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Opinion China’s military expansion will test the Biden administration

Chinese military vehicles carrying anti-ship ballistic missiles, potentially capable of sinking a U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in a single strike, pass by Tiananmen Gate in Beijing during a military parade in 2015. (Andy Wong/AP)

The tectonic plates of the military balance in Asia are shifting underneath our feet. It’s happening slowly and inexorably, but over time the magnitude of the change is becoming vividly apparent. As the United States prepares to change its leadership, China’s military advancement and expansion are now a problem too glaring to ignore.

Adm. Philip Davidson, who is nearing the end of his tour as the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, has been warning about the changing military balance in Asia throughout his tenure. But his warnings have often fallen on deaf ears in a Washington mired in partisanship and dysfunction. The Trump administration talked a big game about meeting the challenge of China’s military encroachment, but Davidson’s calls for substantially more investment to restore the regional balance that has deterred Beijing for decades have gone largely unanswered.

China’s military has moved well past a strategy of simply defending its territory and is now modernizing with the objective of being able to operate and even fight far from its shores, Davidson told me in an interview conducted last month for the 2020 Halifax International Security Forum. Under President Xi Jinping, Davidson said, China has built advanced weapons systems, platforms and rocket forces that have altered the strategic environment in ways the United States has not sufficiently responded to.

“We are seeing great advances in their modernization efforts,” he said. “China will test more missiles, conventional and nuclear associated missiles this year than every other nation added together on the planet. So that gives you an idea of the scale of how these things are changing.”

Davidson confirmed, for the first time from the U.S. government side, that China’s People’s Liberation Army has successfully tested an anti-ship ballistic missile against a moving ship. This was done as part of the PLA’s massive joint military exercises, which have been ongoing since the summer. These are often called “aircraft carrier killer” missiles, because they could threaten the United States’ most significant naval assets from long distances.

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“It’s an indication that they continue to advance their capability. We’ve known for years they’ve been in pursuit of a capability that could attack moving targets,” Davidson said. I asked him whether they are designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. “Trust me, they are targeting everything,” he replied.

Chinese missile and rocket forces now represent “a great asymmetry” in the region, Davidson said, that presents a threat along the first island chain, which stretches from the Koreas down through Japan to Southeast Asia and Taiwan. He has advocated integrated air and missile defense in the region and on Guam, which is strategic but vulnerable.

Davidson’s watch has almost ended. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that President Trump plans to nominate Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino to succeed him. But before that change will likely take place, a new president will take office in Washington, one who is promising to review the U.S. strategic approach to Asia early on. What Joe Biden’s officials will find is that the PLA of 2021 is quite different from the PLA they last dealt with in 2016.

“Recent advances in equipment, organization, and logistics have significantly improved the PLA’s ability to project power and deploy expeditionary forces far from China’s shores,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote in its latest annual report, released this week. “A concurrent evolution in military strategy requires the force to become capable of operating anywhere around the globe and of contesting the U.S. military if called upon to do so.”

Additionally, the commission warned, the PLA’s long-term strategy to catch up with U.S. military might includes advancing cyber, space and information warfare capabilities, often using the ostensibly civilian information systems that Chinese companies have built around the world. It is what Beijing calls “military-civil fusion.”

This means the incoming administration must develop a strategy for contesting China’s military expansion in the civilian space as well. The Trump administration has begun some of this work. The Justice Department is cracking down on Chinese scientists in the United States who hide their PLA affiliations. Trump has banned U.S. investment in 89 Chinese companies linked to the PLA.

The Trump team’s response to China’s military expansion has at times been inconsistent, unilateral and undiplomatic. These are things the incoming Biden administration can improve upon. But Biden officials would be wise to admit that the Trump team got the basic theory of the case correct, namely that the PLA’s expansion must be countered everywhere it shows itself, including in U.S. colleges and capital markets.

The Biden administration will find countering China’s military strategy, especially in Asia, to be a complex, costly and risky endeavor. But it has no choice but to embark on it, because the status quo is giving out. A good first step would be for Biden to nominate a defense secretary who understands the nature and urgency of the threat.

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