The progress of a Chinese missile known to some as an “aircraft-carrier-killer” – officially, the Dongfeng “East Wind” 21D – is unsettlingly shifting the balance of power in the Pacific, in particular increasing the risk of China making a more assertive claim to Taiwan.
On Tuesday, Admiral Robert Willard, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, gave an interview to the large Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, in which he made clear, though in semi-opaque, semi-technical language, that this ballistic missile has reached “initial operational capability,” but will still need to be tested for several years to come.
Though he drew attention to an emerging arms race between China and its East Asian neighbours, Adm. Willard seemed to say that China has been co-operative over North Korea’s chronic provocations. Indeed, he said it has a “responsibility ... to be a greater contributor to the overall security, of not only the Asia-Pacific, but elsewhere.”
For the time being, China’s naval concerns are about what it calls the near seas rather than the great expanses of the Pacific Ocean; nonetheless, that raises questions about the openness of sea lines of communications between continental Asia and islands, and groups of islands, such as the Philippines and Japan – and China’s growing power in the field that has come to be known as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD).
In reply to a question by Asahi Shimbun, Adm. Willard did not deny that the protection of Taiwan against threatening Chinese gestures, by sending aircraft-carrier groups, as the United States did in 1996, will become more challenging as result of China’s new strength in missiles.
China’s new wealth is naturally, almost inevitably, accompanied by greater military power than before, but China’s emergence as a great power ought not to bring about a new arms race or the coercion of other nation-states in East Asia.