Keeping the Pacific Pacific
While visiting Japan in late August, Admiral Robert Willard, the leader of the U.S. Pacific Command, told journalists that China is almost ready to make operational the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). Anti-ship cruise missiles already exist in abundance, but they travel at about one-tenth the speed of a ballistic missile, possess far less kinetic energy, and are proportionately less lethal. According to recent Pentagon reports, the Chinese ASBM will have a range of at least 1,000 miles, whereas a long-range cruise missile has a range of about 600 miles. Chinese military planners expect that the missile's maneuverability will allow it to hit and put out of action or destroy large-deck aircraft carriers while they are at sea and too distant from the Chinese mainland, as a result of the fact that even the next generation of naval fighter aircraft will lack the range to return to their carriers safely if launched further than 600 miles from their intended target. This unprecedented missile range and accuracy would allow China to finally achieve its oft-stated goal: denying major U.S. naval forces a significant portion of the Western Pacific.
Ongoing friction between China and Taiwan poses the most immediate threat to U.S. Navy operations in the Western Pacific. Such an extension of Chinese firepower would erode the United States' ability to honor its commitment to defend Taiwan if it were attacked. The U.S. Navy has no defense against the ASBM, nor does it have one in development. If the United States cannot counter and overcome the ASBM, U.S. influence in Asia will likely decline, China's implicit claim to regional hegemony will gain traction, and a regional arms competition, driven by territorial disputes in the South China Sea, may erupt. Indeed, U.S. allies, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea, may begin to ask themselves fundamental questions about how to cope without the U.S. Navy's presence, which has helped keep the peace in East Asia for decades, as exemplified by U.S President Bill Clinton's successful use of aircraft carriers in 1995 and 1996 to quell tensions between China and Taiwan in the Taiwan Straits.