China recently conducted a successful 48-hour test flight of its largest high-altitude airship amid growing concerns about its military buildup in the disputed South China Sea.
As Beijing continues to pour billions into its massive military buildup, the country has just successfully completed a test flight of its largest Yuanmeng (Dream) high-altitude airship in the atmosphere between an altitude of 20 kilometers and 100 kilometers, according to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly reports. China’s cutting-edge high-altitude aircraft is one of the largest solar-powered airships in the world. The airship has a volume of 18,000 cubic meters and is 75 meters long and 22 meters tall, according to Popular Science. The Yuanmeng is capable of carrying a payload of 5 to 7 tons with “broadband communications, data relay, high-definition observation, space situational awareness, and airborne imaging systems,” all of which are powered by the sun.
According to Chinese scientists, the airship was made from a very lightweight material capable of withstanding extreme pressure, and it’s equipped with a highly-capable solar battery and lightweight avionics. In the case of a military confrontation in which Chinese satellite communications are blocked or satellites are destroyed, the high-altitude airship could be used as a communications relay station for China’s military aircraft and ships.
Even though the Yuanmeng is vulnerable to U.S. missile attacks and other means of anti-satellite weapons, the airship features sensors that could trigger an early warning system in a high-tech conflict. The airship could be used to detect incoming missiles, stealth aircraft and ships from several hundred miles away.
China’s military compared to Germany’s pre-World War I military spending
The U.S.’s military presence in Asia is threatened by the growing capabilities and size of the Chinese military forces. And now that Washington is sending its warships to the disputed artificial South China Sea islands, the stakes are particularly high. Additionally, China’s unveiling its new missiles which could easily strike U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific raises concerns about the high risk of a military confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
Since China built artificial islands in the South China Sea and demanded that other countries keep their military forces away from a 12-nautical mile exclusion zone around the islands, the U.S. has been beefing up its efforts to lower the Chinese threat in the region. The Telegraph noted that China’s power is growing at a rate that is “difficult for us to comprehend.” The British newspaper refers to Germany’s example during the First World War: before the war. The country’s economy grew by 13% while spending on arms grew by 64%. In comparison, over the past 10 years, China’s economy has grown a whopping four times larger, while its arms spending has tripled and continues to grow year by year.
“Never before in history,” The Telegraph cites Harvard scholar Graham Allison as saying, “has a nation risen so far, so fast, on so many dimensions of power.” Allison noted that such rapid and tremendous shifts in the balance of power have resulted in war in 12 out of 16 cases over the past 500 years. So the questions is, is China’s growing military power just coincidence, or is a war against the Chinese really inevitable?
China threatens to respond to U.S. presence in the Pacific
Over a week ago, the Pentagon announced that it would send U.S. Navy warships inside the 12-nautical mile zones that China claims as its territory around some of the disputed islands in the Spratly chain. Such U.S. naval moves could escalate the conflict between Washington and Beijing, as trillions of dollars in global seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea each year, while the large majority of East Asia’s energy is transported through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.
“What on earth makes the United States think China should and will tolerate it when U.S. surface ships trespass on Chinese territory in the South China Sea?” said Xinhua, mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party of China, in reaction to the news about U.S. warships sailing toward China.
Over the past several weeks, Chinese officials have threatened military response against U.S. naval operation if American warships sail within the 12-mile zone and remain there. In particular, if U.S. warships stay within the 12-mile zone of the artificial islands, China will dispatch its naval PLA warships to force them out.
“China will never tolerate any military provocation or infringement on sovereignty from the United States or any other country, just as the United States refused to 53 years ago,” the Xinhua state-run news agency noted, referring to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The U.S. has repeatedly said that it does not recognize the disputed islands as Chinese maritime territory. During his first state visit to the U.S., Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama failed to reach common ground on the issue of the South China Sea conflict and a number of other issues.
China’s growing military spending
Over the past two decades, China has been increasing its military spending by two times each year. Even though the Chinese economy currently experiences minor difficulties, analysts at security watchdog IHS Jane’s predict that China’s military budget will continue its growth at a rate of 7% annually until 2020. Therefore, by 2020, China is expected to be spending over $260 billion on its defense and arms, while in 2015, the projected amount is $145 billion.