MANILA – In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the historian Paul Kennedy argued that “there is [often] a noticeable ‘lag time’ between the trajectory of a state’s relative economic strength and the trajectory of its military/territorial influence.”
Yet China has been a gigantic outlier to the theory, having rapidly modernized the world’s largest armed forces amid decades of sustained economic growth. If anything, Beijing is enhancing both its asymmetric and conventional military capabilities at once.
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 while consolidating its overall Command Control Communication Computer and Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance, or C4ISR.
Already boasting the world’s largest marine fleet, with gigantic coast guard vessels dwarfing warships of smaller neighboring states, China is also expanding its military and commercial footprint across a string of strategic bases and port facilities in the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, China is also rapidly enhancing its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities – namely, “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMS) such as the DF-21D and DF-26 platforms, which allows the Asian powerhouse to better exploit its geographic proximity to potential theatres of conflict in Asia.
Its development of hypersonic missile capability has further enhanced the sharp edge of China’s asymmetric as well as nuclear capabilities.
China’s rapid enhancement of both its conventional and asymmetric capabilities is most pertinent to Taiwan, a self-governing island which Beijing considers a renegade province.
China’s ultimate goal is to win any war without fighting a major battle by making any potential counter-intervention by the US on behalf of Taiwan too costly to bear. As one Chinese military insider put it, “The ultimate goal…is not to take action but [instead] to deter foreign forces’ attempts to intervene in the Taiwan issue.”
Top historian Niall Ferguson and former deputy national security adviser Mathew Pottinger have warned that the US may face a “Suez Moment” over Taiwan, referring to how the 1956 Suez crisis 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 the cross-strait tensions since it was precisely America’s naval interventions that proved repeatedly decisive in the preservation of Taiwanese de facto independence since the end of World War II.
For Beijing, the self-governing island is a constant and humiliating reminder of US primacy and, by extension, its relative weakness in its own backyard.
The handover of Hong Kong from Britain and Macau from Portugal in the twilight years of the 20th century meant that Taiwan has remained as the last and most potent reminder of China’s self-confessed “century of humiliation.”
There are growing fears that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has staked his legacy on the “great rejuvenation” of his nation, would not hesitate to forcibly “reunify” Taiwan under mainland rule.
In October 2019, a number of top Chinese experts told their American counterparts that Xi is determined to reintegrate, even by force if necessary, the self-ruling island before the end of his term in office.
Though it’s not clear how long Xi will stay in power, given his removal of presidential term limits, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng has warned that a potential “full scale” invasion of the island may be a matter of years, as opposed to decades.
In that direction, one of Xi’s top priorities has been the modernization of China’s armed forces. In fact, a more accurate estimate of China’s defense spending, in purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than market exchange rates, places the Asian powerhouse’s actual defense spending at above $500 billion annually, which is only second to, and not far behind from, the US.
Although the US still enjoys significant qualitative advantages over China, the latter is rapidly closing the gap. According to an authoritative study by the RAND Corporation, in an event of direct conflict “[b]oth sides would suffer large military losses” and that, by the year 2025, the US 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, its partners and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt,” and that Washington “might [even] struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.”
Top American experts have gone so far as to describe China as the US’ “near-peer” in the Indo-Pacific, where “60% of the US Navy [stand] against a peer navy, army, and air force — on [China’s] home turf.”
In its most detailed report yet on China’s military power, the Pentagon recently warned of China’s expanding “land, sea, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms”, which could “provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”
At the very least, a top former Pentagon official warned China is hoping to employ a “win-without-fighting strategy”, whereby it “make[s] everyone believe that they climb the escalation ladder all the way to nukes if they have to.”
A major area of concern for the US is China’s race to perfect its hypersonic missile capabilities, which could potentially breach the US’ existing missile defense systems as well as paralyze its overall communications systems in the event of a conflict.
Over the past five years, China has reportedly launched hundreds of hypersonic tests compared to only nine by the US, according to the US Air Force General John Hyten, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By all indications, China is doubling down on its edge in the development of maneuverable and highly undetectable hypersonic missiles, which could be deployed for both conventual nuclear forces as well as its asymmetric carrier-killer missile systems.
China’s state-backed AVIC Aerodynamics Research Institute is set to launch a new wind tunnel with the specific purpose of testing the “separation and release” of weapons from hypersonic vehicles, which would “bolster the research and development of China’s hypersonic weapons and equipment.”
Twice larger than its existing facility, the new wind tunnel, which has been under construction for the past two years, is set 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 breach through much of existing US missile defense systems.
The Asian powerhouse, which is expected to more than double its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next decade, is already in possession of hundreds of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that can travel even faster than hypersonic glide vehicles.
Rapidly mastering missile technology, China is now deploying its broad array of medium-range “carrier-killer” missiles, including state-of-the-art DF-16 and more long-range DF-21C, across its eastern coastlines, thus placing all of Japan’s and large parts of the Western Pacific within its range.
China has also reportedly built mock-ups of US fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets, which have been placed in the PLA’s Rocket Force’s Korla Shooting Range in Xinjiang. Previously, test fire simulations involved less advanced US F-15 Eagle fighters, underscoring China’s growing confidence in countering its rivals’ most advanced military hardware.
Experts believe that 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.
“It’s training to target airbases and aircraft on runways by firing cluster munitions, which would ruin both,” a Chinse military insider told the South China Morning Post.
“The ultimate goal of training is not to take action but to deter foreign forces’ attempts to intervene in the Taiwan issue,” he added, emphasizing the centrality of the Taiwan crisis to China’s military planning.
In response to China’s rapidly developing capabilities, the Biden administration is scheduled to update the country’s missile defense policy in early-2022 as part of its broader new National Defense Policy.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has announced that its Missile Defense Agency has greenlighted contracts by major arms producers, namely Raytheon Technologies Corp, Lockheed Martin Corp and Northrop Grumman Corp, to develop new missile defense prototypes against hypersonic glide vehicles.
As part of its “integrated deterrence” strategy, the Biden administration will likely also examine the expansion of 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 uses 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 “provoking further conflict in other disputed areas.”
“The difference between mainland China and Taiwan needs to be resolved through peaceful methods,” Wallace said, warning of aggressive action by Beijing.
Meanwhile, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton tried to reassure Taiwan by stating it would be “inconceivable” for his country to sit on the sidelines in the event of a conflict.
“It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action,” Dutton told the Australian media amid deepening defense cooperation among AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) allies.