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The U.S. Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific Region: China’s Growing Military Capabilities

Part 3

Capabilities and Intent

In our previous post we looked at the geostrategic realities – including China’s economic rise – undergirding the United States rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific. In this post we’ll discuss China’s growing military capabilities. And capabilities is the operative word here. While it’s oftentimes difficult to divine a nation’s intent, for the most part, their capabilities are well known. And since China’s economy will likely overtake that of the United States in the 2020s, and China’s military buildup is undergirded by this economic growth, virtually all analysts agree China’s military growth will continue on the double-digit upward path it is currently experiencing.

Again, as we noted in the previous post, the United States rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific is designed to reassure allies and partners, not to threaten China. U.S. Naval War College Professor James Holmes put it this way in The Diplomat:

It’s not because a U.S.-China war is fated, but because of expediency. Military planners are negligent if they don’t plan against the toughest challenge elected leaders may order them to face. For instance, the U.S. Navy planned for war with Britain’s Royal Navy well into the interwar years. No one wanted or expected an Anglo-American conflict, but the Royal Navy remained the gold standard for naval power. It only made sense for the U.S. Navy to measure itself against the most exacting standard available while hedging against the unexpected. (Emphasis added)

Some would downplay China’s military capabilities, as Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff do somewhat in their article, “A Player, But No Superpower,” in the March 7, 2013 issue of, where they note, “Even with this surging investment, there are several major obstacles to China’s developing military potential far beyond the Near Seas.”  But the point is this: the United States has allies, partners, and substantial equities inside the “near seas.” From the United States perspective, the Near Seas cannot become a Chinese moat. But are China’s military capabilities really substantial enough to potentially foreclose U.S. options in the Asia-Pacific?

Chinese Military Modernization

Professor Tristan James Mabry Ph.D., Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, lectures about China’s military modernization aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). Aug. 28, 2013. As the U.S. rebalances to the Asia-Pacific region, China’s military modernization will become an increasing area of focus. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joe Bishop


The Growth – and Capabilities – of China’s Military

While some question China’s strategic intent and downplay China’s increasingly bellicose statements – especially toward the United States – regarding its maritime interests, a September 2011 Center for Naval Analysis study, Uncertain Waters: Thinking About China’s Emergence as a Maritime Power summarized the rationale for China’s moves. It noted, in part:

China continues to have vital interests that touch on questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity in maritime areas near the mainland. Until these issues are resolved, a key component of how Chinese policy-makers think about maritime power is their need to develop the means necessary to prevent de jure independence for Taiwan, prevent an attack on the Chinese mainland from the sea, and defend China’s territorial and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims. The United States is perceived as the single most important potential security threat and the one actor that could prevent China from attaining its goals with regard to Taiwan and other disputes in regional seas.

As widely reported in the international media, and as analyzed by institutions as diverse as the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and IHS Global Insight, China has dramatically increased its military spending. Indeed, in the IISS annual publication, The Military Balance, which reported that Asia was set to spend more on defense than Europe for the first time in modern history, what was lost to many in the report was the fact that China alone accounts for 30 percent of Asian defense and that China’s official military expenditure in 2011 was more than two-and-a-half times the 2001 level, growing by an average of approximately eleven percent per year in real terms over the period, even faster than the economy as a whole. Further, IHS Global Insight predicts that China’s defense budget will double over the next few years, reaching more than $238 billion in 2015, and outstripping the combined spending of all other nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Much of the contention between the United States and China has been focused, of late, on the South China Sea. China’s continuing conflict with its neighbors in this geographically strategic and resource-rich oceanic zone has been well documented in the international media, and due to is alliances with several of these nations, the United States has important equities in the South China Sea.  In January 2012, a Center for a New American Security report, Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China, and the South China Sea, highlighted the complex issues that have led up to the current situation. It noted the important American interests at stake in this body of water, and recommended a number of actions to secure American interests. Of note, the report was replete with references to China’s strategic intent as well as its substantial A2/AD capabilities, noting, in part:

The South China Sea is where a militarily rising China is increasingly challenging American naval preeminence – a trend that, if left on its present trajectory, could upset the balance of power that has existed since the end of World War II and threaten these sea lines of communications (SLOCs) … China continues to challenge this openness by developing military capabilities that allow it to threaten access to this maritime region … American military dominance in the South China Sea will recede in relative terms as other nations, principally China, improve their naval and air forces to better integrate ballistic missiles… If China can tip the balance of power in its favor, it can increasingly dominate its smaller neighbors while incrementally nudging the U.S. Navy further and further out behind the Western Pacific’s first island chain.

