The Western Pacific in the Indo-Pacific region has recently become a focal point of intense debate among the Pentagon and defense experts in response to China’s “severe and sustained” growth in military capabilities.
Experts say China, which is not subject to the Intermediate-Range Missile Treaty, has more missiles than the United States, Russia and the rest of the world combined, and has a burgeoning navy that has opened up a naval power struggle with the United States in the Western Pacific, the first time since the Cold War that the United States has faced a challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. Experts have called on the White House to invest in rebuilding a strong navy that can “project military power effectively” in order to unite allies in the region and meet the challenge.
China’s Rapid Expansion in the Western Pacific
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released its report “China’s Strategic Military Power 2021” on June 7, which provides a visual picture of China’s military expansion spree in the Western Pacific over the past two decades.
The report notes that China’s military power lagged significantly 20 years ago, when the U.S. military had one aircraft carrier and four amphibious assault ships in the Western Pacific and China had zero, and China’s offshore defenses were surrounded by U.S. air bases in the first island chain. By last year, however, the U.S. force in the region had not changed, while China was armed with a large number of ballistic missiles of all ranges, two aircraft carriers, six amphibious assault ships, 46 multirole warships and 48 submarines, and had established a solid anti-access/area denial defense perimeter that extended beyond the first island chain.
At the current rate of development, the report predicts that by 2025 China will have four aircraft carriers, eight amphibious assault ships, and 66 multirole warships in the region, plus newly developed supersonic missiles, new submarines, battleships, and fighter jets, with defensive ranges aimed directly at the Pacific hinterland.
The CSIS report reflects the concerns of Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Okla.), the Republican leader of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel. He warned at a June 9 House Armed Services Committee hearing that “we must continue to build up our armaments…If we do nothing, in the next decade China will fully modernize its military and potentially equal us.”
In fact, U.S. defense experts have long been concerned about China’s naval expansion. A study of China’s naval modernization released by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in March of this year noted China has entered a sustained shipbuilding frenzy in the last decade, launching 10 major ships in 2019 alone and rapidly moving away from the navy’s dependence on former Soviet technology for a variety of equipment, modernizing at a breathtaking pace.
The report says this is the first time since the end of the Cold War that the U.S. Navy’s control of the Western Pacific has been so dramatically challenged. The report expresses concern about the relative size of the U.S. and Chinese naval forces.
China’s military power in the Western Pacific relies on naval forces, but also includes a dense coastal missile defense system. Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Center for Political and Military Analysis, told VOA that China is strong in missiles, which Beijing initially purchased from Russia and later developed successfully on its own, especially at medium range. This was largely due to the Intermediate-Range Missile Treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the late Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty limiting the development of short- and intermediate-range (500-5,500 kilometer range) land-based ballistic and cruise missiles by both countries.
Weitz said, “China is not a member of that treaty and therefore is not subject to this restriction. So they’ve probably developed the best missiles in this range, supersonic missiles and maneuverable missiles. China has more missiles than the United States and Russia and other countries combined. That’s a challenge.”
The Race for “Maritime Supremacy” in the Western Pacific
Alexander Gray, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, told VOA that the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s China strategy, which views China as “the most significant national security threat we’ve faced since the end of the Cold War. security threat we’ve faced since the end of the Cold War.” Gray previously served on the White House’s National Security Council during the Trump administration.
Gray sees China’s naval expansion in the Western Pacific and its nuclear modernization as key components of that threat. “They are rapidly elevating themselves to become the dominant power in the Western Pacific and are beginning to expand their ambitions and military capabilities beyond the Western Pacific and East Asia, and they are working to become a global power.”
Gray said, “We took for granted after the end of the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, that we were the strongest conventional military in the world and that we had the ability to conduct military operations globally with virtually no restrictions, and China, through its so-called ‘anti-access area denial capability,’ challenges us.”
The Congressional Research Service report states that through its naval expansion in the Western Pacific, China intends to develop the capability to control the military in the Taiwan Strait, control the Chinese offshore, and control foreign military activities within 200 nautical miles in order to eventually achieve the goal of replacing long-term U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific and thus become a major regional and global power.
Arthur Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Quantum Coalition Project, called for greater U.S. naval investment in the Western Pacific to deter China from “achieving its ambitions of global hegemony” through military control in the region. He argued that the ability of the United States to maintain maritime dominance in the Indo-Pacific region is the central issue in dealing with China.
Herman said, “China senses that the U.S. is uncertain about what strategy to adopt in the Indo-Pacific, which we have been talking about since the Obama administration, and China senses that there is increasing pressure on U.S. allies and other countries in the region, which is good for China and bad for the United States. All of these factors will influence China’s decision to expand its naval capabilities to counterbalance U.S. maritime dominance.”
And maintaining U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific and maintaining allied relationships with the Western Pacific is critical to national security. Allies such as Japan and Taiwan can provide a security corridor for the United States so as not to expose us directly to threats from the Indo-Pacific region,” Herman said. But if these allies are defeated in a conventional war, or if they declare neutrality and stop supporting the United States when the U.S. and China get into a military conflict, that would be a very serious failure in our national security and future defense and would prevent us from defending democracy with these allies in the face of an aggressive Chinese posture.”
