WASHINGTON (AP) — China’s growing military muscle and its drive to end American predominance in the Asia-Pacific is rattling the US defense establishment. American officials see trouble quickly accumulating on multiple fronts — Beijing’s expanding nuclear arsenal, its advances in space, cyber and missile technologies, and threats to Taiwan.
“The pace at which China is moving is stunning,” says Gen. John Hyten, the No. 2-ranking US military officer, who previously commanded US nuclear forces and oversaw Air Force space operations.
At stake is a potential shift in the global balance of power that has favored the United States for decades. A realignment more favorable to China does not pose a direct threat to the United States but could complicate US alliances in Asia. New signs of how the Pentagon intends to deal with the China challenge may emerge in coming weeks from Biden administration policy reviews on nuclear weapons, global troop basing and overall defense strategy.
For now, officials marvel at how Beijing is marshaling the resources, technology and political will to make rapid gains — so rapid that the Biden administration is attempting to reorient all aspects of US foreign and defense policy.
The latest example of surprising speed was China’s test of a hypersonic weapon capable of partially orbiting Earth before reentering the atmosphere and gliding on a maneuverable path to its target. The weapon system’s design is meant to evade US missile defenses, and although Beijing insisted it was testing a reusable space vehicle, not a missile, the test appeared to have startled US officials.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the test was “very close” to being a Sputnik moment, akin to the 1957 launching by the Soviet Union of the world’s first space satellite, which caught the world by surprise and fed fears the United States had fallen behind technologically. What followed was a nuclear arms and space race that ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union.
Milley and other US officials have declined to discuss details of the Chinese test, saying they are secret. He called it “very concerning” for the United States but added that problems posed by China’s military modernization run far deeper.
“That’s just one weapon system,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “The Chinese military capabilities are much greater than that.”