Ascendant China Cited by U.S. Panel as Pentagon Pivots to Asia

China’s advancing military capabilities will challenge the U.S.’s ability to deter conflicts, defend partners and maintain freedom of the seas and airways in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a commission mandated by Congress.

“While the United States currently has the world’s most capable navy, its surface firepower is concentrated in aircraft carrier task forces,” the U.S. Economic and Security Review Commission said in its annual report. “China is pursuing a missile-centric strategy with the purpose of holding U.S. aircraft carriers at high risk if they operate in China’s near seas and thereby hinder their access to those waters in the event of a crisis.”

“Given China’s growing navy and the U.S. Navy’s planned decline in the size of its fleet, the balance of power and presence in the region is shifting in China’s direction,” the panel found. That will give China an “increasing number of opportunities to provoke incidents at sea and in the air that could lead to a crisis or conflict.”

Chinese nationalism, increasing regional assertiveness and the “relatively nascent state” of U.S.-Sino channels for defusing a crisis means “the potential for security miscalculations in the region is rising,” the commission said.

Last week in Beijing, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to increase cooperation and communication between their armed forces to reduce the risk of a mistake that might cause local disputes to mushroom into a military conflict. Xi said military-to-military relations will be bolstered by the “confidence-building” measures.

Addressing Australia’s Parliament in Canberra this week, Xi said, “Neither turbulence nor war serves the fundamental interests of the Chinese people.”

‘Pressing Need’

China’s military modernization is out of necessity to secure its territory, Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said today in a speech in Beijing.

The size of the country’s territory “places the Chinese military under heavy pressure in securing the country and its border areas,” Chang said, according to China Military Online, a website sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army Daily. “There is therefore a pressing need for China to strengthen its national defense and armed forces. It should also be noted that to defend our own security is a most direct contribution to the security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Created by Congress in 2000, the bipartisan commission has reported on China’s economic and military rise, usually in critical assessments accompanied by recommendations for counter-actions such as trade sanctions. Its annual overview and a yearly Pentagon report are the two primary publicly available official U.S. assessments of Chinese military developments.

‘Coercive Actions’

“With a few exceptions, the U.S.-China security relationship deteriorated” this year as China also demonstrated “increasingly bold and coercive actions toward its maritime neighbors,” with “turmoil in the East and South China seas” a “key driver of this downturn,” the commission said in yesterday’s report.

One low point occurred Aug. 19 when a Chinese fighter flew within 20 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft and performed a barrel-roll.

“As China gets more military capability, grows more confident and experienced in using it, and if it senses hesitancy or lack of resolve on the part of the U.S., it will be tempted to provoke incidents to change the status quo in a manner that suits China’s interests,” said Malcolm Davis, assistant professor in China-Western relations at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Naval Buildup

“We’ve seen numerous incidents or provocations in these regions by China designed to coerce its neighbors and challenge the established rules-based order,” he said. “The question is how far will the U.S. and its allies let China push this broad strategy before responding.”

The U.S. global military strategy, announced in January 2012 and frequently described as the pivot to the Asia-Pacific, is intended to position about 60 percent of the nation’s naval assets in the region by 2020, up from about half today.

The rebalancing includes plans to redeploy some military forces now stationed in Japan to Guam and rotate a contingent of Marines through Australia, and probably also the Philippines.

By 2020, when the U.S. has indicated it intends to complete most of its pivot, defense budget permitting, the Navy intends to station 67 submarines and surface ships in the region -- “a modest increase from 50” this year, the commission said.

Xi in Charge

In contrast, China “could have as many as 351 submarines and missile-equipped surface ships” by then, it said.

The balance of power also may be tipping in space, where satellites are critical to U.S. surveillance, intelligence-gathering, weather forecasting and communications, according to the report.

China’s developing anti-satellite capability makes it likely that its military “will be able to hold at risk U.S. national security satellites in every” orbit by 2024, the panel said.

China’s buildup of vessels, missiles, aircraft and counter-space capabilities is overseen by Xi, who “appears to have consolidated a high degree of control” over China’s security and foreign policy processes, and “it is becoming clear” he heads a government “willing to cause a much higher level of tension” than his predecessors.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview in January that Xi’s control of the PLA means his relationship with Obama “matters a great deal, and managing this relationship is going to be a big challenge for both countries.”

More Confrontational

“Unfortunately, China’s pursuit of a more confrontational relationship with the United States likely will persist,” the commission said.

China’s build-up includes the previously undisclosed fielding in 2010 of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, which is designed to disable U.S. aircraft carriers; significant enhancements of its submarine-launched anti-ship missiles; and a new destroyer that’s expected to enter service next month armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, the commission said.

The PLA’s premier missile unit, the Second Artillery, appears to have deployed two operational DF-21D units in southeast and northeastern China, it said.

China also is moving toward fielding by 2016 an air wing on its sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, that “could contribute significantly to the PLA’s combat capability in the South China Sea,” according to the report.

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