved less advanced American F-15 Eagle fighters, underscoring China’s growing confidence in combating the most advanced military hardware of its rivals.
Experts believe the purpose of all these new exercises and deployments is to deter any potential joint US-Japanese intervention in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“This is training to target air bases and planes on runways by firing cluster munitions, which would ruin both,” a Chinese military insider told the South China Morning Post.
“The ultimate goal of the training is not to act but to deter attempts by foreign forces to intervene in the Taiwan issue,” he added, stressing the centrality of the Taiwan crisis in the China’s military planning.
In response to the rapid development of China’s capabilities, the Biden administration is expected to update the country’s missile defense policy in early 2022 as part of its new, broader national defense policy.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced that its Missile Defense Agency has given the green light to contracts with major weapons manufacturers, namely Raytheon Technologies Corp, Lockheed Martin Corp and Northrop Grumman Corp, to develop new prototypes of missile defense against hypersonic sliding vehicles.
As part of its “integrated deterrence” strategy, the Biden administration will likely also consider expanding missile defense systems in coordination with Indo-Pacific allies.
In early November, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China that Washington and its allies would take unified “action” if Beijing used force against Taiwan.
Earlier this year, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, during a visit to Brussels for a meeting with NATO allies, warned China against “destabilizing the region” and “pursuing conflict in other disputed areas ”.
“The difference between mainland China and Taiwan must be resolved by peaceful methods,” Wallace said, warning against aggressive action by Beijing.
Meanwhile, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton tried to reassure Taiwan by saying that it would be “inconceivable” for his country to sit on the sidelines in the event of conflict.
“It would be inconceivable if we did not support the United States in action if the United States chose to take this step,” Dutton told Australian media amid deepening defense cooperation among allies from UKUS (Australia-UK-US).