China recently conducted the first test of a new anti-ship ballistic missile, firing a salvo of six missiles into the South China Sea in a threatening message to the United States, the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command said Thursday.
Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, also revealed that China earlier conducted a test of a new nuclear ballistic missile that took place after a threatening speech last month by Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe.
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Davidson, speaking at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, bluntly outlined what he termed the "long-term strategic threat" posed by China, which is engaged in a range of pernicious activities in Asia and around the world.
The four-star admiral noted that Wei, the Chinese defense minister, spoke at a security conference in Singapore in early June in remarks he described as "quite chilling."
"Not only did [Wei] make it clear that he didn't think Asia and the Western Pacific was any place for America, he said Asia wasn't even for Asians—it was for the Chinese," Davidson said.
"Within 24 hours of that they tested a new nuclear ballistic missile, not in nuclear mode necessarily."
The admiral was referring to China's test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile known as the JL-3
Then on July 8, Wei spoke to a forum of defense ministers from Latin America and Pacific island nations in China and admitted that China's global development program known as Belt and Road Initiative was indeed a basis for future military expansion.
Chinese officials previously insisted there was no military component to the multitrillion-dollar initiative.
Davidson said the Chinese defense chief made clear the initiative "was indeed a way to put a military foothold within other places around the globe."
"Within hours of that, they shot six anti-ship ballistic missiles—new ones that they have developed—into the South China Sea," Davidson said, adding that it was the first time the missile has been tested at sea.
He did not identify the type of missile but other defense officials said they were DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, a high-tech weapon capable of maneuvering to target moving ships at sea several hundred miles from launch points.
The salvo of six anti-ship ballistic missiles was denounced by the Pentagon as a violation of a 2015 pledge made by Chinese president Xi Jinping not to militarize disputed South China Sea islands.
"One [test] might be a coincidence, but seeing this happen twice is indeed a message not only to the United States but indeed to the whole globe," Davidson said.
The DF-21D and the longer-range DF-26 are both said to be capable of targeting ships.
Davidson sidestepped questions about whether U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and other warships can counter China's anti-ship ballistic missile.
"Certainly they are developing capabilities that we haven't seen before—anti-ship ballistic missiles is the newest one. These are not monoliths that cannot be defeated," he said.
In discussions with the Pentagon, Davidson said he has made known what his requirements are and "the conversation that we have is very focused on the capabilities and capacities that we need to handle such threats now and in the future."
The Navy is currently developing the SM-6 anti-missile interceptor with an explosive warhead as one way to counter DF-21D and DF-26 missiles.
Davidson also warned that the U.S. military urgently needs to upgrade its weapons and capabilities to avoid being overtaken by the rapid buildup of conventional and high-technology warfare capabilities by China.
Developing smart weapons using artificial intelligence and secure communications with quantum computing are critical matters of national security.
"When I pull down the operational level and all my problems within the military, we're seeing essentially China surpass the capability that Indo-Pacific Command commands and controls in the area of responsibility I described earlier in numbers here in the next couple of years," Davidson said.
"And that capability in terms of just what we see—air, maritime, land, space, cyber—we run the risk if we don't take proactive action that China will indeed surpass our capabilities by the middle of this next decade."
The commander said it is important for the United States to adopt a whole-of-government approach to avoid losing out to Chinese advances.
China is rapidly orbiting satellites and will launch more than 100 this year.
China's military is building advanced weapons and in large numbers "without any extant threat," Davidson said.
Global deployments of Chinese forces also are increasing.
"China is moving quite perniciously across the whole Indo-Pacific if not the globe," he said.
The Belt and Road Initiative is being carried out in secrecy and has been "marked by corruption" and "debt trap" loans designed to increase China's control and influence over developing nations.
Several nations are pushing back against the Chinese global drive.
China sought to punish Australia during a debate in that country on imposing controls over foreign investment by not moving Australian beef and wine from Chinese ports.
On the positive side, Davidson said efforts by the United States to highlight Chinese activities have created growing support throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans for promoting a "free and open" Indo-Pacific unconstrained by China.
Davidson said Navy warship passages in the South China Sea are routine and designed to prevent China from claiming control of the waterway used for both $3 trillion in commerce annually as well as undersea Internet cables.
The Navy freedom of navigation operations will prevent China from seeking to disrupt the communications cables, many of which terminate in Singapore, in the future. The undersea cables transmit trillions of dollars in valuable financial information, he said.
"So freedom of navigation is not just about two destroyers passing safely in the night," he said. "This is about the world's access to the most critical waterway on the planet."
Other nations, including Japan, Australia, Canada, Britain, and France also have joint or conducted independent freedom of navigation operations in the sea to push back against China's claim to own up to 90 percent to the sea under a vaguely defined Nine Dash Line around the sea.
The admiral also said he is concerned by growing military ties between China and Russia, noting the large-scale exercise known as Vostok, or East.
Davidson said the United States is seeking to compete with China and is not seeking confrontation or containment. Those narratives are "coming from China," he said.
"Compete does not mean we don't engage," he said.
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said Davidson was discussing the reported firing of six missiles from mainland China into target areas north and south of the Paracel Islands, in the northern part of the sea.
"The test area south of the Paracel Island group was close to major sea lanes crucial to the economies of Japan and South Korea," Fisher said.
"This is the first People's Liberation Army ASBM test to have been acknowledged openly by a senior U.S. official," he noted.
China's anti-ship ballistic missile tests in the sea "signify that the age-old contest for control of the seas has entered a new era; the nuclear powered aircraft carrier battle group is no longer the dominant military force at sea."
"China has apparently assembled a system of systems, anti-ship ballistic missiles plus the collection of satellite, radar and aircraft sensors needed to target them, to pose a threat to the carrier that it may not be able to defeat."
Fisher urged the Pentagon to defeat the new missiles using high-energy weapons like lasers and railguns that may not be available for many years.
Alternatively, the United States could build its own anti-ship ballistic missiles and deploy them on Navy ships and submarines.
With enough of the missiles, "it is possible to deter China from using theirs against American ships."