WASHINGTON — Advancements in Chinese military capabilities mean Guam has lost its status as a safe haven for American forces in the Western Pacific, a top war strategist says.
“We are no longer out of reach,” Thomas Mahnken, professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, said in an interview with the Gannett Washington Bureau.
That’s especially the case, he said, in regard to Chinese ballistic missiles that could rain down on U.S. airfields and other facilities on the island.
“They have put a lot of resources into missile programs,” Mahnken said.
While the United States has been tied down for the past decade in Afghanistan and the Middle East, he said, the Chinese have been making rapid progress on a range of military technologies.
“They have exploited that,” Mahnken said.
Besides conventionally armed ballistic missiles, developments in Chinese armaments include sea-launched missiles, both nuclear and conventionally armed; nuclear and diesel submarines; cruise missiles; intercontinental ballistic weapons; better combat aircraft and bombers; and anti-satellite weapons. And cyberwarfare, he said, has not been neglected.
Mahnken said the U.S. military retains clear superiority, but “in some cases our advantage is slipping.” Earlier this month, Mahnken delivered similar warnings to the House Armed Services Committee and U.S. Delegate Madeleine Bordallo.
“This is a matter of some urgency since China is, for the first time, close to achieving a military capability to deny U.S. and allied forces access to much of the Western Pacific rim,” he told the committee.
“The assumption that U.S. bases in Guam, Japan and elsewhere will be secure from attack is in question. The (Chinese military) is fielding ballistic and cruise missile systems and a number of other capabilities designed to destroy most key facilities,” Mahnken also testified.
Despite Mahnken’s testimony, Bordallo said in a statement Wednesday: “There is no specific threat from China against U.S. interests in Guam. The reposturing of U.S. military forces in the Pacific seeks to realign our forces to better respond to a variety of threats or humanitarian crises in the region. Moreover, our military maintains a variety of assets that can counter a wide range of weapons that any country may possess, and this was a point made by U.S. Pacific Command in testimony before our committee.”
She added: “Although I share the concerns that have been voiced regarding China’s level of investment in its military, greater transparency by the Chinese government will go a long way in addressing these concerns. I am also confident that the U.S.-China relationship will continue to improve through greater interaction between our military officials as well as greater economic opportunities between our countries.”
Since World War II, the United States has relied on a system of forward bases to deter adversaries and reassure allies, Mahnken said.
In that light, Guam has frequently been called “the tip of the spear.”
Now in doubt, he told lawmakers, is the notion that on Guam or anywhere else in the Western Pacific, the U.S. will “enjoy an operational sanctuary in space.”
Assumptions that U.S. naval vessels “can operate with impunity in all parts of the Western Pacific is questionable” as well, he told the committee.
A central question is whether the Chinese would regard Guam as a “red line” that they dare not cross because of the threat of U.S. retaliation. Related to that is whether Middle America cares enough about Guam to support going to war to defend it, Mahnken said in the interview.
A conflict over Taiwan, Mahken said, would likely bring Guam into play for both sides.
The Chinese, he testified, are working night and day to develop “programs to degrade or destroy the U.S. command, control and communications abilities, as well as American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and the navigational systems that are critical for U.S. military operations.”
American forces would hardly be defenseless, he said, but the Chinese are clearly working to develop military power that compliments their status as an economic superpower.
In sum, he told lawmakers, “Chinese military modernization threatens to reshape the balance of power in Asia.”
In response to China’s enhancement of its forces, Mahnken testified, the United States should bolster its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance networks in the Pacific; harden and diversify its Pacific bases, especially Guam; and bolster the submarine forces of allies and develop better ways to better link with them.