Those who believe that Beijing intends China’s “rise” to be a “peaceful” one should consider a pair of excellent articles published in the May and current issues of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.
The first article, “On the Verge of a Game-Changer” by Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, addresses the substantial amount of technical research and academic publications in China surrounding its program to develop antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs).* With credible intelligence suggesting that Beijing is pursuing an ASBM based on a variant of the DF-21/CSS-5 solid propellant medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), which has a range exceeding 1,500km, China could be on the brink of undermining the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Washington and Moscow in 1988 preventing both countries from possessing conventional and nuclear ground-launched ballistic (and cruise) missiles with ranges between 500km and 5.5km.
While there is agreement in academic circles that China’s “rise” is largely “peaceful” except for the question of Taiwan, the development of ASBMs putting Japan and the Philippines (and Taiwan, of course) within range implies that Chinese military planners may have other contingencies in mind. In other words, the “peaceful” rise may be little more than propaganda.
The second article, “An Undersea Deterrent?” by Erickson and Michael Chase, addresses the emergence of China’s second-generation of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) — the Type 094, or Jin-class. Beyond the possibility that they are meant to bolster China’s great power status, SSBNs could be part of a “nuclear dyad” composed of land-based strategic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to enhance the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent. It would also substantially increase China’s power-projection capabilities outside its territorial waters, which again points to a strategic view that goes well beyond a Taiwan contingency. The article quotes Toshi Yoshihara of the Naval War College as saying that “for at least the next two decades, missile defense … will have no answer to a capable SSBN patrolling the open ocean.”
Both articles are excellent and deserve a close reading, and both point to alarming developments in the Chinese navy that could well spark an arms race in the region, as the authors argue. Of course the ASBM program and the SSBNs could simply be the outcome of Beijing making substantial increases in its military budget in recent years — in other words, large injections of money in the military-industrial complex will inevitably result in research programs and academic debates on the feasibility of various projects. But as has often been observed, once a weapons system is designed, it tends to gain a life of its own and to drive policy, rather than the other way around, which could bode ill for the region.
* Besides differences in launch mechanisms (e.g., cruise missiles never leave the atmosphere as they home in on a target, doing so more like an aircraft) and targeting, the principal distinguishing factor between the two means of delivery is that ballistic missiles such as the ASBMs discussed in this article are almost impossible to intercept. The implication is that to protect itself from a ballistic missile attack, an opponent must target the source; in the present case, this would involve striking launchers on Chinese territory, which could quickly lead to escalation.
Toshi Yoshihara also has an interesting piece on the Chinese navy in the current issue of The Diplomat.