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From Russia with Love

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Vassily Kashin, who is a Russian senior research fellow and China expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, recently posted an article on the website of the Voice of Russia, in which he discusses the shifting balance of power in the Pacific. An account of his commentary was reported here on the Taiwanese website Want China Times.

For reasons I discuss here, the leaders of China are seeking to control the Western Pacific out to what they refer to as “the second island chain,” which includes Guam. What form that control would take is open to dispute; that they are trying to achieve it is not. To that end, China has been engaged in a massive military buildup for the last 15 years; the Chinese understand that the sine qua non of becoming a regional hegemon is the capability to deny the United States access to the East and South China Seas.

They have rapidly and purposefully been developing that capability. According to the Defense Science Board, China could already inflict “existential” damage on the United States using cyber weapons. It will double its arsenal of nuclear warheads by 2015. By 2020, the Chinese Navy will be substantially larger than America’s, with their entire force (except for their amphibious vessels) outfitted with long-range and advanced anti-ship missiles. China will have integrated air defenses, 1500 modern fighters in theater, upgraded intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, the ability to attack America’s space assets in every orbital regime, and a large inventory of conventional ballistic missiles and land based cruise missiles capable of striking U.S. assets as far away as Guam.

Meanwhile, American power is in decline. The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since before World War I, and the number is headed down. The inventory of the Air Force is smaller and older than at any time since the inception of the Service. For the first time in its history, the Air Force has no new fighter aircraft under design, and while a new bomber has technically been a “program of record” since the late 1990s, the targeted delivery date keeps being postponed and is now supposed to be in the mid-2020s. Given current budget projections, no one in Washington would bet his own money that it will be produced at all. As for the active-duty Army, the Pentagon is planning to reduce its size to 420,000 men — substantially less than was believed necessary in the 1990s, before the Chinese buildup, the evolution of the terrorist threat, and the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.

America’s top defense officials and military officers must be guarded when they discuss the implications of all this. Mr. Kashin could afford to be more straightforward in his commentary:

[By 2020] China will be able to launch a massive highly accurate non-nuclear strike against US facilities used by transportation and military infrastructure in the region. . . . The fact that China has a huge stockpile of non-nuclear high accurate ballistic and cruise missiles means that the US aviation and Navy will be distracted ensuring air defense and destroying mobile missile complexes.

It’s highly probable that China, after the completion of the current cycle of reforming and rearming its armed forces through 2020, will be capable of defeating US forces and its allies in the course of some local conflict in the east part of the Pacific Ocean. . . . China could be capable of reaching its political goals even before the US localizes all the necessary forces for a full-scale counterattack. An attempt to punish China and edge it from occupied positions after a Chinese victory will have already taken place would mean the entering of the lengthy conflict with a great foreign power – for the first time since the Korean War. With no guarantee of victory and a real risk of a nuclear disaster. The strongest militarily US allies will be in Europe and are unlikely to be able or to be interested in helping. The US may simply have to accept defeat. 

No one in Washington wants to confront what is happening in the Pacific. The sequester, and the defense budget cuts that preceded it, are still in force. The recent budget deal provided some money to alleviate the short-term readiness issues that the sequester caused; that will not affect the calculations of the Chinese leaders. The Obama administration’s “rebalance” policy is a shell. Its major feature calls for increasing the number of American ships in the Pacific from 50 to 60 over the next few years. Even if that number is achievable under currently projected budgets, the response is so anemic — the Chinese will have a Navy with well over 300 ships, and they can concentrate the major portion of it entirely in the Western Pacific if there is an armed confrontation — as to make the “rebalance” policy an expression of weakness rather than strength.

The exact timetable that the Chinese leaders have in mind (if indeed they have one) is unknowable. They will likely continue to apply pressure in the next few years, and an unplanned escalation is always possible, but China’s intention is probably, as Mr. Kashin suggests, to postpone any major confrontation until “after the completion of the current cycle of reforming and rearming (their) armed forces through 2020.” Given the current trends, time is certainly on China’s side. So the Obama administration might be able to skate through its final three years without matters coming to a head in the Western Pacific. The next president will not be so lucky.

 - Jim Talent serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, to which he was appointed by the U.S. Senate in 2012. He has served on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-chair of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation.

Originally appeared in the National Review Online

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