After months of simmering tensions, US defence officials say they now foresee trouble with China on multiple fronts, including Beijing’s rapid military expansion as well as its threats to Taiwan.
The Pentagon has been surprised and alarmed by the pace of China’s technological modernisation in several spheres, including its nuclear programme, cyber technology, missile capabilities and space programme.
The rapid developments have forced the Biden administration to attempt to reorient its policies to avoid a shift in the global balance of power.
“The pace at which China is moving is stunning,” said General John Hyten, the No 2-ranking US military officer, who previously commanded the US nuclear forces and oversaw its air force’s space operations.
While Russia remains a bigger strategic threat than China in terms of its nuclear arsenal, General Hyten said, Beijing represents a greater threat to US dominance due to its economic resources and rampant military modernisation.
“China will surpass Russia and the United States” in overall military power in the coming years “if we don’t do something to change it,” said Gen Hyten.
The most recent example of China’s rapid advancement came last month, when US authorities were taken by surprise by Beijing’s test launch of a supersonic missile capable of orbiting the globe before speeding towards its target.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the missile test was “very close” to being a Sputnik moment.
In 1957, the Soviet Union had launched the world’s first space satellite, leading to concerns that it had surpassed the US’ technological advancements.
Mr Milley said that what remains most concerning to the US is that this was only one of a number of new systems that China is believed to have tested recently.
“The Chinese military capabilities are much greater than that. They’re expanding rapidly in space, in cyber and then in the traditional domains of land, sea and air,” he said in an interview to Bloomberg TV.
In addition, nuclear weapons experts have also raised alarm that China is adding to its fleet of land-based intercontinental missile systems (ICBMs).
Private satellite imagery has revealed that China appears to have about 250 ICBM silos under construction, which is more than 10 times the number in operation today. The US military, by comparison has 400 active ICBM silos and 50 in reserve, Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Associated Press.
Congress is also increasingly focusing more on the next defence budget to boost expenditure on space and cyber operations and hypersonic technologies.
In addition, Taiwan has also emerged as a big worry for the US with President Joe Biden stating earlier this month that the US has a “commitment” to defending Taiwan in the face of an attack from China.
On Sunday, tensions spiked as Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told the US not to “betray its promises” on Taiwan at a rare meeting with secretary of state Antony Blinken.
A senior state department official told Reuters that Mr Blinken had assured Mr Wang that there has been no change in the US’s “One China” policy, which means it only maintains formal diplomatic relations with Beijing and not Taipei.