Warnings that China has already had some success in developing anti-aircraft carrier capabilities have come thick and fast over the last few years in the form of official reports and output from US think tanks. A report in August last year from the US’ Office of Naval Intelligence, for example, talked of China’s having Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities, submarines, cruise missiles, tactical missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.
On Sept. 14 last year, Mark Stokes, former country director for China and Taiwan at the office of the US Secretary of Defense and now with the Project 2049 Institute, published a 131-page analysis entitled China’s Evolving Conventional Strategic Strike Capability: The Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Challenge to US Maritime Operations in the Western Pacific and Beyond.
In October last year, Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the US Naval War College, writing with David Yang, published an article entitled “Using the Land to Control the Sea? Chinese Analysts Consider the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile.”
In addition, the US Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review released in February pointed out that China’s strategic preparations for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, including submarines and anti-aircraft carrier missiles, has the US’ current national defense strategic deployment in disarray. Finally, the US’ latest Military Power of the People’s Republic of China report, published last month, states that the most worrying aspect of China’s military development is the Dongfeng, or East Wind, DF-21D missile.
Why is the US so concerned about the DF-21D? Well, the speed and angle of attack of this new missile is extremely difficult to defend against and it can be fitted with a range of warheads — high explosive; armor-piercing delayed detonation; cluster incendiaries; and even electromagnetic pulse warheads. It isn’t even necessary to sink the aircraft carrier for the military objective to have been achieved: It may well be sufficient just to inflict heavy damage on it.
We can identify five major conclusions from Washington’s preoccupation with China’s development of anti-aircraft carrier capability. First, it demonstrates that China really has made inroads in its strategy to prevent intervention from foreign military powers. Second, the US is indirectly acknowledging that the balance of naval power in the region is shifting and that China is gradually challenging US dominance in the Western Asia-Pacific region. Third, the US is keen to secure military and diplomatic alliances in the region. Fourth, we are gradually seeing more confrontations between Washington and Beijing, although they have yet to escalate into high-level conflict. And finally, there is a significant danger of Taiwan being dragged into conflict in China’s backyard by the actions of the US military.
The recent US military exercises in the Yellow Sea was ostensibly intended as a slap in the face to North Korea and to enhance South Korea’s anti-submarine capabilities, but the real reason behind this was to justify an extended period of military intelligence gathering. Of course, China was well aware of what the US was up to, which is why it objected so vehemently throughout last month. Beijing even hinted, through a report posted on the online edition of China National Radio, that the DF-21D was to be test-fired at a US aircraft carrier.
North Korea is a significant variable in this volatile mix. Pyongyang tripped the switch that set off this recent chain of events and it could well do the same in the future. When it does, we are sure to see a major shift in the balance of power and in the structural relationship between the players.
Regardless of whether, and how often, the US and China up the ante with their shows of military might, I believe they will both ultimately exercise restraint in the interests of achieving their respective strategic objectives. However, observers of the situation in East Asia will be watching very closely what happens if the US deploys the USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea in the near future, or if China decides to use it as a target to test its DF-21D missile.
Wang Jyh-perng is an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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