Are American political leaders and national security experts underestimating the military capabilities of China? That question is posed by Asian-Pacific security analyst Timothy Walton in the current issue of the National Interest. Despite the dramas playing out on the Russian and Middle Eastern fronts, Walton's question may well be the most important strategic concern facing America in the 21st century. To grasp just how important, consider the consequences if the answer is yes.
As Walton points out, there is strong open-source evidence that “China tested in May 2013 a mobile, direct ascent anti-satellite weapon system capable of targeting satellites in medium earth orbit, highly elliptical orbit, or geostationary orbit. The new capability complements China's arsenal of kinetic and non-kinetic ASATs, and signals every U.S. satellite is now vulnerable to destruction in time of war.” Those satellites are indispensable to the operations of multiple U.S. military communications, target acquisition and navigation systems. Put another way, the People's Liberation Army of China may now have the capability to blind the Pentagon and virtually neutralize much of the United States' ability to defend itself or its allies.
Having the capability of blinding an opposing force is a strategic and tactical advantage comparable to the possession of anti-ballistic missile defense systems. Both capabilities change the correlation-of-forces calculations that military and political leaders must make in order to understand what kinds of options are available to them in a confrontation. That is why President Ronald Reagan's determination to build a “Star Wars” system fundamentally changed how Soviet leaders viewed their position in the latter stages of the Cold War.
Walton notes that the U.S. experts were surprised earlier this year to learn that China had successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle potentially capable of penetrating anti-missile defenses. The assumption had previously been that hypersonic flight was an area in which the United States' technological lead was overwhelming. Now it appears the Chinese may not be far behind the U.S. on hypersonic flight technology and certainly are much closer than previously thought.
Even apart from those considerations, China is increasingly flexing its muscles throughout the South China Sea and the East China Sea, thus threatening conflicts with U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines. The launching of a modern aircraft carrier in 2012 and successful landing of combat aircraft on the vessel last year further suggests an intent to develop a much larger blue-ocean force capable of challenging U.S. naval power throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Walton’s bottom-line warning is not to be ignored: “China’s military developments are rapidly outpacing their coverage in the press and academia, and there is a lagging but growing realization that China’s military capabilities in numerous areas of military competition are rapidly approaching, if not exceeding, those of the United States.”