China has been increasingly strident regarding its claims to its near-shore waters; primarily as a buffer against what it states are moves by the United States to “encircle” it. As Michael Richardson explained in the Japan Times:

China evidently aims to dominate its “near seas” – the Yellow, East and South China seas – turning them into an extended security buffer protecting the Chinese mainland and enabling China to exploit valuable fisheries and seabed resources, including oil, gas and minerals. The three seas contain the vast majority of China’s outstanding territorial claims against its neighbors, as well as its disputed maritime claims. Beijing’s claims in the 3.5 million square km of South China Sea are by far the most extensive. Beijing asserts sovereignty over the main contested archipelagos and their surrounding waters and seabed. It asserts other forms of jurisdiction in its claimed zone of control, which covers about 80 percent of the sea.

One notable effort in China’s military buildup is the development of the world’s first anti-ship “carrier killer” ballistic missile, the DF-21D. Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote that “the missile can be fired from protected land-based bastions far away, travels at high speed, and provides mid-course correction and a maneuverable reentry vehicle with great precision and lethality … The DF-21D is the ultimate carrier-killer missile.”

Song-class Submarine

A People’s Liberation Army Navy Song-class submarine, ca. 2005. China has developed diesel submarines, along with anti-ship “carrier killer” ballistic missiles, as part of their burgeoning anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Photo courtesy of SteKrueBe

The overarching level of concern regarding China’s capabilities is now a constant drumbeat in the mainstream media. A New York Times editorial captured the level of concern regarding China’s emerging capabilities:

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.

While some (perhaps most notably Dr. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago) express genuine concerns that China cannot rise peacefully, many others downplay the threat posed by China and weapons such as the DF-21D missile, saying that state-on-state conflict with China is not likely – a result of the so-called “Walmart Factor” that intertwines the two economies. However, what some observers miss is the fact that China need only make the cost of the U.S. intervening in western Pacific affairs – to counter Chinese threats against Taiwan or China’s bullying of its smaller neighbors in disputes over the South China Sea – so high that U.S. intervention is no longer a reasonable deterrent option.

And increasingly, many observers recognize that China’s approach to protecting its interests and challenging the U.S.where it supports its core strategic interests demands a naval response, a response that is being operationalized by China’s substantial naval building program, with some suggesting China has embraced Mahan far more than the United States has.

While volumes have been published on the U.S.-China relationship, and many have used the “Walmart Factor” to question a shift in U.S. policy to an Asia-Pacific focus and the concomitant emphasis on investing in A2/AD capabilities such as ballistic missile defense to counter weapons such as the DF-21D, the Congressional Research Service’s Ron O’Rourke summed up the efficacy of this approach in a January 2012 article in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings:

A U.S.-China conflict may be unlikely because of the economic ties between the two countries and the tremendous damage such a conflict would cause. But that doesn’t mean the U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific isn’t important. For one thing, showing that the United States is prepared to win such a conflict is a part of what makes it unlikely.

Equally important is that other countries in the region are constantly observing that military balance and factoring it into their decisions regarding whether to align their policies more closely with the United States or with China. The day-to-day U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific, in other words, will help shape the political evolution of the Pacific basin, which in turn will affect the ability of the United States to purse various policy goals, both in the Pacific and elsewhere.

Pivot to the Pacific

Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, explains how the U.S. Navy is bringing its newest equipment to the Indo-Asia-Pacific as part of America’s rebalance to the region during his opening remarks at the Combined Force Maritime Component Commander (CFMCC) Flag Course, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Feb. 6, 2014. Hosted by U.S. Pacific Fleet and the Navy War College, the flag level (CFMCC) course is designed to develop a network of leaders, focused on the operational level, in support of cooperation in the theater, oriented toward maritime security and it serves as a forum to develop and deepen relationships. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David Kolmel

The widely reported United States rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has, perhaps understandably, increased the bellicosity of China’s rhetoric against the United States and raised genuine concerns that the predictions of Mearsheimer, as well as others, who see conflict with China on the horizon may come to pass. Indeed, as Adm. Robert Willard, former commander Pacific Command, expressed it in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

The president has directed his national security team to make America’s “presence a mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority.”…major security challenges confront the U.S. across this region, including China’s military modernization – in particular its active development of capabilities in cyber and space domains – and the questions these emerging military capabilities raise among China’s neighbors about its current and long term intentions…China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities extend well into the SCS [South China Sea]. China asserts these military developments are purely defensive in nature and pose no threat to neighbors in the region. Yet, combined with broad maritime and sovereignty claims and incidents with lawful operators in the SCS and ECS [East China Sea], there is ongoing international concern regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea.

Against this backdrop, we can see why it is vital to try to solve the “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” puzzle regarding the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. The next post will offer a metaphor that will help solve this conundrum.


Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...