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The Weapons Speak: China, U.S. Face Arms Race, Says Potholm

Story posted November 09, 2011


In the far Pacific today, there is a language being spoken by the Chinese. It’s based on signals, not words; it is driven by military technology. The weapons speak.

“People who are really listening have very different views of what this foreign language means,” says Chris Potholm, DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Professor of Government. “It is the language of weapons … and unless some dramatic action is taken soon, I think there will be a spiraling arms race ahead between China and the United States, especially between their respective navies.”

Potholm’s remarks were part of a Faculty Seminar talk titled, “Striking the Archer, Not the Arrows: The Coming Clash Between the Chinese and American Militaries.”

Potholm gave an overview of 70 years U.S. naval domination in the Pacific following the historic Battle of Midway in June, 1942, then detailed recent escalation of China’s naval capability and weaponry systems that are potentially “unbalancing” to the region and alarming to South Korea, Japan, Singapore, The Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and India as well as the United States.

Professor of Government Christian Potholm

“For the past five centuries, the Chinese adopted a primarily defensive position,” observed Potholm. "As the nation has become rich enough to afford the latest weapons, and fervently embraced global geopolitics, their military strategy has changed completely, he said. “They want to be in the position to be on the offensive, to go out to the first and second chain of islands off mainland China, so they are not on the defensive. They think of Taiwan as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier.’ They want to project power in an arc from Guam to New Guinea and beyond."

Potholm described the breadth of current U.S. firepower, including the explosive capabilities of just one Trident II submarine, which carries the nuclear equivalent of 950 Hiroshima-level bombs.

"Currently the U.S. accepts the idea that the Chinese should have Trident-like missile submarines and they welcome Chinese aircraft carriers to help police the seas,” said Potholm. "So these very expensive and powerful technologies 'speak' of stability and are non-threatening in their present forms. But what bewilders the U.S. Navy is why China is currently in the process of deploying new missiles with the specific capability of sinking air craft carriers?”

Among them, China’s new Sunburn missile is in a class by itself, he noted. It has an ability to travel at 1,500 mph atop waves -- too fast to be stopped by any Aegis cruisers that are protecting an aircraft carrier -- and with a range of 900 nautical miles.

“The Sunburn is fundamentally threatening to the American naval core values; it is capable of destroying our carriers, which are the ‘archers’ of our naval presence,” noted Potholm. Cuts in U.S. defense spending have further eroded U.S. capabilities, he noted. “The U.S. fleet has shrunk to 280 ships, smaller than our fleet in World War I."

Ironically, he observed, much of the capital used to develop new Chinese weaponry systems is dependent on American consumption of Chinese goods. “I can think of no example in history where the same group of people are paying for both sides of an arms race,” said Potholm. “The U.S. consumer and the U.S. taxpayer will pay for the arms buildup of both the U.S. and China.

“There is an opportunity now not to have an arms race, but neither side seems to be making this a top priority,” he said. “If the Chinese could take a step back and say, ‘Gee, in five years it could be our aircraft carriers being sunk by Indian or Korean missiles,' they might be less fervent about deploying them.”

Potholm’s talk was derived from a forthcoming chapter in his next book, Understanding War, which he hopes will be the second in a trilogy on war, which began with Winning at War: 7 Keys to Military Victory Throughout History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). The third volume is scheduled to focus on preventing war.

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