29 May 2009

China’s Military Game Changer?

John Pomfret, “China’s Military Game Changer?Pomfret’s China, 28 May 2009.

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Check out the cover of this month’s US Naval Institute’s Proceedings. It depicts a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in flames, smoke billowing from the deck. The headline asks a simple question: Chinese Carrier Killer?

Proceedings Magazine

This month’s Proceedings magazine cover.

For me, the piece serves as a sobering reminder that despite all this talk of a G2, despite all these signs that Taiwan and China are moving ineluctably closer together, China’s military continues to have U.S. forces in their sights.

“On the Verge of a Game-Changer” is how the piece begins. It focuses on China’s efforts of using land-based missiles to hit sea targets — in other words, U.S. carrier strike groups. Such a weapon, it reports, would probably be based on a variant of China’s 1,500 km-plus range DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. For guidance it’d be supported by China’s “growing family of terrestrial and space-based sensors,” the piece says.

Now, nobody in the public sphere really knows how advanced China’s anti-ship ballistic missile program is. But as the piece points out, “the mere perception that China might have an antiship ballistic missile capability could be a game-changer, with profound consequences for deterrence, military operations, and the balance of power in the Western Pacific.”

According to the piece, written by Andrew Erickson, a professor at the Naval War College, and David Yang, a Rand Corp. researcher, China’s interest in such a weapon can be traced to the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis. That was when the United States dispatched two strike groups toward Taiwan to counter Chinese missile tests in the area. (China was trying to cow Taiwan’s population from voting for President Lee Teng-hui. Taiwan’s voters weren’t cowed.)

In 2003, the Second Artillery Corps (which controls China’s missiles and nuclear bombs) released a feasibility study for the missile. Other official Chinese outlets have been publishing numerous pieces on the topic as well, including a blogpost by a Chinese military writer who claimed that by 2010, the PLA would have a brigade of antiship ballistic missiles.

The missiles are of concern to American strategists because, as the piece says, they would “impose significant restrictions on U.S. naval operations during a Taiwan crisis.” In other words, they might be able to blow a carrier out of the water.

How could this affect U.S. standing in the Pacific? The writers answer it this way: “Striking a surface vessel or mockup with an ASBM in peacetime, if not met with a proper U.S. response, could undermine Washington’s standing by making it appear that ways of war had undergone radical change, to the detriment of U.S. power projection and influence.”

In the event of war, they continue, “the consequences could be catastrophic.”