Few remember that 20 years ago, in the months ahead of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America was focused on countering China.

The focus came after an American spy plane, a Navy P-3 Orion, was forced to land in Chinese territory after an April 1, 2001 midair collision with a Chinese fighter. The Chinese stripped the plane in what proved to be an intelligence boon.

America sent a Navy contingent in a show of force off Chinese shores. But after 9/11 the China problem was mostly ignored as America entered into its longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Tensions are again increasing between the U.S. and China this month as America and its allies work to keep sea lanes in the China Sea open to international traffic.

For more than two decades, China has worked to lock down the area with artificial islands built by dredging parts of the seafloor and piling up the sand and mud to create acres of new land. That and the booming growth of the People Liberation Army Navy, China's long-winded moniker for its sea force, has brought a chill to relations between China and its neighbors unseen since the 1960s.

"The United States is conducting freedom of navigation operations to ensure all nations can use international waterways and air routes," the Pentagon said in a news release. "The U.S. is working with allies to improve policing of national borders and exclusive economic zones to ensure sovereignty."

Those drills last week involved a pair of American aircraft carriers and drew in ships from allies including Australia and France.

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China for decades has lacked a blue water Navy capable of projecting its power beyond its coastline, crippling that nation's longstanding goal of taking over neighboring Taiwan. Now China has a pair of aircraft carriers in its fleet and a third under construction, giving it the second largest fleet in the Pacific behind the U.S.

The Biden administration is so concerned with China's growing seapower that the Pentagon has launched a task force to ponder the threat.

"The 15-member task force will come from a wide swath of the department and include the office of the Secretary of Defense staff, the joint staff, the services, the combatant commands and representatives from the intelligence community," the Pentagon said in a news release. "The task force will also speak with interagency partners to ensure the defense response is aligned with the whole-of-government approach toward China that the president wants."

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What does this have to do with Colorado Springs? Plenty.

U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command will need to shift focus to countering Chinese threats. China is a nuclear-armed nation with intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting American and Canadian targets.

China's growing fleet has also ventured into arctic waters, an area north of Alaska and Canada that's a treasure trove of natural resources. And with polar ice caps receding, the region also could provide an easier route to reach Europe by sea from Asia.

Patrolling those sea lanes falls on NORAD and Northern Command.

China is also a growing space power and any future war could see China use its anti-satellite weapons against American targets. That means U.S. Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base and the National Space Defense Center at Schriever must invent new methods of protecting America's space assets.

Russia remains broke and its military, which possesses some gleaming new technology, is saddled with outdated Cold War weapons.

The bigger threat is China, with its 3 million-strong Army, powerful air force and growing navy.

The National Security Institute at George Mason University issued a study last week with stark conclusions for America's leaders: China's power is strong enough that the U.S. will need to counter it with robots rather than people.

"Regaining and maintaining the technological and competitive edge is fundamental, and the current inertia must be redirected with urgency," the study found. "To regain superiority, the U.S. will need to focus on the rapid development of unmanned systems and a reorientation toward more, and more dispensable, assets."

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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