Late Saturday evening, Oct. 16, China’s successful August test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile was publicly reported for the first time by the “Financial Times,” a ”capability that caught US intelligence by surprise,” according to “Financial Times” sources.
Fifty-nine years earlier, on Oct. 16, 1962, the Soviet Union’s forward deployment of nuclear capable ballistic missiles in Cuba also caught the United States by surprise.
A 1960s-era Soviet ballistic missile could have traversed the 943 nautical miles between Havana and Washington, D.C. quickly enough to ensure impact if not engaged, and virtually no target in the continental United States was out of range. Thus began the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day period when the United States confronted its most existential threat since World War II.
Cuba represented for the Soviet Union the most attractive available forward strategic operating base from which it could threaten the United States and attempt to tilt the global balance of power in the Soviets’ favor.
What nation represents the same for China — a global power with significantly greater sophistication than the Soviet Union ever had in its drive to achieve strategic dominance over the United States?
Consider El Salvador.
San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, provides a similar geographic reference point of departure to American targets as Havana did. From San Salvador, the distances in nautical miles to southeastern high-value targets in the United States are as follows:
- 889 nautical miles to SOUTHCOM in Doral, Florida.
- 943 nautical miles to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida where SOCOM and CENTCOM are headquartered.
- 1,049 nautical miles to Houston, Texas, a Gulf Coast regional zone containing the largest oil refining center in the United States including four locations of the United States’ strategic petroleum reserves.
Not unlike Cuba, El Salvador is a poorly governed poor nation whose most recent unscrupulous rulers essentially put its allegiance up for sale. China was a willing buyer.
Two years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele announced that China would build a soccer stadium, a large library, and a water treatment plant along with other infrastructure projects for El Salvador.
Why? Not because El Salvador has rare raw materials that China seeks to exploit. Not because El Salvador has a robust domestic economy to consume large quantities of Chinese exports. Not because El Salvador is a major international actor able to influence others. Not because El Salvador has a highly capable military that could enhance China’s People’s Liberation Army in armed conflict.
The stated answer lies in the unmistakably direct joint statement China and El Salvador issued at the time Xi and Bukele finalized their deal in China: El Salvador “adheres to the principle of one China, categorically rejects any act that goes against this principle and any form of ‘independence of Taiwan.’”
The unstated answer is El Salvador has the potential to be the Soviet Union’s Cuba.
The only strategic interest China has in an impoverished, crime-ridden nation the size of New Jersey whose citizens in significant numbers routinely seek to leave for a better life elsewhere and whose small military is primarily concerned with internal security matters is proximity to the United States. El Salvador’s 190 miles of coastline allow for ease of maritime access and El Salvador’s rulers — willing to trade Taiwan’s independence for a new soccer stadium and untold other favors — allow for ease of country access. The result is a permissive forward operating environment for China as close to key southeastern military targets as Havana was to Washington, D.C.
El Salvador is not alone among central American nations that have made the same trade.
When the United States Men’s National Soccer Team travels to Costa Rica for a World Cup qualifying match in March, the game will be played in Estadio Nacional, a $110 million soccer stadium China began building for Costa Rica in 2009 and completed in 2011. What preceded the stadium groundbreaking? In 2007, Costa Rica cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in exchange for China’s economic engagement.
In 2017 Panama did the same, issuing a joint statement with China asserting Panama’s new stance that there is only “one China” and that the People’s Republic of China “is the only legitimate government representing all China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory.”
Considering United States’ obligations to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion and China’s preparations for an invasion, such pronouncements by nearby central American nations are not mere geopolitical rhetoric.
Two interrelated themes course through modern history of how the United States has handled hostile nation-states and hostile organized stateless actors: underestimating capability and intent and failing to imagine that worst case scenarios happen.
China’s capability is dangerously well-developed, as the hypersonic missile test demonstrates, yet many in the public and private sectors have been slow to recognize that capability. China’s intent to achieve global domination is not a secret, yet many similarly have been slow to appreciate the implications of China’s intent. All the while, despite capability and intent, realistic worst-case scenarios remain unimagined or minimized.
For example, under the guise of importing building materials into El Salvador for a new soccer stadium (or any of a number of other infrastructure projects), could China import and prepare to covertly deploy hypersonic missile capability that would present a similar existential threat to the United States that Soviet missiles in Cuba presented?
Imagine awakening one day to news that offensive hypersonic missile capability has been deployed by China in what amounts to a client state near our southern border no further away from high value U.S. targets than Washington, D.C. was to Havana in October 1962.
Avoiding worst-case scenarios begins with scenario identification.
The coinciding of the 59th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis with news of China’s successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile should cause the United States to carefully re-evaluate the threat China’s encroachment on our southern border presents.
Christopher J. Hunter served as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and as an agent with the FBI.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.