SINGAPORE — In 1996, China fired ballistic missiles and held military exercises in waters close to Taiwan to warn the electorate not to vote for a pro-independence candidate in presidential elections. In response, the United States sent two aircraft carriers and their warship escorts to the area. It was a display of American naval might and striking power that Beijing could not counter.

Since then, China has given top priority to developing a defense system known in military jargon as anti-access/area denial. A key part is the world’s first hypersonic ballistic missile armed with a high-explosive warhead capable of tracking and hitting U.S. carriers 1,500 km or more from the Chinese mainland.

If China had such a weapon, it would make it more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for Washington to send aircraft carrier battle groups to help defend Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or any other ally or friendly nation in the western Pacific from being threatened or attacked by Chinese forces.

Since World War II, America’s global nonnuclear deterrent power has rested heavily on its ability to send carrier groups to far-flung trouble spots, including the Asia-Pacific region, without serious risk that they would be damaged or sunk. If China could challenge such deployments with its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), the basis of U.S. deterrence in Asia might be questioned and the value of its alliances in the region called into doubt.

But would they? In a Japanese newspaper interview published Dec. 28, the head of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Robert Willard said that China’s increasingly powerful military had “achieved initial operational capability” with its ASBM, although full flight testing might take several more years. Exactly what he meant by “initial operational capability” of the land-based Dong Feng-21D missile is not completely clear. U.S. military manuals say it means that some units scheduled to get the weapons have got them, and can maintain and use them.

Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who follows China’s ASBM development, said that the Second Artillery, China’s strategic missile force, “already has a capability to attempt to use the DF-21 D against U.S. carrier strike groups, and therefore likely expects to achieve a growing degree of deterrence with it.” Other analysts say that even if the ASBM is in the early stages of deployment, there is still enough time for the U.S. to develop effective missile defenses or take other countermeasures.

However, some of the latter would be profoundly destabilizing. The warhead of the DF-21 D would be guided to its target with the help of Chinese satellites, over-the-horizon radar and unmanned aerial vehicles. If the U.S. was unable to shoot down incoming ASBMs, it would have to attack Chinese missiles and radar on land, or the guidance satellites in space. This could trigger a wider war with China, possibly escalating into a mutually devastating exchange of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, if China hit and sank a U.S. carrier with an ASBM it would be “bigger than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined,” according to John Pike, founder of the Washington-based think tank Global Security. “America would want payback,” he added. “Would Beijing want to go there?”

With such high stakes involved, under what circumstances, if any, would China use ASBMs to attack the U.S. Navy?

Still, the Obama administration is taking the threat seriously. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in September that China’s “investments in anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific, particularly our forward bases and carrier strike groups.”

The U.S. Navy has 11 big aircraft carriers, all nuclear-powered. It also has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical takeoff jets that could be vulnerable to ASBMs.

Gates, who is scheduled to visit China from Jan. 9-12, pointed out in May that a modern U.S. carrier with its full complement of the latest aircraft would “represent potentially a $15 to $20 billion set of hardware at risk.” He added that the virtual American monopoly on precision guided weapons was eroding and that the U.S. “will also face increasingly sophisticated underwater combat systems — including numbers of stealthy subs — all of which could end the operational sanctuary our navy has enjoyed in the Western Pacific for the better part of six decades.”

In his interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, Adm. Willard said that China’s anti-access/area denial strategy affected not only Japan and other economies in Northeast Asia, but also countries in Southeast Asia. Beijing, is using its growing power to enforce extensive sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas.

Willard said that Beijing was also “interested in minimizing foreign military influence” in a vast maritime zone that extended south from the main island of Japan, skirting the east coast Taiwan and the west coast of the Philippines, and encircling virtually the whole of the South China Sea, deep in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia. This zone, which encompasses Beijing’s offshore sovereignty claims, is known as the First Island Chain in Chinese military theory. It forms a geographic basis for China’s inner maritime defense perimeter.

Beijing appears intent on trying to exercise control over the zone by scaring the U.S. away and ousting rival claimants, including Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. But at what cost to relations with many neighbors and other countries alarmed by its muscle-flexing?

They know that East Asia’s rise from the ruins of World War II to global economic powerhouse has depended on freedom of navigation and maritime trade. China’s self-declared maritime defense perimeter covers inter-connected seas and straits used by international shipping to carry more than $5 trillion in annual commerce, including $1.3 trillion in U.S. trade.

As China pushes ahead with anti-access/area denial by developing more and better ASBMs, submarines, anti-ship cruise missiles and other weapons in an integrated command and control network, it will have to choose between a disruptive grab for sole control or a sharing of policing power with other countries that have a strong interest in preserving free-flowing maritime arteries.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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