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Opinion China’s military expansion is reaching a dangerous tipping point

A photo by the Xinhua News Agency shows a fighter jet preparing to land on a Chinese navy's aircraft carrier on Dec. 31. (AP)

Top military leaders from the United States and China met last weekend at a forum in Singapore, where they attempted to manage mounting tensions between the superpowers. But throughout Asia, there’s growing fear that China’s drastic military expansion will soon result in Chinese regional military superiority, which could embolden Beijing to start a war over Taiwan.

That sense of urgency was palpable at last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference of diplomats, officials and experts from across Asia, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Over three days of discussions, a common sentiment emerged: China is racing to become the dominant military power in Asia in the next few years — and if it succeeds, Beijing is likely to use force to attempt to subdue Taiwan’s democracy. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has dispelled any notion that revisionist dictatorships can be deterred by anything short of a superior opposing military force.

In recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that China plans to achieve military parity with the United States in Asia by 2027. As the Chinese military advances in both technology and territorial presence, leaders in the People’s Liberation Army are now openly threatening to attack Taiwan and promising to fight anyone who attempts to intervene. Beijing is speeding up its plans, and the United States risks falling behind.

In Singapore, I interviewed Adm. John C. Aquilino, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, who described what he’s seeing as “the largest military buildup in history” — with growing Chinese arsenals of both conventional and nuclear weapons. Aquilino said Beijing is attempting to establish regional hegemony and change the international order in Asia. China wants to be in a position to dictate the rules and use its military without fearing any constraints.

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“I only see their efforts accelerating,” he said. “I see advanced capabilities that are being delivered more quickly than we would have expected. … Their goal is to have parity with the United States to ensure that they can’t be deterred.”

China is building the capability to use nuclear blackmail to deter a U.S. intervention if it invades Taiwan, following Russia’s model. China’s regional military presence is expanding, including a secret naval base in Cambodia and a secret military cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands. China has developed new technologies, including hypersonic missiles and antisatellite lasers, to keep the U.S. military at bay in a Taiwan scenario. And now, China no longer recognizes the Taiwan Strait as international waters.

China’s increased military confidence is reflected in its ever-more-belligerent rhetoric. After meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore, Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe gave a speech in which he promised, “China will definitely realize its reunification” with Taiwan. If anyone tries to stand in the way, he went on, “we will not hesitate to fight. We will fight at all costs.”

In his speech, Austin attempted to reassure the region that the United States was committed to maintaining its leadership in Asia. But diplomats and experts in Singapore could not help noticing a gap between what the United States is saying and the resources Washington is committing to the effort.

New research investments the Pentagon is making today won’t bear fruit for several years. U.S. shipbuilding plans are woefully underfunded. The United States’ new trilateral alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom (known as AUKUS) won’t result in providing Australia with nuclear submarines until the late 2030s.

China is working on a shorter timeline. Aquilino wouldn’t volunteer an exact date for when China might surpass U.S. military power in Asia, but he called the 2020s “the decade of concern.” His predecessor at Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the threat of China invading Taiwan will become critical in “the next six years.” With 2027 being the final year of Xi’s expected (and unprecedented) third five-year term, it gives him a personal deadline for attempting reunification.

Indo-Pacific Command estimated in a May report to Congress that the region needs about $67 billion in new military investment between 2024 and 2027 to maintain the U.S. comparative military advantage over China. The budget is already behind schedule. In April, Indo-Pacific Command submitted a list of unfunded items that totals $1.5 billion for 2023 alone.

Maintaining the U.S. military advantage in the Indo-Pacific region will be neither easy nor cheap. Urgent tasks include dispersing more equipment and personnel to more places, hardening existing outposts such as Guam, increasing training and equipping of allies, and drastically increasing military support to Taiwan for its self-defense.

Meeting military escalation with escalation brings real risks that must be managed, not ignored. But the costs of war if China concludes it can take Taiwan easily would be exponentially higher. The United States doesn’t have the luxury of waiting until the next decade to counter China’s military expansion in Asia. As George Washington said in his first speech to Congress in 1790, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”