The South China Sea is now off-limits

China has successfully tested its ground-based carrier killer against a moving ship.

Adm. Philip Davidson, who is nearing the end of his tour as the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, has been warning about the changing military balance in Asia throughout his tenure. But his warnings have often fallen on deaf ears in a Washington mired in partisanship and dysfunction. The Trump administration talked a big game about meeting the challenge of China’s military encroachment, but Davidson’s calls for substantially more investment to restore the regional balance that has deterred Beijing for decades have gone largely unanswered.

China’s military has moved well past a strategy of simply defending its territory and is now modernizing with the objective of being able to operate and even fight far from its shores, Davidson told me in an interview conducted last month for the 2020 Halifax International Security Forum. Under President Xi Jinping, Davidson said, China has built advanced weapons systems, platforms and rocket forces that have altered the strategic environment in ways the United States has not sufficiently responded to.

“We are seeing great advances in their modernization efforts,” he said. “China will test more missiles, conventional and nuclear associated missiles this year than every other nation added together on the planet. So that gives you an idea of the scale of how these things are changing.”

Davidson confirmed, for the first time from the U.S. government side, that China’s People’s Liberation Army has successfully tested an anti-ship ballistic missile against a moving ship. This was done as part of the PLA’s massive joint military exercises, which have been ongoing since the summer. These are often called “aircraft carrier killer” missiles, because they could threaten the United States’ most significant naval assets from long distances.

“It’s an indication that they continue to advance their capability. We’ve known for years they’ve been in pursuit of a capability that could attack moving targets,” Davidson said. I asked him whether they are designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. “Trust me, they are targeting everything,” he replied.

The Chinese Navy doesn’t yet possess the blue water capability to take on the U.S. Navy. But the combination of mini-bases constructed on real and artificial islands, combined with the anti-ship missiles, should suffice to deny the U.S. Navy operating space in its expanded home waters without facing unacceptable risks.

Which means that a move on Taiwan is rapidly becoming conceivably practical for the first time since end of WWII.