China will be even more resolute in its military modernisation plan after the United States called for a bigger and more lethal naval fleet, increasing an already high risk of confrontation between the two states, military experts said.
The assessment came after US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper announced on Wednesday an ambitious plan to expand the US Navy with unmanned and autonomous ships, submarines and aircraft to confront the growing maritime challenge from China.
In a speech to the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, Esper said a sweeping review of US naval power dubbed “Future Forward” had laid out a “game-changer” plan that would expand the US sea fleet to more than 355 ships from the current 293.
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The plan, which requires adding tens of billions of dollars to the US Navy budget between now and 2045, is aimed at maintaining superiority over Chinese naval forces, seen as the main threat to the United States.
“The future fleet will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea,” Esper said.
Liu Weidong, a US affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China was accustomed to remarks such as Esper’s and, regardless of his speech, the risks of confrontation between China and the US were indeed increasing, caused mainly by Washington’s strategic shift.
“Washington has already labelled China as a major threat and rival, so they will certainly be tough at sea, and this might lead to some friction,” Liu said.
But he added that the friction could be managed because neither side wanted a real war.
Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said Esper’s remarks would only reinforce Beijing’s conviction to push forward with modernising its military.
“China won’t enact countermeasures to Esper’s remarks beyond what it’s already been doing, such as openly criticising such remarks as fraught with the cold war mentality and McCarthyism aimed at containing Beijing using the ‘China threat’ theory,” Koh said.
“Esper’s remarks won’t affect what Beijing has been doing with the PLA modernisation efforts. If anything, Esper’s remarks only serve to reinforce Beijing’s conviction to push on with such efforts.
“Beyond the rhetoric we see so far, while the risk of premeditated conflict is low, we can’t discount the potential of close naval and air encounters between the rival forces.”
US President Donald Trump labelled China a strategic competitor in late 2017, at a time when the two countries were imposing tit-for-tat tariffs against each other. And after three years, relations between China and the US have plummeted to the lowest point in decades as the two powers clash on issues ranging from diplomacy to technology and military.
In the tech sphere, the Trump administration has aggressively targeted Chinese companies such as Tencent and Huawei with sanctions in a bid to starve them of American technology.
The US is also increasingly watching China’s effort to upgrade its military as Beijing aims to finish modernising its armed forces by 2035 and seeks to have a world-class military by 2049.
The US has increased its defence budget by 4 per cent to US$750 billion in the latest fiscal 2020 budget, and the US Navy was granted a US$795 million contract this year to buy the first ship of a new class of guided missile frigates.
In July, China’s military engaged in training exercises near the Paracel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in China, that are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. The US Navy announced on July 4 that it had deployed two aircraft carrier groups, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, for tactical air defence exercises in the South China Sea “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
And on August 26, China launched two missiles, including an “aircraft-carrier killer”, into the South China Sea, sending a clear warning to the US.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the Chinese military would not respond to Esper’s speech with strong action but would continue its military modernisation process.
“But it’s true that the risks of naval confrontation between the two countries are increasing, because the ‘freedom of navigation’ appeal by the US is in essence to maintain its own hegemonic status and, in this sense, Washington is destined to clamp down on every Chinese move that will help the Chinese naval capability build up,” Song said.
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This article US Navy build-up plans ‘may cement China’s resolve to modernise’ first appeared on South China Morning Post