The risk of a conflict with China is increasing as a result of aggressive activities by Beijing, the admiral in charge of U.S. forces in the Pacific told Congress on Tuesday.
Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korean missile tests and the threat of violent extremism have all increased the risk of war. China, he said, remains the only serious competitor capable of combining its military power with advanced technology to displace the United States as the world’s leading superpower.
“War is not inevitable, and it’s not imminent,” the four-star admiral told lawmakers. “However, this decade presents a period of increased risk,” and the risks “are real.”
Adm. Philip Davidson, the previous head of the Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress in 2021 that China’s communist regime was on track to seek a military takeover of Taiwan before 2027. Beijing considers the island democracy a part of its sovereign territory.
Adm. Aquilino said Tuesday that estimates of possible Chinese action against Taiwan were based on an order by President Xi Jinping directing the Chinese military to be prepared “to execute a task” by 2027, increasing the likelihood of conflict.
“The trends are all in the wrong direction. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
U.S. military forces in the region are fully prepared for any scenario, he insisted.
“For me, it doesn’t matter what the timeline is,” the four-star commander said. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “has given to me this mission today. So I’m responsible to prevent this conflict today, and if deterrence were to fail to be able to fight and win.”
When China might launch an attack is “guessing,” Adm. Aquilino said, but he urged the Pentagon and defense industry to “go faster” in using all elements of national power — military, diplomatic, economic and other — to prevent conflict.
Rep. Michael Waltz, Florida Republican, said lawmakers have debated whether a conflict over Taiwan is inevitable.
Mr. Waltz noted that Mr. Xi told a recent meeting of the Chinese Communist Party that a takeover of Taiwan, including the potential use of military force, is inevitable.
“[Mr. Xi] said he’s not going to pass it on to the next generation and that basically he is going to do it on his watch,” said Mr. Waltz, an Army National Guard colonel, veteran Special Forces soldier and former Pentagon policy adviser.
Mr. Waltz said many in the Pentagon appear to be engaged in “wishful thinking” that a war with China is not likely, in ways similar to those expressing doubts that Russia would invade in the run-up to the Ukraine war.
The Biden administration warned for months that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine, but it could not deter Moscow.
Mr. Waltz said he took a recent tour of Asia and found “ambiguity” among leaders of U.S. allies about supporting the United States in defense of Taiwan.
Adm. Aquilino said U.S. military overflight and basing rights from regional allies such as Japan and the Philippines in a China conflict are not assumed. They would be based on those nations’ decisions but would be vital to winning.
In his prepared statement to the House panel, Adm. Aquilino said the global security environment has changed dramatically in the past year.
“The PRC accelerated their whole-of-government assault against the rules-based international order and partnered with Russia to advance their goals,” he said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “Strategic competition with the United States now encompasses all forms of national power across all domains. We see increasing efforts to drive wedges between the U.S. and like-minded nations in an attempt to dominate the region.”
The government has directed the People’s Liberation Army to build military forces that can seize Taiwan by force and “surpass the United States as the dominant power in the Pacific.” China, the admiral said, views unification with Taiwan as key to a “rejuvenation” of the nation.
The Chinese have stepped up pressure on Taiwan with large-scale military operations and missile firings, using warship patrols and large numbers of military flights.
Adm. Aquilino said the activities have effectively erased the unofficial dividing line between Taiwan and China down the Taiwan Strait, a mutually observed boundary designed to lessen tensions.
China also has stepped up provocative aerial intercepts of U.S. and allied aircraft. In February, the PLA navy fired a military-grade laser against an Australian P-8 surveillance aircraft and may have permanently damaged the vision of the pilot and crew, Adm. Aquilino said.
Adm. Aquilino said the Chinese surveillance balloon that traversed much of the continental U.S. earlier this year showed the Chinese Communist Party’s “intent to develop and deploy additional intelligence collection platforms.”
“Such actions are in direct violation of the sovereignty of the nations overflown and further highlight the CCP’s irresponsible behavior,” he said.
Adm. Aquilino declined to comment in open session on when the U.S. military first learned about China’s high-altitude balloon. Published reports said the balloon was tracked from its launch on Hainan Island in the South China Sea weeks before it entered U.S. airspace over Alaska.
On ties with Russia, the admiral said Chinese leaders and the state-controlled media are continuing to amplify Russian propaganda about the Ukraine war.
Moscow is supplying highly enriched uranium to China for use in fast-breeder reactors that could bolster China’s expanding nuclear warhead stockpile, he said.
“Militarily, the relationship [between China and Russia] has incrementally grown over the past decade,” Adm. Aquilino said.
China also is building a network of overseas military bases and expeditionary military capabilities that will expand Beijing’s ability to project power globally.
The U.S. commander called China’s military buildup the largest, fastest and most comprehensive arms development since World War II, a modernization that covers both conventional and nuclear forces. It’s a drive that encompasses virtually every branch of China’s armed forces.
In 2022, the buildup added 17 major warships, including four guided-missile cruisers, three destroyers, five frigates, two attack submarines and a large amphibious assault ship, as well as scores of support and specialty ships.
China’s air force doubled production capability for advanced J-20 fighters, and about 150 J-20s are now operational.
Last year, China conducted 64 space launches that orbited at least 160 satellites.
“And perhaps most stunning of all, the PLA Rocket Force continues to massively expand its arsenal of conventional and nuclear missiles, building hundreds of silos for nuclear missiles and fielding several hundred ballistic and cruise missiles,” he said.
“This almost certainly includes a large number of hypersonic missiles, some of which may be nuclear-capable.”
China’s navy is working to build a force of 440 battleships by 2030, including significant increases in aircraft carriers and major surface warships.
Another area of concern is China’s cyberwarfare capabilities. “PLA cyber efforts remain focused on developing capabilities to enable warfare activities targeting U.S. and partner critical civilian electric, energy, and water infrastructure to generate chaos and disrupt military operations,” the admiral said.
Republican committee members noted that China now has more land-based nuclear missile launchers than the U.S. and has ultra-high-speed hypersonic missiles that can hit moving targets such as ships while overcoming limited U.S. missile defense systems.
Adm. Aquilino said the Pentagon is working on developing hypersonic missile defense. He testified earlier that the capability was needed to protect forces in the region, including to defend the U.S. island of Guam.
“I stand by what I said: I am concerned about it,” he said. Efforts to develop defenses against hypersonic missiles “need to go faster.”
The Biden administration has sought to play down war fears with China as a part of its policy of avoiding a conflict.
Jedidiah P. Royal, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, faced questions at the hearing on why the Indo-Pacific Command needs an additional $3.5 billion for regional defenses.
Mr. Royal said “there is no daylight” between the Pentagon and the Pacific command over priorities for the region.
The Biden administration’s budget request for fiscal 2024 includes more than $60 billion for air power and advanced aircraft; nearly $50 billion for bolstering sea power, including submarines; more than $33 billion for space capabilities; and more than $37 billion for modernizing nuclear forces. The administration is seeking $145 billion for military research and $170 billion for procurement.
“These investments would constitute the department’s largest commitment ever in these areas,” he said.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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