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Pentagon Pushes For Bigger Effort To Deter China's Growing Military Might

This Jan. 4 photo shows Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers assembling during military training at Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, northwestern China's Xinjiang region.
This Jan. 4 photo shows Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers assembling during military training at Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, northwestern China's Xinjiang region.

The Chinese pilots push the throttles on their heavy bombers as the music in the video builds to dramatic, Hollywood-style swirling strings. Radios crackle while the planes rise and stream across the ocean. Suddenly, missiles unleash with a whoosh. Fireballs and bouncing debris rise from the targets: Hawaii and Guam.

That propaganda video was released last fall and appeared on the official social media accounts of the People's Liberation Army Air Force. Some at the Pentagon are dismissing the Top Gun-like video with smirks and eye rolls. After all, it includes footage lifted from the movies Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Hurt Locker and The Rock.

But Adm. Philip Davidson, the top U.S. officer in the Pacific region (or, as the U.S. now calls it, the Indo-Pacific), is taking it seriously. He recently referred to the video during a recent hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Guam is a target today," Davidson told the senators, referring to the overseas U.S. territory, that also houses a major U.S. Navy and Air Force base. "It needs to be defended and it needs to be prepared for the threat that will come in the future."

Defending Guam is at the heart of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a massive effort pushed by Congress to add more military hardware to the Indo-Pacific area and work more closely with partners and allies. It's all an effort to counter a more aggressive China, officials say.

But China is unlikely to target Guam today — or maybe ever, says Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who worked in the Pentagon under the Reagan administration.

"Are the Chinese going to attack an American territory?" Korb asks incredulously.

"The thing is, in the military you maximize trying to get the most by saying, 'China is a big threat,' " he says. "Same thing happened with the Soviet Union."

Korb sees a lot of the China threat talk as a bit too alarmist and a way for the Navy to go after more of the federal budget. Still, he backs shifting more of America's military strength to the Pacific away from the Middle East, building more Navy ships and also working more closely with allies as a counter to China.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Smith, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is wary of all the talk of a Chinese military threat.

"It runs the distinct risk of creating conflict where it doesn't need to be," he said during a recent discussion at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "We need to be really careful about stumbling into a cold war with China."

Whether or not China is intent on targeting Guam the Chinese government is widely seen as a growing problem, the greatest strategic threat, according to the Pentagon, lawmakers and now the Biden administration, which sent Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Japan and South Korea this week to assure allies about a rising China.

China claims much of the South China Sea, in contravention to international rulings, building artificial islands there that include radar systems and runways, bullying its the fishing fleets of neighbors like Vietnam. It is quashing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and throwing around its economic weight with tariffs on Australian goods. There's also a fear that an emboldened China could one day threaten the key sea lanes through Asia.

The Chinese government raised its military budget by 6.8% this year to 1.35 trillion yuan ($207.5 billion). It's building more ships and a fifth-generation aircraft akin to the American F-22. Hundreds of missiles bristle its coastline, with ever longer ranges, like the DF-26 missile.

"If you look at the range rings, it seems to have been designed with Guam in mind," says Aaron Friedberg, a professor of political science and international affairs at Princeton University. "Some people are calling it the 'Guam Killer,' " as distinct from the DF-21 'carrier killer.'"

Brad Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, points out that Guam is the U.S.' No. 1 operating base in the western Pacific. China's aggressive moves have a purpose, Bowman says: to supplant the U.S. as the dominant power in the Pacific region.

"Beijing is trying to push the [U.S.] military farther and farther back," says Bowman, so it can expand its operations in the Pacific region and more easily threaten Taiwan. Beijing claims Taiwan is part of China and has vowed to bring back into the fold since the losing Nationalist government fled there in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war. Adm. Davidson testified that he believes China could make a move on Taiwan within the next six years.

So Davidson wants to push back. He's looking at more sophisticated air and missile defense for Guam, as well as a proposed advanced radar on the island of Palau, to the south. That's just the beginning of an effort being pushed by Congress known as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Davidson's Pacific Command already got $2.2 billion, what he calls a "good first start" to move forward on deterrence. From the budget that comes out in the coming weeks, he hopes to get $4.7 billion.

The initiative also calls for more ground-based missiles, new facilities around the Pacific region that would enable the U.S. to disperse its forces against a potential Chinese threat, as well as create more fueling and maintenance facilities. Building more facilities or bases in the region would also help alleviate what experts describe as a key element that limits U.S. ability to respond to a potential Chinese threat: the tyranny of distance. It currently takes as many as three weeks for a Navy ship to arrive in the Western Pacific from the U.S. West Coast, and around 17 days from Alaska.

The increased spending, the Pentagon says, would also allow for more realistic training with allies like Japan and South Korea, and provide more money for communications equipment — so the allies can more easily respond to one another in a crisis.

For David Finkelstein, a China expert and vice president of the Center for Naval Analyses, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative makes both tactical and strategic sense.

"Strategically, it should signal a message of resolve, commitment and assurance to those many countries in the region," he says, "who see it in their national interests to have a highly capable U.S. force presence in the region."

Finkelstein says the U.S. and China have two "competing visions." The U.S. wants to be able to move through the area and defend its national interests and its allies. China wants to ensure that no "potentially hostile foreign military — especially that of the United States — can operate in the vicinity of the People's Republic of China with impunity," he says, and that no military will be able to take on China without confronting "great risk."

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, says he supports the Pacific initiative, but says "we shouldn't just look to Palau and Guam and places like that." He says the U.S. should focus more on India and the Indian Ocean region, "where geography works even more in our favor."

Korb of the Center for American Progress agrees. "India's a major power economically. Their military is good. Traditionally India and China have had a tense relationship," he says. Last year, India and China came to blows along their long, undemarcated border, killing at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese ones.

Working with India and selling it more expensive weapons would send a message to China: With U.S. as a strong ally, "there's no way [China] can win a war with India," Korb says.

Other defense experts, such as retired Adm. James Stavridis, have longed push for the U.S. to work more closely with India as a counterweight to China. Defense Secretary Austin is scheduled to visit India following his visits to Japan and South Korea.

"I do like the idea of working with regional powers," says O'Hanlon, and such a "web of relations" with allies that can help block aggressive Chinese moves.

Smith, the Democratic congressman, agrees and says that's why the U.S. should better prepare the militaries of partner nations in the region that can react quickly.

"If we had quick-strike deterrent capability, that would impose a cost upon China and not drag us into a larger war," he says. "That's about alliances and partnerships."

That's different from some of what the initiative envisions — it aims to set up facilities around the Indo-Pacific.

O'Hanlon worries about a price tag that could be "astronomical." The budget for the Pacific initiative this year could more than double from last year.

"What I don't want is 10 Okinawas fortified with long runways," he says, referring to the U.S. Marine base on the Japanese island, off China's coast. "When do you know when you're done? It invites more and more and more."

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