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.

If the U.S. Navy recedes from the Western Pacific over the next generation, its withdrawal may result in a regional arms buildup as U.S. allies scramble to fill the vacuum. In July, Tokyo announced that it would enlarge its submarine fleet for the first time in 36 years. In the spring of 2009, Australia announced its largest defense increase since World War II, with plans to double its submarine fleet and purchase powerful modern surface ships. South Korea is also modernizing its naval and amphibious forces but faces an additional consideration: What if China offers to replace receding U.S. influence by providing security to Seoul in exchange for South Korea expelling U.S. troops currently stationed there? 

Until now, most U.S. policymakers and analysts have ignored China's emerging missile capability, reflecting a general sense that the threat of growing Chinese military power is too remote to take seriously at present -- a sense born from the United States' focus on fighting land wars at the expense of preserving the maritime power on which U.S. grand strategy has historically rested. But China's policy beyond its borders has recently become more assertive -- a fact not unrelated to its new military and naval capabilities.

Willard's concern about China's ability to target U.S. aircraft carriers follows several months of aggressive Chinese foreign policy. In March, Beijing announced that the South China Sea is a "core" interest. An international body of water, the South China Sea stretches from China to the Philippines, down to the wide expanse of ocean that separates Malaysia and Vietnam, and serves as the shipping lane through which oil and other critical seaborne trade is transported between East Asia and the Middle East. Its many islands are the subject of disputed claims between China and other South Asian nations, such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. By labeling the sea a core interest, Beijing is signaling that it views the international body of water as an asset to be protected at all costs. 

In mid-July, four months after its declaration concerning the South China Sea, China continued its expansionist maritime policy. Its official news agency, Xinhua, quoted a Chinese military academic opining that the Yellow Sea -- an international body of water located between the Korean peninsula and China -- is "pivotal to China's core interests, given that it is related not only to the extension of the country's maritime rights but also to its maritime security." Itself strategically important, the Yellow Sea was the site of a collision earlier this month, when Japanese naval vessels seized a Chinese trawler that had strayed too close to the disputed Senkaku Islands, under Japanese control but claimed by China as well.

Beijing returned its concern to the South China Sea in August, when it announced that it had used small manned submarines to plant China's national flag on the sea's floor. The implicit claim to sovereignty, along with China's earlier diplomatic claim to the South China Sea, is both provocative and illegal. Recent Chinese rhetoric suggests that Beijing is unwilling to compromise on its new claims of influence. In July, when the Obama administration presented a proposal to seek a regional consensus on how to settle disputes in the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told a Singaporean diplomat that "China is a big country and other countries are just small countries, and that's just a fact."   

China's path to regional hegemony raises questions about how the country will wield its new stature. With its military power on the brink of an exponential enlargement that threatens U.S. influence in East Asia, Beijing's recent actions and rhetoric suggest a darkening future for other states in the region that prefer the United States' traditional concern for maintaining freedom of navigation in the region, lack of interest in territorial gain, and policy of preventing the rise of an Asian hegemon -- in direct contrast to China's apparent interest in becoming one.

The notion that might makes right has precedent in Asia. So does the use of naval power to support might. In the sixteenth century, Spanish ships seized the Philippines, while England enjoyed naval superiority in East Asia during its reign of empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

But to Chinese leaders, the most instructive example of nautical might translating into political power is that of Japan. Japan's history is an especially prescient warning about the dangers to Asia of an ambitious, well-armed regional hegemon. After becoming the dominant naval force in the Western Pacific during the first part of the twentieth century, Japan invaded, subjugated, and oppressed its neighbors, rapidly expanding its domain of control. Its ability to transport troops and material through the ocean made it a legitimate threat, from India to Hawaii.

The fact that Japan pursued such aggression does not prove that China would do the same if it achieves similar regional preeminence. But China's naval buildup, ASBM rocket technology, and claims to international waters are spurring its neighbors, such as Australia, India, and Vietnam, to substantially increase their naval fleets. Such developments indicate that the stability and security long ensured by a strong U.S. presence in the Western Pacific should no longer be taken for granted.

China's ASBM threat is serious, but the United States has the capacity to respond. Reductions in the size of U.S. carriers, increases in their number, and changes in aircraft design to expand their range, as well as other new technology, could neutralize the threat of Chinese missiles. Yet the growing U.S. deficit makes this unlikely, as does U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' skepticism regarding the utility of such large naval forces. For the immediate future, the administration is right to shore up U.S. alliances in the Western Pacific and continue to pursue a region-wide agreement on how to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. It should also increase the level of naval exercises with allies in the region and proceed as scheduled with joint naval exercises planned with Japan in December on or around the Ryukyu Islands, which form the eastern perimeter of the East China Sea. 

The Obama administration should also lift its seeming gag order on the U.S. Navy's ability to speak candidly about the dangers posed by China's naval enlargement. Allowing the Navy to publicly discuss China's naval buildup as strategic justification for a larger naval force and presence could be useful: it might help build congressional support for reversing the U.S. Navy's virtual self-disarmament. The likely alternative to a more vigorous and robust security and diplomatic policy in East Asia is that the U.S. will be forced to surrender the benign preeminence it has exercised in the Pacific to the benefit of our own economic interest as well as the security of nearly half the world's population. China's anti-ship ballistic missile will not determine the future of U.S. power; the United States' future actions will.

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  • SETH CROPSEY is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He served as a naval officer from 1985 to 2004 and as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.
  • More By Seth Cropsey