The US is losing its military edge in the Indo-Pacific as China rapidly expands in ways that suggest it is preparing for aggressive action, the top American commander in the region has warned.
Admiral Philip Davidson, head of Indo-Pacific command, said the military balance in the region has “become more unfavourable” to the US, raising the threat of China taking action because of declining deterrence.
“We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response,” Davidson told a Senate armed services committee hearing.
“I cannot for the life of me understand some of the capabilities that they’re putting in the field, unless it is an aggressive posture,” he said.
China said last week that it would increase its defence budget by 6.8 per cent this year. Davidson said China was rapidly expanding its navy and was expected to be able to deploy three aircraft carriers by 2025. He also produced charts showing the stark rise in Chinese assets in the region.
His comments came as the US has become alarmed about aggressive Chinese military activity around Taiwan. Asked if the US should change its long-term policy of “strategic ambiguity” — refusing to say how it would respond to an attack on Taiwan — he suggested it should be examined.
“Forty years of the strategic ambiguity . . . has helped keep Taiwan and its current status, but you know these things should be reconsidered routinely,” Davidson said. “I would look forward to the conversation.”
A military spokesperson said Davidson was speaking in general terms and was not advocating a change in the policy.
Davidson said China had quadrupled its nuclear capabilities over the past two decades and could surpass the US by 2030 if its current level quadrupled, as some experts have projected.
Tom Cotton, senator from Arkansas, said the US was limited to deploying 800 nuclear weapons under the recently extended New Start arms control treaty, but China could steam ahead with no restrictions.
“If they triple or quadruple their stockpile, [China] could possibly have nuclear overmatch against the US before the end of this decade. Is that correct?” Cotton asked Davidson.
“If they were to quadruple their stockpile, yes, sir,” the admiral said.
But some experts questioned that calculation, saying the US would remain far ahead.
“If China quadruples its stockpile of nuclear warheads, it increases from the low 200s . . . to approximately 900,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The New Start treaty limits the US to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, and the current US stockpile is around 3,800. So even a quadrupling of China’s nuclear warhead would leave its inventory well behind that of the United States.”
President Joe Biden has taken a tough rhetorical posture towards China over its military activity around Taiwan and in the South and East China Seas. The US president will on Friday host a summit with the members of the Quad — Japan, India and Australia — to discuss how they can counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
Last month, two US aircraft carriers conducted joint training exercises in the South China Sea — only the second time that dual carrier drills have been held in the area since 2012. US warships have also sailed through the Taiwan Strait after Chinese fighter jets and bombers simulated missile attacks on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the two carriers.
Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, head of intelligence at Indo-Pacific Command, said last week that China continued to militarise disputed islands in the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands.
In addition to installing surface-to-air and coastal defence cruise missiles, China would deploy fighter jets to the Spratlys, he said — another move that would undermine President Xi Jinping’s 2015 pledge not to militarise the islands.
“At some point, you’re going to see fighters,” Studeman said. “There’ll be a few at first and then they’ll try to do the boiling frog sort of approach where I just do a little, no one’s going to notice and not push back very much. And then pretty soon they’ll have as much as they’ll want to deploy there.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @Dimi
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