Defense: An Underwater Threat From China

As America and its allies focus their diplomatic energy on the Middle East and Afghanistan, China continues to alter the balance of power in East Asia with little fanfare and even less resistance. Consider recent revelations that China has built a massive new naval base in Sanya, on Hainan Island. The strategically located base, which features underground facilities, provides the Chinese Navy with hard-to-monitor deep-water access to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean region, as well as the ability to project military power in and

trade routes considered vital to all Asian countries. Since World War II, the U.S. Navy has policed these sea routes. Washington and its allies have provided the security that has underwritten Asia's remarkable growth in trade and prosperity. By building a Navy capable of taking on U.S. forces, however, it seems Beijing is now seeking to contest that U.S. maritime dominance—a move that could seriously undermine peace and prosperity throughout Asia.

The new base at Sanya will be able to handle numerous nuclear submarines, destroyers and, when China decides to build them, aircraft carriers. Already, China's latest Jin–class nuclear ballistic-missile submarine has been spotted at the base, just a few hundred kilometers from China's Southeast Asian neighbors, such as Vietnam. Complicating matters further, Beijing has driven massive tunnels into hillsides surrounding the base, which will let China shield its subs from detection by satellites and leave Washington practically blind when those subs do deploy.

To close observers of the Chinese military, the base's construction is just the latest in a sustained Chinese effort to rapidly build up its military, particularly its Navy. Since 1995, when most countries were shrinking their defense budgets and downsizing their militaries in the aftermath of the cold war, China has commissioned more than 30 new submarines. It has acquired or is building at least five different classes of subs—a number unmatched by any other military. In addition to this ever-growing underwater force, Beijing has launched an impressive array of advanced destroyers, fielded more than 1,000 ballistic missiles since the early 1990s at a rate of 150 a year, and acquired hundreds of the most modern fighter aircraft. Many experts on the Chinese military tend to explain away this rapid buildup as necessary to deterring Taiwan's independence. But China faces no serious challenge from Taiwan, and Taiwan's military has done comparatively little to augment its firepower over the past decade. The fact is that for some time now, China has had more than enough military capacity to deter Taiwan from formally breaking with the mainland. Indeed, if anything, the worry today is that China can coerce Taiwan into a settling their dispute on Beijing's terms. It also hasn't escaped notice from others in the neighborhood that all these new military capabilities targeting Taiwan could also be used for alternative purposes.

Given that China faces a benign security environment with no real threats, its true military goals remain a mystery. Privately, however, U.S. officials are voicing concern. The Pentagon estimates that by 2010, China's will be able to deploy five submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, making its nuclear force far more powerful and likely to survive an attack.

The Americans aren't the only ones growing nervous. Last week, the Indian cabinet discussed China's new base, and the Indian Navy chief expressed serious concern. He rightly suspects that a stronger Chinese nuclear Navy means that Beijing may plan on challenging Delhi's longtime dominance of the Indian Ocean. Tokyo, for its part, is increasingly worried that its old rival is developing the ability—and the intention—to project power around Japan with impunity. Over the past few years, Japanese officials have reported dozens of Chinese maritime incursions into disputed waters close to Japan's shores. And China will soon have the hardware to allow it to forcefully settle claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea—much to the consternation of the Philippines and Vietnam.

Nothing less than the future of East Asia now hangs in the balance. For many years, America's security umbrella over the region has allowed Asia's great powers, including China, to focus on economic growth rather than military competition. Now China's rapid buildup could spark a costly regional competition that could potentially slow Asia's economic growth, as funds are diverted to military spending and investors are scared away.

The last three U.S. administrations have based their China policies on hopes about what China might someday become. It is time to face the reality of what China has already created. This means devoting more military resources to the region and strengthening U.S. allies in order to reassure those them and send Beijing the message that the United States is committed to the regional status quo—which includes the maintenance of free markets and free governments across the Pacific. Beijing may not get it, yet. But such a U.S. response would be in everyone's interests.