China’s military buildup and its push to develop nuclear-capable missiles is unnerving Congress and U.S. defense officials alike.
America’s defense establishment has watched threats from Beijing rapidly grow in multiple areas, including recent hypersonic missile tests, an expanding nuclear arsenal, strides in space and cyber and seemingly daily threats to Taiwan.
“We’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geo-strategic power the world has witnessed,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyBiden's first year: A mirage of gender parity Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert Special Operations Command's top general tests positive for COVID-19 MORE said Wednesday when speaking about China’s recent military advances.
“They are clearly challenging us regionally and their aspiration is to challenge the United States globally.”
A potential shift in the global balance of power is worrisome to U.S. officials and lawmakers.
For decades, America has held the stance of the world's foremost economic and military power. A shift to China, while not a direct threat, could upend alliances in the Indo-Pacific region at a time when U.S. and Chinese militaries increasingly butt heads in the South China Sea.
Outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten last week said that the pace at which China is developing military capabilities is “stunning,” and on track to surpass the United States “if we don't do something to change it.”
A major example of the speed at which Beijing is moving was a test in August of a hypersonic weapon that partially orbited Earth, reentered the atmosphere and rocketed toward its target, which it missed by less than 30 miles.
Milley called the test “very concerning” and “very close” to being a “Sputnik moment,” referring to the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the world’s first space satellite that gave Moscow a lead in the space race and shocked the United States.
China has maintained that the test was “a spacecraft, not a missile.”
On Wednesday, Milley called the launch indicative of “a much, much broader picture of a military capability with respect to the Chinese.”
“Today [China] has capabilities in space and cyber, land, sea, air, undersea, and they are clearly challenging us regionally. ... So we have a case here of a country that is becoming extraordinarily powerful, that wants to revise the international order to their advantage. That's going to be a real challenge over the coming years. In the next 10, 20 years. That's going to be really significant for the United States.”
That view was reflected in the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, released Wednesday, that details a country that is aggressively building its nuclear stockpile, developing new missile capabilities and bolstering its armed forces, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing continued its efforts to advance its overall development including steadying its economic growth, strengthening its armed forces, and taking a more assertive role in global affairs,” according to the nearly 200-page report.
China since 2018 has been named as the top defense threat to the country, alongside Russia, but its latest advancements had congressional Republicans this week sounding the alarm on its growing threat.
“We are in the most, I believe, the most endangered position our country has ever been in terms of what China is demonstrating, clearly, what they have the capability of doing,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — White House raises new alarm over Russia Biden sparks confusion, cleanup on Russia-Ukraine remarks Republicans say Mayorkas failed to deliver report on evacuated Afghans MORE (R-Okla.), said in a news conference Tuesday.
And after the Pentagon’s report, Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersRussia and China's private internets are the ideal forts for cyberattacks Washington's playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis House GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine MORE (R-Ala.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the United States needs to respond to China with “unprecedented defense modernization.”
“This report should crystallize for the Biden Administration what has been self-evident for some time – that China poses a real and imminent threat. Kicking the can down the road for our own military modernization is no longer an option,” he continued.
Analysts have also picked up on China’s growing nuclear capabilities, with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) on Tuesday releasing a report detailing three apparent missile silos that are in development in the cities of Yumen, Hami and Ordos.
Hans Kristensen, one of the authors of the FAS report, told The Hill that Washington should be more concerned about Beijing modernizing its military on the conventional side, which doesn’t involve nuclear weapons.
“Especially sort of vis-a-vis Taiwan, but of course, also in the South China Sea. Because those are areas in which a conventional war could erupt, or clash, and out of that situation could sort of erupt an escalation into potential use of nuclear weapons,” Kristensen said. “But of course, it takes that conventional war to break out first.”
Experts and officials worry that China’s growing military might is indicative of plans to eventually seize control of Taiwan, the self-governed island that Beijing views as a rogue part of its territory.
That concern has increased in recent months as Beijing has amped up its provocations against Taipei, flying warplanes into its air identification zone 150 times over the course of about four days in early October.
The presence of U.S. forces on the island, including those meant to train Taiwanese troops, has since been revealed.
Senior U.S. military officers including Milley numerous times this year warned that China in several years could make a bid for the island, a concern repeated on Thursday by a top Taiwan security official.
National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong said that China has internally considered attacking Taiwan's Pratas Islands but said it would hold off on the move until 2024, according to Reuters.
And Milley on Wednesday said China likely wouldn’t make a move in the near future, “but anything can happen.”
Complicating matters is Washington’s long-held pledge to help Taiwan defend itself in such an attack, which is unclear on what exactly it would do to deter China — a scenario that could trigger a conflict between the two superpowers.
The U.S. has operated under a policy of “strategic ambiguity” with Taiwan, providing it defensive arms and allowing for unofficial relations but not supporting its independence.
President BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE on Oct. 21 appeared to take a firmer stance when he said the U.S. government has a “commitment” to protect Taiwan, but the White House quickly walked that back and said U.S. policy was not changing.
It remains to be seen how the Pentagon intends to tackle the challenge, but it's likely to feature heavily in its soon-to-be-released Nuclear Posture Review, part of the Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy, as well as its upcoming Missile Defense Review.