Strategic Changes in the U.S. Military’s Western Pacific
Rep. Lamborn said at last Wednesday’s hearing that the U.S. Department of Defense has been consistently shifting its focus in recent years from fighting extremist terrorist groups to dealing with great power competition from China. The recent intensive discussions on how the budget is allocated among different departments and armaments, as well as military deployments in the Western Pacific, will together outline the Biden administration’s strategic blueprint for a military tussle with China in the Western Pacific.
Experts interviewed agreed that increasing U.S. naval power in the Western Pacific is key.
Gray of the American Foreign Policy Association said the Biden administration continues the previous president’s commitment to maintaining U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific and could expand it. First, focus on maintaining U.S. dominance in the submarine – such as the Virginia-class nuclear submarines that maintain the undersea nuclear deterrent and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, “which is an area where we have a competitive advantage in the Western Pacific.”
Second, continue to develop the next generation of bombers and supersonic missiles to maintain U.S. supersonic capabilities.
Third, ensure that the U.S. Navy continues to expand its fleet to the 355 ships that the Navy has always wanted to achieve to ensure the proper execution of all missions assigned to the nation.
And during the June 10 congressional budget debate, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. military is facing “difficult choices” to deal with the Chinese threat – prioritizing high-tech weapons and reducing legacy weapons systems, including abandoning a Navy destroyer The U.S. military is facing “tough choices” to deal with the Chinese threat – prioritizing high-tech weapons and reducing legacy weapons systems, including abandoning a Navy destroyer and four amphibious ships.
The Hudson Institute’s Herman said it is important to develop high-tech weapons to meet future challenges, but ignores the immediate crisis. He believes President Biden’s military budget, which has been discussed recently, gives insufficient attention to the Navy. “I don’t see how the budget ensures our Navy’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific, and I see that we’re only building eight new ships, … while the Chinese Navy will grow to 400 ships by 2030.”
Maintaining U.S. Navy dominance in the Western Pacific also includes adjusting naval warfare strategy and the corresponding combat equipment. Herman believes that China’s “anti-access area denial strategy” against the U.S. first island chain, which it has been following for the past 15 years, and its newly developed supersonic missiles are designed to offset two of the U.S. Navy’s major advantages – proximity to China’s shores and stealth technology. The U.S. Department of Defense has developed a range of tactics to counter China’s strategy, including a more decentralized and mobile naval campaign, but “all of these ultimately require a strong navy that can only project military power effectively if it maintains strong maritime dominance. At stake is the trust that our Western Pacific allies place in us.”
Foreign Policy magazine on June 7 also broke the story of a heated debate within the Pentagon to decide whether to place U.S. forces and high-end weapons within range of Chinese missiles in the Western Pacific.
Weitz likened the recent Pentagon dilemma to Pearl Harbor, when “the U.S. fleet was in California but based in Hawaii, trying to deter, shape and influence what the Japanese were doing, but leaving it more vulnerable.”
Now faced with intensive Chinese missile deployments, the debate in the U.S. military hierarchy centers on the fact that if weapons are placed outside the range of Chinese missiles, this reduces the possibility of being attacked, but lacks the strong presence and deterrent effect that gives China an advantage in combat; if the fleet is placed within range, it would be difficult for the U.S. to rebuild this force in the short term if it were attacked. “This is just as when the U.S. military considered whether to place its best war horses to fight close to Japan.”
In addition to strategic naval deployments against China, Herman singled out the importance of Taiwan in the U.S. Western Pacific strategy. He argued that the 7th Fleet’s deterrent reach in the Indo-Pacific should be expanded and Taiwan should be included in the strategic deployment.
We want to make it clear to China that Taiwan is not only an ally that needs to be protected from Chinese aggression, but an ally that is integrated into our defense plans in the region,” Herman said. That will send a very strong signal to Beijing.”
Will guns be wiped out?
Patrick M. Cronin, senior fellow and chairman of the Hudson Institute’s Asia-Pacific Security Program, said that while we are seeing intense military competition, most of it is about technology, trade and ideas, and about military deterrence, and he does not see a military conflict.
But he also believes the Western Pacific is not stable and would be the front line of war if a hot war breaks out. “We do need to have a strategic dialogue with China, … to find some kind of stability in a sustainable relationship. Unfortunately China is not trying to stabilize that relationship because it thinks it can outlast the U.S. and try to surpass that, which makes the stable dialogue we want very difficult.”
Weitz believes that under Xi Jinping, Chinese foreign policy will exacerbate this instability. But he also denies that military conflict will erupt in the Western Pacific in the short term. Another key factor in keeping the region temporarily stable is that China’s People’s Liberation Army has not been involved in a major war since the Korean War in the early 1950s, so “we really don’t know how effective these armies actually are in actual warfare.”
“This layer of unknowns is good in one sense, because it means that Chinese leaders will be cautious in making military decisions. But it also makes it more difficult for the U.S. military to know exactly what kind of threat they face,” Weitz said.