WASHINGTON - China is rapidly modernising its maritime forces and will have submarines capable of launching long-range nuclear missiles by the end of the year, the top American commander for the Asia-Pacific has warned US lawmakers.
As world leaders were leaving The Hague on Wednesday after taking steps to limit nuclear weapons globally, the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, was testifying before the Senate that China had made "significant" advancements in its submarine capabilities.
Specifically, Chinese submarines will soon be able to launch missiles with a range of 7,000km, meaning the missiles could reach the US coast from the Eastern Pacific.
"This will give China its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent, probably before the end of 2014," Admiral Locklear told the Senate Committee on Armed Forces.
The commander's testimony comes at a time when anxiety is mounting over China's increasing assertiveness over territories it claims in the East and South China seas, coupled with uncertainty over American commitment to its military presence in the region.
Last month, the Pentagon announced in its budget that it was shrinking the US army to pre-World War II levels. It also warned that further reductions might be required if automatic spending cuts were allowed to resume in 2016.
Less than two weeks later, China announced it would increase its military spending for the year by 12.2 per cent, outstripping the 10.7 per cent growth in its defence budget a year earlier.
The People's Liberation Army hit another milestone in January when it reportedly tested a hypersonic missile. This is a type of missile that can travel up to a speed of Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound, making it difficult to intercept and giving targets less time to react.
Admiral Locklear's assessment of Chinese nuclear capabilities, and US budget cuts were thus a key focus of the questions from lawmakers after the testimony.
Senator James Inhofe, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked if recent developments might mean a situation where "our friends won't trust us and our enemies won't fear us".
Admiral Locklear said the Chinese military buildup raises concerns mainly over its intentions in the region, rather than as a global military force.
"The Chinese military and the growth of the military won't be a global competitor with US security for a number of decades, depending on how fast they spend and what they invest in," he said.
"The biggest concern is regionally, where they have the ability to influence the outcome of events around some of our partners and our allies by the defence capabilities that they're pursuing."
But he also warned that the balance of power in the region is likely to shift and that budget cuts are having an adverse impact on US capabilities in the region.
"They (budget uncertainties) ultimately reduce our readiness, our ability to respond to crisis and contingency as well as degrade our ability to reliably interact with our allies and partners in the region", he said.
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