Reviews | China’s military expansion reaches a dangerous tipping point

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Top military leaders from the United States and China met last weekend at a forum in Singapore, where they tried to manage growing tensions between the superpowers. But across Asia, there are growing fears that China’s drastic military expansion could soon lead to Chinese regional military superiority, which could encourage Beijing to start a war against Taiwan.

That sense of urgency was palpable at last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference of diplomats, officials and experts from across Asia, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. During three days of talks, a common sentiment emerged: China is racing to become the dominant military power in Asia within the next few years – and if it succeeds, Beijing will likely use force to try to subjugate Taiwanese democracy. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has dispelled any notion that revisionist dictatorships can be deterred by anything short of a superior opposing military force.

In recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that China plans to achieve military parity with the United States in Asia by 2027. As the Chinese military advances in both technology and territorial presence , the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army are now openly threatening to attack Taiwan and promising to fight anyone who tries to intervene. Beijing is accelerating its plans and the United States risks falling behind.

In Singapore, I interviewed Admiral John C. Aquilino, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, who described what he considers “the largest military buildup in history” – with China’s growing arsenals of conventional and nuclear weapons. Aquilino said Beijing was trying to establish regional hegemony and change the international order in Asia. China wants to be able to dictate the rules and use its military without fear of coercion.

“I only see their efforts accelerating,” he said. “I see advanced capabilities that are delivered faster than expected. … Their goal is to have parity with the United States to ensure they cannot be deterred.

China is developing the ability to use nuclear blackmail to deter US intervention if it invades Taiwan, following the Russian model. China’s regional military presence is expanding, including a secret naval base in Cambodia and a secret military cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands. China has developed new technologies, including hypersonic missiles and anti-satellite lasers, to keep the US military at bay in a Taiwanese scenario. And now China no longer recognizes the Taiwan Strait as international waters.

China’s increased military confidence is reflected in its increasingly bellicose rhetoric. After meeting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe delivered a speech in which he pledged that “China will definitely achieve reunification” with Taiwan. If anyone tries to get in the way, he continued, “we won’t hesitate to fight. We will fight at all costs. »

In his speech, Austin tried to reassure the region that the United States was determined to maintain its leadership in Asia. But Singapore diplomats and pundits couldn’t help but notice a discrepancy between what the United States is saying and the resources Washington is devoting to the effort.

The new research investments the Pentagon is making today will not bear fruit for several years. Shipbuilding projects in the United States are woefully underfunded. The United States’ new trilateral alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom (known as AUKUS) will not result in supplying Australia with nuclear submarines until the late 2030s.

China is working on a shorter schedule. Aquilino did not offer an exact date for when China could overtake US military power in Asia, but he called the 2020s a “worrying decade”. His predecessor in Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the threat of China’s invasion of Taiwan would become critical in “the next six years.” “. With 2027 being the last year of Xi’s expected (and unprecedented) third five-year term, it gives him a personal deadline to attempt reunification.

The Indo-Pacific Command estimated in a May report to Congress that the region needs about $67 billion in new military investment between 2024 and 2027 to maintain the United States’ comparative military advantage over China. The budget is already behind schedule. In April, the Indo-Pacific Command submitted a list of unfunded items totaling $1.5 billion for 2023 alone.

Maintaining the US military advantage in the Indo-Pacific region will not be easy or cheap. Urgent tasks include dispersing more equipment and personnel to more locations, reinforcing existing outposts such as Guam, increasing training and equipping allies, and drastically increasing the military support to Taiwan for its self-defense.

Dealing with military escalation through escalation carries real risks that must be managed, not ignored. But the cost of war if China concludes that it can easily take Taiwan would be exponentially higher. The United States does not have the luxury of waiting until the next decade to counter China’s military expansion in Asia. As George Washington said in his first address to Congress in 1790, “to be ready for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.”

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