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Opinion

China's military buildup is worry for neighbors and warning for US

Hypersonic missiles and stealthy jets bolster Beijing's might

Military vehicles carrying YJ anti-ship missiles march during the military parade in September 2015: China's new weapons will make the South China Sea a deadly environment.   © Imaginechina/AP

China will roll out an impressive display of military might on October 1 as part of its annual national day parade, given more grandeur this year, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The display is part of an ongoing revitalization and modernization of the nation's already able forces. With the second largest defense budget in the world -- after only the U.S. -- and the fastest-growing navy, the Chinese have made a point of improving specific areas of capability that will make their armed forces lethal and flexible.

What does all this mean for the regional balance of power, and how will it affect global geopolitical competition?

The most significant improvements are advances in so-called hypersonic cruise missiles. These weapons are ultrafast, able to fly at many times the speed of sound -- much faster than the relatively lumbering current generation that fly not much over the 600 miles per hour that represents the sound barrier. Speeds are predicted to be five to 10 times faster in the new variants.

It is worth noting that both the U.S. and Russia are aggressively developing similar systems, and these systems will over time constitute an arms race unto themselves.

There will also be new drones on display. As the recent attacks on the Saudi oil fields demonstrated, there is a new "strategic triad" of weapons building in importance and scope. Instead of the more traditional nuclear triad of land-based bombers, intercontinental cruise missiles and submerged ballistic missile submarines, the new triad is composed of advanced and stealthy drones, hypersonic cruise missiles and special forces.

China already has nuclear strategic forces, but the parade will showcase this emerging triad of weaponry -- as well as some of the more traditional systems, like a new variant of intercontinental ballistic missile.

Expect special forces to likewise be on full display, alongside the means to deliver them to the battlefield, including advanced helicopters and high-speed small boats.

It will be an impressive display, with representatives from nearly a hundred nations present to observe it -- many of whom will be military attaches seeking a window into the latest advances for intelligence purposes.

China, of course, denies that either the parade or the military buildup threatens global stability. President Xi Jinping will oversee the event -- probably wearing a military uniform, something he increasingly chooses to do -- and at a recent news conference the Chinese military establishment said that it would provide "more positive energy" for world peace.

Not all of its neighbors in the region see it in the same benign light, and the U.S. in particular is worried -- especially as it watches 15,000 troops and nearly 600 pieces of advanced hardware march by the reviewing stand for over an hour and a half.

High-performance aircraft will be overhead and in the parade itself, with over 50 squadrons represented, including the stealthy J-20 fighter, comparable to the vaunted U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Regionally, it will be the nations that border the massive South China Sea which will be most concerned -- especially Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. Given the plethora of competing claims around the sea, and the Chinese construction there of controversial artificial, militarized islands, this additional demonstration of firepower is unsettling.

Further afield, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and particularly India will be watching closely and thinking about their own level of spending. Japan has a territorial island dispute with China in the East China Sea. It will also spur more collective military activity, particularly among Indo-Asian partners Japan, Australia and India.

At a global level, the most important part of China's audience is the U.S. The new array of weaponry, alongside traditional Chinese military strengths, is at least partly intended to influence U.S. policymakers.

China is hoping the U.S. will pause its annoying "freedom of navigation" patrols through the South China Sea, for example. It would also like to send a strong signal to trade negotiators that China has military cards to play in the unfolding great power competition.

Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles are presented during the military parade in September 2015: China would like to send a signal to trade negotiators that it has military cards to play.   © Reuters

Looking forward -- if not quite to the next seven decades -- China's ultimate strategic intent is to consolidate its claim of territoriality over the entire South China Sea. As its suite of new weapons matures, it will be far more able to enforce such a goal.

A key part of this, of course, will be bringing Taiwan under the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China.

The new weapons will be fully mature and integrated into Chinese operational plans within a decade, including construction of more capable aircraft carriers, including nuclear-powered variants. They will make the South China Sea a deadly environment for any nation seeking to challenge Chinese sea control.

All of this is worrisome in a region, the Pacific rim, whose nations spend over 70% of the world's defense budget. While the trends in the region at the moment augur continued tension without an actual armed conflict, the tinder is piled fairly high and a stray spark could ignite a dangerous conflagration indeed.

James Stavridis, a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral, is an operating executive of the Carlyle Group. After leading the NATO alliance as supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013, he spent five years as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character will be published on October 15.

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