A senior U.S. commander has recently revealed that China's development of an anti-ship ballistic missile that is designed to target aircraft carriers is now operational. Defense analysts say that while China has a way to go to perfect the weapon system, the development and deployment of the missile will have a major impact on security in Asia.
In a recent interview with Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Admiral Robert Willard, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that information China has released in the open press and continued testing show it has reached the equivalent of what the U.S. military calls initial operational capability for the weapons system.
Andrew Erickson, the co-founder of China SignPost, a website that focuses on China analysis and research, explains.
"What's very significant here is for the first time ever, someone in a position of authority and information access, has stated that the missile is roughly equivalent to a U.S. military development benchmark," said Erickson.
Admiral Willard says reaching initial operational capability means China has a workable design for the missile and that it is being further developed.
The land-based missile, which is called the Dongfeng 21 D, is designed to attack aircraft carrier groups with the help of satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.
Dean Cheng, a research fellow at Washington D.C.'s Heritage Foundation says that with the help of satellites and UAVs the fast-moving missile is designed to target an aircraft carrier in the sea and come at them from high altitudes.
"The idea is to damage an aircraft carrier, destroy the planes on the deck, not necessarily sinking it, but keeping it from basically being able to fly aircraft for the next several days, weeks or even month," said Cheng.
Admiral Willard says that while the U.S. military has yet to see an over-water test of the system, the advanced ballistic missile system - along with other so called anti-access area denial capabilities China is deploying such as air defense systems, advanced naval systems such as submarines- are a concerning development for countries in the region.
Dean Cheng says Admiral Willard's comments show that China is increasing the pace of its military development. China's development of anti-access area denial capabilities, he says, sends a clear message about security in the region.
"This weapons system [China's anti-ship ballistic missile], in combination with Chinese submarines, Chinese long range anti-ship cruise missiles, Chinese anti-ship aircraft, all of these in combination are clearly aimed at saying to the United States: 'back off, your role here in the Western Pacific is going to be limited'," he said.
In additon to the U.S., there is already growing concern among China's neighbors about the speed at which China is developing and expanding its naval power. Japan recently decided to shift the focus of its national defense toward China.
Erickson says China's neighbors are likely to react to the development of the weapon system.
"It still remains to be seen exactly what some of the reactions will be, but I suspect that there may well be some very significant concerns in Japan, in South Korea and in Taiwan for instance," he said.
He adds that concerns are likely because China has been releasing information or technical "data points" about the anti-ship ballistic missile or other systems that speak more to experts and foreign militaries, but not citizens in the region.
"What they do not do well [the data points], I believe, is speak to the citizen in other nations and socieities in East Asia as to what China is actually doing here? How far it intends to go? What China envisions as being the consequences," asked Erickson.
When a Chinese foreign ministry official was asked about the ballistic missile system earlier this week she did not respond directly, but stressed China was purusing a defensive military policy and seeks peaceful development.
Still, China's steps toward deploying the anti-ship ballistic missile and other military trends are having an impact on the ongoing debate in Washington over whether China is a friend or foe.
Dean Cheng says the news will certainly add "amunition" to the argument that China is an unfriendly power and rising threat.
"The flip side to this is that we have the [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates visit to China, we have the [Chinese President] Hu [Jintao] - [President Barack] Obama summit here in Washington will provide an opportunity for China to clarify itself," he said.
Erickson says China's military trends and agressive behavior over the past few years is having a broad impact in Washington.
"I think even a lot of people who were previously quite optimistic about U.S. - China relations have become more pessimistic and more concerned, frankly," he said.
Those who were already pessimistic, Erickson adds, see these latest developments as a sign that there never really were grounds to be optimistic about China and that those who were optimistic were just naive.