InternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 04

Rising US-China tensions

A war of words between the US and China reached the UN General Assembly in New York, with US President Donald Trump accusing China of the spread of COVID-19 and leaving the world in the dark. He called for China to be held accountable for the pandemic, while Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country had no intention to enter a Cold War with any country.

The UN General Assembly became the latest battleground for the US and China which are confronting each other on a number of other issues, including trade, technology, Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province. “We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague on to the world – China. In the earliest days of the virus China locked down travel domestically, while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world. China condemned my travel ban on their country, even as they cancelled domestic flights and locked citizens in their homes,” Trump said as the US death toll from the coronavirus crossed 200,000, the highest in the world, though he has often downplayed the disease.

The altercation between the two leaders comes weeks after a Pentagon report which said China is ramping up nuclear and missile forces to rival the US. China is building up its nuclear and missile forces and is mobilizing vast resources to rival the Pentagon’s, the Defense Department said in its annual report on Chinese military power, which concluded that the country’s armed forces in certain areas had eclipsed the US military. According to the Washington Post, the report comes as the US military shifts its focus from Middle East counterinsurgencies that have dominated its operations for two decades toward a possible future conflict with China and Russia, in what defense leaders have dubbed “an era of great power competition.”

China’s armed forces, the Pentagon said, not only are acquiring sophisticated new technology and weaponry but also are overhauling their organizational structures, as China aims to complete a military modernization by 2035 and establish a “world-class military” that can rival or exceed that of the United States by 2049. Beijing’s goal, the report says, is then to leverage its new military might to achieve its foreign policy objectives in the Western Pacific and to assert itself globally.

In its report, the Defense Department concluded that the Chinese military was already ahead of the Pentagon in three critical areas: shipbuilding, air defenses and land-based missiles. China now has the largest navy in the world, with an overall force of about 350 ships and submarines, compared with the US military’s approximately 293 ships. Beijing also has one of the world’s most advanced air defense systems, comprising Russian-built S-400 and S-300 surface-to-air missile systems as well as its own domestically produced air defenses. China has developed a robust missile force, unconstrained by any international arms control agreements, which has made it far more difficult for the United States to defend its allies in the Asia Pacific in the event of a conflict and in particular has shifted the balance of power with neighboring Taiwan.

China has more than 1,250 ground-launch ballistic and cruise missiles in its arsenal with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The United States, meanwhile, fields only one ground-launched ballistic missile, with a shorter range, and no ground-launched cruise missiles. Until withdrawing last year, the United States was party to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, which banned the production and deployment of missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Since leaving the treaty, the US military has pursued the development of a ground-launch cruise missile, citing in particular the Chinese threat. In addition to developing hypersonic glide vehicles, which move more than five times the speed of sound, the Chinese have fielded missiles that appear to be particularly aimed at constraining US forces in Asia.

The Pentagon report warns that the Chinese military is advancing its nuclear forces by developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles and by pursuing a full triad that can launch nuclear warheads from air, land and sea. “Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile — currently estimated to be in the low 200s — is projected to at least double in size as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces,” the report said, publicly estimating the number of China’s operational nuclear warheads for the first time. The report also said unspecified developments in 2019 “suggest that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.”

A country that adopts a “launch on warning” posture, which the United States maintains with its intercontinental ballistic missile silos, reserves the right to launch nuclear weapons immediately upon detecting an incoming attack. China previously has said it will retaliate with nuclear weapons only after being struck, in what is known as a “no first use” policy. Beijing has said it is keeping a limited nuclear arsenal for the purposes of “minimum deterrence.” However, the Pentagon report suggests that is changing. US officials say China is moving away from its “historical minimum deterrence posture” and entering a position where it could readily increase the size of its nuclear force.

However, Chinese officials say the Pentagon report is a figment of its imagination. “Insatiable in its appetite for appropriations, the Pentagon is forever fabricating threats. China being a case in point. Over the past 20 years, the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military development has been one of the ways in which Washington has contrived a China threat. This year’s report is no exception, being predictably familiar in its fear-mongering. It is full of speculation and suppositions to support its allegation that China’s military development has “serious implications” for global security, the official China Daily said. In an editorial, it said, “Since its scare-mongering is so far removed from the truth and the report’s purpose is to hoodwink and mislead, it comes as no real surprise that it is full of wild conjectures and surmises.”

Analysts say the US, which has long pursued military superiority, has embarked on a massive build-up of conventional forces and a large-scale modernisation of its nuclear arsenal. However, China, Russia and the rest of the world will not allow a return to US hegemony. Even if the US decides to wage a unilateral Cold War, it stands little chance against China, Russia and other emerging powers. The balance of military, political, economic and moral power has simply shifted too far away from it to be reversed.