While there are obviously numerous security threats throughout the world, threat assessments can often come across as overhyped and overwrought. The United States is in possession of both favorable geography and an advantage in relative power to its potential competitors that would be the envy of great powers and empires throughout history. That said, the recent development of the DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) by China is one advance in that country’s military modernization effort that could provoke some legitimate worry.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, “Chinese investments in…anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power.” And there are numerous scenarios under which the DF-21D could be—at the very least—problematic. The development of an ASBM is seen by many as a response to the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1996 when President Bill Clinton sent the USS Nimitz carrier strike group to the Strait to demonstrate United States’ commitment to protect Taiwan. This was seen by the Chinese as a strategic embarrassment and helped spur the effort toward fielding its “carrier killer”. In November 2010, President Obama sent the USS George Washington aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea following the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island as a show of support. The Yellow Sea is viewed by China as part of its strategic domain and an ASBM would make backing its South Korean allies through demonstrations of naval power in the face of provocative behavior by the North a much more perilous endeavor. Moving U.S. carriers into either the Taiwan Straits or Yellow Sea under similar circumstances would become much more dangerous were the Chinese capable of threatening the U.S. carrier force.
China has long made territorial claims over the South China Sea—a claim disputed by the Japanese—with the issue of the Senkaku Islands being particularly contentious. China’s assertive reaction to detainment of a Chinese fishing trawler captain who collided with a Japanese Coast Guard patrol ship near the islands raised alarm bells throughout the region. Japanese Self-Defense Forces have begun the process of reorienting their traditional defense of Japan’s northern islands—a holdover from Cold War preparation for a possible Soviet invasion—to the south to protect against a hypothetical Chinese incursion. Despite these precautions, Japanese defense relies primarily on U.S. military assets in the region, and any defense of the islands would ultimately require U.S. carrier groups—a task made more difficult were the DF-21D to be employed. In the past the United States has used it’s carriers to defuse volatile situations through a show of force because the Chinese did not have the ability to successfully escalate the situation, forcing the United States to back down. The ability to threaten U.S. carriers may allow the Chinese to upend this long-standing paradigm.
Furthering these concerns, the AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense system fielded by numerous naval vessels is seen by some as ineffective against an ASBM. While research into defensive measures will surely take place, the time horizon for such development is well into the future. One possible countermeasure would be expanding the use of new types of submersible craft, requiring costly new investments in ballistic missile submarines, which would serve as a passive defense against an ASBM that would not require missile interceptors, which are technically feasible but have never been proven reliable.
For their part though, neither Chief of Naval Intelligence Vice Admiral Jack Dorsett, nor Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, seem particularly perturbed by this development. Both acknowledge that an ASBM presents new challenges but, as Dorsett notes, China is yet to test the DF-21D over water and no command and control structure has been implemented. While the DF-21D may reach operational capability in the near future, there is no evidence that an imminent deployment is in the works. In the end, as Roughead told the Financial Times, “[T]he beauty of naval forces is their flexibility, and the challenges of finding, targeting and then hitting them. [The DF-21D] is a new capability and a new application of a ballistic missile, but at the same time, I look at it and say let’s move forward…”
There is one option to counter the emerging Chinese ASBM capability not often mentioned: rethinking outdated Cold War military alliances that force the U.S. military to defend several of China’s neighbors from various threats. This is the most likely means by which the United States and China could be brought into direct confrontation. Taiwan is no longer an outpost for democracy in a bipolar world. South Korea does not offer the United States the same benefit it once did, and the recklessness of its northern neighbor only increases the chances of conflict in the region. These countries can contribute only minimally to a coalition against China’s rising military strength. Japan and India are more likely to be effective at balancing China should its “peaceful rise” prove to be illusory. Given Japan’s existing, and India’s growing, economic strength, either country (or better, both) would be well-suited to take the lead in regional security matters by increasing their own military capabilities to counter China’s military modernization, therefore allowing the US to disengage from the region.
America’s Cold War alliance system—from NATO to the Far East—is the perfect example of nothing being so permanent as a temporary government program. It will be difficult in any event to sever these formal military alliances in favor of more ad hoc, as-needed arrangements. It would also be difficult to present such a severance in a way that does not appear as a retreat in the face of China’s rising strength—instead of simply being in America’s interest to do so as it actually would be. Such an interpretation of retreat may embolden China to pursue more aggressive measures and draw the United States back into the very alliances it should have begun to shed under more favorable conditions following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even if America were to rethink its alliances in East Asia and begin shedding unnecessary security commitments, this does not exclude the possibility that a scenario would arise demanding US reengagement in the region. Under such a scenario, the DF-21D, as with much of China’s modernization efforts, would be a cause for worry. But even a strategy of disengagement from the region does not mean the U.S. would abandon its own efforts to improve it’s military capabilities. The U.S. military is currently in the process of developing it’s own “carrier killer” missile to counter the carrier fleet China is hoping to deploy in the near future. Despite recent difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still holds both a quantitative and qualitative advantage over any other conventional military and even in the unlikely event of a reassessment of U.S. strategy in the region, or a cut in defense spending, the United States will still maintain this advantage for the foreseeable future.