If the Chinese are able to fully develop ballistic missiles, Beijing would, for the first time, be able to launch long-range (over 1600km) attacks against maritime targets direct from the mainland – a scenario the Pentagon is clearly taking seriously.
So under what circumstances would China create such a contested zone? A crisis or conflict over Taiwan would undoubtedly trigger attempts to deny US military access to the region. The Chinese fully expect Washington to call on its carriers should it ever decide to intervene in a cross-strait conflict, and recognise that aircraft carriers would play a crucial role in clearing the skies above and the seas around Taiwan of PLA forces. Beijing therefore plans to use the missile threat to deprive – or at least deter – the US of this option.
China’s calculus is an entirely rational response to past events. In 1996, Beijing lobbed missiles into waters near Taiwan to intimidate the island’s citizenry on the eve of a presidential election. However, the Chinese leadership learned to its dismay that the military was impotent when US President Bill Clinton responded with the dispatch of two carriers near the strait. That bitter lesson compelled the Chinese to redouble their efforts to avoid future embarrassment.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But Taiwan is not the only prize. The ‘China seas’ – the Yellow, East China and South China Seas – have long been regarded by Beijing as its offshore preserve. Heavy maritime traffic, driven by fellow Asian nations’ voracious appetite for Chinese goods, plied these waters in dynastic times. Indeed, these nautical thoroughfares were integral to the China-centric maritime order, which collapsed after the fleets of China’s last dynasty suffered humiliating reverses at the hands of Western imperial powers and Japan.
China’s capacity to influence events at sea with its missile force could thus buttress Beijing’s sense of entitlement over large bodies of Asian waters. Whether the Chinese would seek to employ its arsenal as an arbiter of US military presence in Asia remains to be seen. But that very possibility suggests that America’s undisputed dominance on the high seas and pre-eminent position in the region cannot be taken for granted.
Historical, strategic and operational considerations stimulate China’s pursuit of disruptive technologies at sea. We should therefore expect Beijing to lavish resources on its arsenal for the foreseeable future. The Chinese missile threat to maritime affairs is a real and growing one that is far more serious than the very distant problems that China’s carriers could ever pose.
Policymakers in Asia and Washington should therefore ignore the media hype surrounding Beijing’s blue-water aspirations and prepare for the less visible but more pressing missile challenge in the years ahead.