“China is preparing for World War III” was one of the less than optimistic remarks delivered by the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee on 29 January.
Commenting on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) military buildup in the South China Sea, Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma laid out China’s mounting maritime strength.
The Chinese Sea Grab
According to Inhofe, while the U.S. military has a presence in and around the South China Sea and the larger western Pacific Ocean, China has been investing in the region on a whole different scale. The senator described reports collected by U.S. intelligence of how China has systematically laid claim to the Sea’s rocks and islets before turning other reefs into fortifications, brimming with arms and stockpiled with material.
Of particular concern has been the so-called “Chinese sea grab” around Spratly Archipelago, a group of more than one hundred islets, cays, and reefs grouped off the coasts of Malaysia, the Philippines, and southern Vietnam. The naval build up has agitated neighboring nations and continues to challenge the international standard of free maritime passage. Countering this assertiveness, the U.S. Navy regularly conducts routine freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, a type of mission that has come to be strongly associated with the South China Sea. These operations have caused quite a bit of tension between American and Chinese forces sailing through the area. Back in October 2018, the USS Decatur, guided-missile destroyer, was nearly rammed by a Chinese warship in the vicinity of the Gaven Reef.
The Enemy’s Arsenal
Inhofe’s address came at the same time that fresh reports are coming out concerning China’s growing naval arsenal.
U.S. intelligence estimates from the past two to three years have put China’s naval strength at “more than 300 ships.” Just taking that number would put China’s navy as the largest in the world. More recent reports by non-governmental sources have pointed out that even this figure is too low. As researchers for the Indo-Pacific Defense Forum wrote in last month’s periodical, the “more than 300” estimate only takes into account the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). What is does not factor in is the hundreds of additional vessels that belong to the additional units such as the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). Including ships under those fleets would bring the number of vessels up to around 650.
Accompanying new revelations on the size of PRC’s maritime forces, U.S. intelligence has also uncovered a brand new Chinese naval weapon that has now come on line. According to media reports, China tested its first long-range railgun earlier this month. The railgun, which uses electromagnetic energy instead of gunpowder to propel rounds, is capable of striking a target 124 miles away at speeds of up to 1.6 miles per second, according to the people who have knowledge of the relevant intelligence.
As if synchronized with earlier reports, China’s state media released footage of its navy’s new “carrier killer” missile. The 44,000-pound DF-26 missile in theory can target U.S. Navy warships including aircraft carriers as well as major U.S. military installations in the western Pacific such as those on the island of Guam and elsewhere.
To be sure, China’s technological upgrade doesn’t automatically spell supremacy. The U.S. military has, not surprisingly, been preparing for countering and even circumventing the technological proficiency of naval adversaries for a long time.
But one thing can be stated assuredly: These reports should give pause to policymakers with a passive attitude on America retaining its dominance in the Pacific.