New missile gap leaves U.S. scrambling to counter China

ZHUHAI, China, April 25 (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping has elevated his country's missile forces to a level where they pose an unprecedented challenge to the aircraft carriers and bases that form the backbone of American military primacy in Asia, a Reuters special report reveals today.

Many of the missiles in Beijing's arsenal now rival or outperform those of the United States, puncturing the protective umbrella that for decades America has afforded its regional allies South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Captain James Fanell, a former U.S. Navy intelligence chief, told Reuters that China now has "the most advanced ballistic missile force in the world" and has "the capacity to overwhelm the defensive systems we are pursuing."

Critically, China has forged a monopoly in one class of conventional missiles that enable it to strike at U.S. aircraft carriers off its coast and at bases in Japan or even Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Under a Cold War-era treaty between the U.S. and Russia, neither country has been allowed to develop these weapons – land-based, intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (3,418 miles). But China, which isn't a signatory to the treaty, has been deploying these rockets in massive numbers.

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President Trump, Melania Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping
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President Trump, Melania Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping
U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and Xi Jinping, China's president, greet attendees waving American and Chinese national flags during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. The White House expects to announce upwards of $250 billion in business deals in China this week, an administration official said -- exactly the sort of U.S. jobs-based diplomacy that Trump�likes to deliver when traveling abroad. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City with China� President Xi Jinping and China� First Lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping leave after an opera performance at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania enjoy an opera performance with China's President Xi Jinping at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City with China's President Xi Jinping and China's First Lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump looks at first lady Melania Trump next to Chinese President Xi Jinping as they tour the Conservation Scientific Laboratory of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Andy Wong/Pool
U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City with China?s President Xi Jinping and China?s First Lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping tour the Conservation Scientific Laboratory of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China November 8, 2017. Looking on is Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan at left and U.S. first lady Melania Trump at right. REUTERS/Andy Wong/Pool
U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City with China's President Xi Jinping and China's First Lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania and China's President Xi Jinping pose with opera performers at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City with China's President Xi Jinping and China's First Lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing, China, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump tours the Conservation Scientific Laboratory of the Forbidden City in Beijing on November 8, 2017. US President Donald Trump toured the Forbidden City with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on November 8 as he began the crucial leg of an Asian tour intended to build a global front against North Korea's nuclear threats. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Andy Wong (Photo credit should read ANDY WONG/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive on Air Force One in Beijing on November 8, 2017. US President Donald Trump arrived in Beijing on November 8 for the critical leg of his Asia tour to drum up an uncompromising, global front against the nuclear weapons ambitions of the 'cruel dictatorship' in North Korea. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / THOMAS PETER (Photo credit should read THOMAS PETER/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony at the Great hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Xi Jinping, China's president, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump look on during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. The White House expects to announce upwards of $250 billion in business deals in China this week, an administration official said -- exactly the sort of U.S. jobs-based diplomacy that Trump�likes to deliver when traveling abroad. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Xi Jinping, China's president, left, gestures while standing next to U.S. President Donald Trump, during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. The White House expects to announce upwards of $250 billion in business deals in China this week, an administration official said -- exactly the sort of U.S. jobs-based diplomacy that Trump�likes to deliver when traveling abroad. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 09: The convoy of US President Donald Trump makes its way through Tiananmen Square before the welcome ceremony on November 9, 2017 in Beijing, China. At the invitation of Chineses President Xi Jinping, U.S President Donald Trump is to pay a state visit to China from November 8 to 10. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Today's special report is part of "The China Challenge," a Reuters series on how Xi Jinping is reshaping and rejuvenating China's military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), by filling its top ranks with loyal allies and enhancing its missile, naval and nuclear capabilities.

Previously in "The China Challenge" - Inside Xi's remaking of the world's largest fighting force: https://reut.rs/2Uzr9z4

In the event of a confrontation in the seas off its coast, Chinese military brass say they now have the means with which to keep American carriers at bay. "We cannot defeat the United States at sea," a retired PLA colonel told Reuters. "But we have missiles that specifically target aircraft carriers to stop them from approaching our territorial waters if there were conflict."

That is a potentially dramatic development, signaling that China is able to deter U.S. intervention as it expands its control in the South China Sea, steps up naval and air sorties around Taiwan, and extends its operations into areas it disputes with Japan.

With the United States suddenly finding itself on the wrong side of the missile gap, American military planners face a new and daunting scenario. Because some of China's anti-ship missiles now outrange the fighter jets aboard U.S. carriers, they could neutralize American flattops in a conflict. If these carriers are forced to operate outside the range of their aircraft, they would be far less potent.

The United States, which has long been preoccupied with wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, is now rushing to claw back the advantage. President Trump announced on Feb. 1 that Washington would withdraw from its missile treaty with Russia in six months, clearing the way for the U.S. to begin building the ground-launched missiles banned for more than three decades.

China's Ministry of National Defense, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Pentagon did not respond to questions from Reuters.

The full article can be read here: https://reut.rs/2Z8DetC

(Reporting by David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim. Edited by Peter Hirschberg and Elizabeth Culliford.)

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