The admiral tapped to command U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific told lawmakers Tuesday the future of the world could come down to how the United States and its allies respond to an increasingly militarized and aggressive China.
“Global peace and prosperity depend on our presence in the Indo-Pacific,” Navy Adm. John Aquilino told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The United States Navy is the most powerful, greatest navy on the planet, still,” said Aquilino, who currently commands the Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
But he cautioned the U.S. advantage is slipping.
“The Chinese are increasing their capability and capacity, and closing that gap," he said. "We've seen aggressive actions earlier than we anticipated, whether it be on the Indian border or whether it be in Hong Kong or whether it be against the Uyghurs.”
Aquilino, selected by U.S. President Joe Biden to take over from current head of Indo-Pacific Command (Indo-PACOM), Adm. Philip Davidson, who is set to retire, is the latest in a series of high-ranking military officials to sound alarms about the Chinese military.
Last week, the commander of U.S. forces in Central and South America told lawmakers the Chinese military has become so active in his region that the Americas are now “the front line” in Washington’s battle with Beijing for dominance and influence.
And earlier this month, Davidson said China’s leadership has been “accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States” as a leader on the world stage.
Davidson’s top intelligence officer went even further.
“You're going to find a very global, expeditionary Chinese military that will be there to step in anywhere they think China's interests are jeopardized," Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, told a virtual conference on March 2.
One of the biggest concerns has been the threat posed by China to Taiwan, with officials like Davidson warning Beijing could seek to take Taiwan by force within the next six years.
When asked about the threat at a Tuesday press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters, "Nobody wants this to result in conflict.”
"The secretary is concerned at the significant changes that have been taking place in the PRC's strategic forces,” Kirby said. “We would certainly welcome more transparency about their intentions."
For his part, Aquilino acknowledged there is a growing possibility of China targeting Taiwan.
“[The Chinese leadership] view it as their number one priority,” Aquilino told lawmakers Tuesday. "My opinion is that this problem is much closer to us than most think and we have to take this on, put those deterrence capabilities like PDI [the Pacific Deterrence Initiative] in place in the near term and with urgency."
Indo-Pacific Command officials have been pushing the PDI, arguing for $27.3 billion over the next five years — something Aquilino told lawmakers that he supports.
Aquilino also acknowledged concerns about China’s growing nuclear weapons capability.
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has said China is likely “to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade. Since then, top officials at U.S. Strategic Command have warned that estimate might be conservative, and that Beijing could triple or even quadruple its nuclear weapons stockpile in that time frame.
“We see China increasing at a rate that is faster than anyone previously believed,” said Aquilino.
"If you were to look at what they've done with their conventional force, I would see no reason why I would expect anything other than to have them continue to increase their nuclear capabilities and aspirations."