A US congressional report says the US’ response to China’s naval modernization could affect the “likelihood or outcome” of a military conflict over Taiwan.
“Some observers consider such a conflict to be very unlikely, in part because of significant US-Chinese economic linkages and the tremendous damage that such a conflict could cause on both sides,” the report said.
The 100-page report, prepared by the Congressional Research Service and entitled “China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities,” was released last week.
It says that China’s military modernization has emerged as a “key issue” in US defense planning.
Even in the absence of a Taiwan contingency, the US-Chinese military balance in the Pacific region could influence policy decisions made by other countries, including choosing whether to align their policies with Washington or Beijing.
“In this sense,” the report says, “decisions that Congress and the executive branch make regarding US Navy programs for countering improved Chinese maritime military forces could influence the political evolution of the Pacific.”
The report, written by naval affairs specialist Ronald O’Rourke, comes as the US presidential election campaign nears fever pitch, with both candidates pledging robust defense spending in the Asia-Pacific region.
During Monday night’s final US presidential debate, centered on foreign policy, US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney both said they would be tough on China.
Taiwan was not mentioned during the debate, although Chinese aggression was discussed.
China’s naval modernization effort, which began in the 1990s, encompasses a broad array of weapon acquisition programs, including anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarines and surface ships, the report says.
According to the report, the modernization also includes reforms and improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education, training and exercises.
“Observers believe that the near-term focus of China’s modernization effort has been to develop military options for addressing the situation with Taiwan,” it says. “Consistent with this goal, observers believe that China wants its military to be capable of acting as a so-called anti-access force — a force that can deter US intervention in a conflict involving Taiwan, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening US naval and air forces.”
The report further adds that China is increasingly oriented toward defending its territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea; regulating foreign military activities in its 200 nautical mile (320km) maritime exclusive economic zone; displacing US influence in the Pacific; and asserting its status as a major world power.
Although China’s naval capabilities have been substantially improved, its navy continues to “exhibit limitations or weaknesses.”
The report says that China still cannot sustain operations by larger formations in distant waters, or joint operations with other parts of China’s military.
Beijing still has much to learn about anti-aircraft warfare and anti-submarine warfare.
The report quotes other experts as saying that the “bottom line” is that China’s present naval shipbuilding program aims to replace aging vessels and modernize the fleet — not to scale up a modern fleet to the size and composition necessary to support and sustain high-end, blue-water navy with power projection.