The announcement that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy is only one reason to pay renewed attention to the Asia-Pacific region. While not unexpected, the rise of China to superpower status economically is still a major event, one with significant implications for the balance of power in the world and China’s role in the global economy. Beijing’s newfound status is likely to only intensify its efforts to leverage economic strength into advantages in such areas as trade in high tech goods and the acquisition of intellectual property from its trading partners.
The second reason to pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific region is because a storm is gathering in this area, one that could eventually expand to engulf not only the locals, but the United States and the entire world. The security situation in the Asia-Pacific region is rapidly deteriorating. The principal cause of this problem is China which is using the proceeds from its success as an international trading partner to invest in a military of regional consequence. With the same speed that Beijing overtook its regional rivals economically, it is moving to outstrip them militarily.
China has deployed more than a thousand short- and medium-range ballistic missiles with which it can bombard targets as close as Taiwan or as far away as Guam. It is rapidly expanding its naval forces, building five different classes of submarines and planning on acquiring a class of aircraft carriers with which to project power well beyond its shores. Recently, U.S. sources announced that Beijing had begun fielding a specially-design ballistic missile intended to attack U.S. aircraft carriers. Finally, China unveiled its newest long-range, stealthy, fifth-generation fighter, the J-20, at the very time U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Beijing for meetings intended to improve U.S.-Chinese military relations.
The gathering storm reflects more than just Chinese military developments. Russia too is seeking to improve its military. Moscow also has begun development of an advanced stealthy, fifth-generation fighter. The Russian Navy is also seeking to acquire advanced western military technology including French amphibious warfare helicopter carriers and Israeli UAVs. Even lowly North Korea is taking steps to make its military more formidable, expanding its special operations forces and restructuring its armored formations.
One consequence of these actions is to undermine the stability of the military balance in the Asia-Pacific region, one that has kept the peace there for some 50 years. According to the recently retired head of Air Force Intelligence, Lt. General David Deptula, “The United States has owned a monopoly on stealth for the last 25 years, and now, as both the Russians and Chinese acquire that same capability, you’re going to see that advantage we used to hold disappear very quickly, and that is going to have a very significant effect on our current operational plans.” Similarly, the U.S. Navy will have to operate very differently in the Western Pacific under the threat of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles.
A second consequence of these military developments is to empower the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of the region to become increasingly belligerent. Chinese representatives have laid claim to international waters bordering the mainland, warning no less a person than the U.S. Secretary of State to stay out. Russian President Medvedev rejected Japanese calls for negotiations over the status of the Southern Kurile Islands that Moscow has held since the end of World War Two. Then there is North Korea that sinks South Korean ships and barrages South Korea territory. The scenario is reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s.
The U.S. and its allies are responding by trying to beef up their military capabilities. The key to the future military balance in the Asia Pacific Region will be air and missile power. The U.S. and Japan are working on an advanced antiballistic missile variant of the Standard Missile. Exploratory talks are beginning to assess Japan’s interest in acquiring the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Tokyo would probably have bought the F-22 if the Obama Administration had had the good sense to sell it to Japan. A new U.S. arms package is being prepared for Taiwan. It should include an offer to sell that country F-16 fighters. Sources in Australia are proposing that Canberra acquire nuclear attack submarines from the United States as part of its revised strategic defense.
As storm clouds gather in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. and its allies must acquire the means to protect themselves from the ill-winds that could begin to blow. Also, they need to draw together if they are to deter or defeat the rising powers of the region.
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