UK and US conduct first joint drills in South China Sea
China’s military is on the leading edge of some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems according to a Pentagon report published this week, as the US and Britain announced they had conducted their first joint naval drills in the disputed South China Sea.
The Pentagon found that China, the world’s second-largest economy, is now at the cusp of modern technologies including hypersonic weapons, missiles that can travel at least five times faster than the speed of sound.
The unclassified report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency found Beijing has made enormous advances in recent years, partly due to domestic laws that require foreign partners to share technical secrets in exchange for access to the Chinese market, and as a result of “acquiring technology by any means available.”
Western nations have long accused China of espionage and stealing military and trade secrets to get ahead.
China is also developing medium- and long-range stealth bombers that could hit initial operational capability within the next six years.
“In some areas, it already leads the world,” according to the report, which adds that such increased military might will “enable China to impose its will in the region.”
Despite having taken significant technical strides, China’s military lacks real-world experience in handling conflicts as it hasn’t fought a war in four decades.
The Pentagon report further detailed US concerns that increased military capability would add to the possibility of an attack on Taiwan. Taiwan severed ties with mainland China during the civil war in 1949, and maintains its own currency, flag and government.
China has long held that the island must be reunited with the mainland. Earlier this month, Xi Jinping, China’s president, made it clear that Beijing would not rule out the use of force to take back the self-ruled island. Mr Xi has also recently called on the military to always be combat-ready.
It is the main motivation for China improving its weapons systems, according to the Pentagon. “Beijing’s longstanding interest to eventually compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland and deter any attempt by Taiwan to declare independence has served as the primary driver for China’s military modernisation,” the report says.
Under Donald Trump, the US president, Washington has bolstered ties with Taiwan with arms sales and increased communication between officials, a move that has angered Beijing.
On Wednesday China scoffed at the report. Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, described it as “full of Cold War ideology and zero-sum game thinking."
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He added: “We use rules rather than weapons to safeguard and promote our own interests.”
The report is released against a backdrop of escalating tensions on everything from trade to human rights between Washington and Beijing, and as the US and Britain concluded their first joint naval drills.
A US Navy guided missile destroyer, the USS McCampbell, and a Royal Navy frigate, the HMS Argyll, conducted communications drills from last Friday to until yesterday (WEDS) “to address common security priorities,” a US Navy spokesperson said in a statement.
No such joint drills have been conducted there since at least 2010, he added.
The exercise comes after another British warship, the 22,000 ton HMS Albion, sailed close to the Paracel island chain claimed by China in the South China Sea in August.
It was the first time Britain had directly challenged China’s growing control of the strategic waterway and came after the US said it would like to see more international participation in such action. Beijing accused London of engaging in "provocation".