Friday, February 12, 2010

On a recent visit to Australia, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus downplayed the threat posed by China’s rapid modernization of its military forces, highlighted in Australia’s 2009 Defense White Paper. With no discernable threat, China’s unprecedented force modernization program has grown at a double-digit rate for the past 10 years.

Though China professes that the modernization of its military forces threatens no one and is only for defensive purposes, it is classic Chinese subterfuge. Every new weapons system it has acquired or developed is designed specifically to target or intimidate U.S. military forces. For example, China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers - not some commercial container ship. It has purchased from Russia the Supersonic SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship cruise missile, which was designed specifically to strike our Aegis cruisers and destroyers. It has tripled to 36 the number of surface combatants carrying anti-ship cruise missiles.

China’s strategic modernization program is no less impressive. Its four new nuclear missiles - some probably with multiple warheads - coupled with its recently demonstrated anti-ballistic-missile and anti-satellite intercept capability cannot be ignored. Nor can its development of a new strategic bomber and a fifth-generation fighter.

The building of underground submarine pens on Hainan Island, which can house both strategic and nuclear-attack submarines, cannot go unnoticed. By this year, China could have 60 attack submarines. Hainan Island’s strategic location provides quick access to the critical sea lines of communication that lead to northeastern Asia and Australia, plus ready access to the broad reaches of the Western Pacific. This facility, coupled with China’s illegal action to claim the entire South China Sea as part of its “historic waters,” should be a wake-up call. Further, its unilateral claim of sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, including the Paracels, Spratlys, Senkaku and Taiwan, provides substance to China’s goal of dominating an island chain that includes Taiwan. Taiwan is the key to extending that dominance out to a second island chain that includes Guam.

The Australian Defense White Paper properly recognizes the threat posed by China to Australia’s national security and also highlights the adverse impact it could have on U.S. naval and Marine forces in the Western Pacific. Australia places its security not only on its own self-reliant military forces, but on the strategic underpinnings provided by its most important ally, the United States. In that sense, Australia is concerned about the reduction in U.S. strategic forces and the lack of a modernization program. The extension of the U.S. strategic umbrella is critical to Australia, as it is to our other friends and allies in the region, including Japan and South Korea.

According to reports, Mr. Mabus stated that the immediate challenges to stability across the Pacific did not stem from China’s growing naval power, but the threat from pirates, terrorists and illegal fishing. This view obviously reflects the Obama administration’s new strategy of not preparing for major conflicts, which is a formula for disaster. Further, it plays into the China propaganda line that its modernization is only for defensive purposes. China goes on to state that it has never committed aggression against anyone. This propaganda is repeated by pro-China supporters, plus a line attributed to Henry Kissinger that “military imperialism is not China’s style.” Then China’s aggression in Tibet, Vietnam, India, Russia and the South China Sea must have been aberrations.

How much further will Chinese imperialism reach, when, by the end of this decade, it could have multiple aircraft carriers, a growing large-ship amphibious navy, near nuclear parity should the president succeed with further U.S. nuclear warhead reductions, and growing numbers of fifth-generation fighters? It’s not just this picture that worries some of our Australian allies, but also the refusal of the Obama administration to see how it may be accelerating a growing threat.

I agree with Mr. Mabus that our commitment to the Western Pacific region must remain absolute. Many of the programs that need to be supported to enhance that commitment go beyond the Navy’s budget.

Our recently announced sale of the Patriot defensive weapon system to Taiwan was a good start, but more needs to be done. Taiwan also needs F-16 fighters now, then fifth-generation F-35s later this decade, and submarines. We should never let Chinese bluster - like its threat to cease its mostly useless “assistance” to end Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs - interrupt American aid to democratic Taiwan. The Navy budget needs to include funding for a 12th aircraft carrier, plus funding for a core surface naval force that is imbedded with the capabilities of a Zumwalt-class destroyer to counter known and future threats.

Unlike Mr. Mabus, I can see clearly that China is a real and growing threat to U.S. naval forces in Asia, to U.S. allies and friends such as Taiwan and to freedom of navigation in the maritime and outer-space realms. Denying these facts will not make China go away and will not impress our allies.

Retired Navy Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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