A row of F18 fighter jets stands ready on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), prepared for patrols off the disputed South China Sea on March 3.
On Tuesday, the U.S. think tank, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), announced that China has completed major construction of its military infrastructure on the Spratly Islands.
At any time, Beijing could deploy fighter jets and other military equipment to the artificial land it has constructed on the reefs in the South China Sea.
There is no question that Beijing is seeking to enlarge its sphere of influence, not just in the South China Sea but throughout the Pacific. That growth has the U.S. and many American allies gravely concerned.
It threatens to disrupt the region’s stable economy — an economy that the U.S. has played a major role in creating and maintaining.
China denies U.S. assertions that it is militarizing the area. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang claims the equipment that has been placed on the islands is for defensive purposes and is there only to ensure “freedom of navigation” in the disputed territory.
Since July 2016, when the Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, there has been a marked increase in Beijing’s belligerent rhetoric and actions. In August, a Chinese minister urged the nation’s populace to begin preparations for a “people’s war at sea.” Tensions are high throughout Southeast Asia.
Thanks to the many billions of dollars invested in trade between the two nations, the chances of a U.S. war with China are unlikely. Such a conflict would have worldwide consequences of dreadful proportions. But that doesn’t mean that the world’s most populated country doesn’t pose a real and growing threat to the world’s most powerful nation. There is the possibility that American allies in the area could become involved militarily with China, and the U.S. could be drawn into the conflict.
So, what would the outcome be should a Sino-American war erupt? More than 87 percent of the Chinese people and a number of Americans believe that the United States would fare poorly against the communist nation.
They are wrong. In 2015, the Rand Corporation published an in-depth assessment of the war-fighting capabilities of the two nations titled, “The U.S.-China Military Scorecard, Forces, Geography, and Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017.” The report has been recognized by Asian experts as one of the best assessments of the two military powers ever done.
The 430-page document analyzes the capabilities of both nations in 10 categories of military operations, focusing around two scenarios — one taking place in Taiwan and other in the Spratly Islands. The report determined that in both situations, the U.S. still maintains an advantage — although it is a far smaller edge in the Taiwan scenario, since the island is considerably closer to China’s mainland.
Interestingly enough, although the report does much to rebut the defeatist attitudes surrounding China’s supposed military advantage over the U.S., it has gotten little media attention.
The report’s key findings state that China still lags far behind the United States in aggregate capabilities — except in its immediate periphery, where it has reached near-parity. Although distance and geography pose problems for both sides, China’s ability to project power to distant locations remains weak. Among other areas where the U.S. retains the upper hand are air superiority, cyber warfare, and anti-surface warfare.
And there are other U.S. strengths and Chinese weaknesses not mentioned specifically in the report. One of those strengths is the incredible amount of training and experience the U.S. military has compared to the Chinese. Referred to by some as a paper tiger, the dedication of Chinese troops is questionable and corruption within the ranks is rampant at senior levels.
And then there’s the question as to how reliable China’s weapons actually are. Most of China’s new military assets are clones of U.S. and Russian weapons, built from plans stolen by Chinese hackers.
“The big issue with all Chinese weapons — including copies of Western equipment — is that they remain untested in combat, ” says Eric Wertheim, author of U.S. Naval Institute’s “Combat Fleets of the World.”
And, finally, whereas the U.S. has allies throughout the region and access to bases in many nations, China has few friends in the region and is strategically isolated.
How does the U.S. ensure that it retains its shrinking military superiority?
The Rand report recommends the U.S. military continue to maintain a dynamic presence in the area. Planning and training should capitalize on U.S. advantages such as geographic size and military strengths. Maintain good diplomacy with political leaders in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The military should focus on a “active denial strategy” that would reduce vulnerability to pre-emptive attacks. And the critical importance of cyber operations, both defensive and offensive, cannot be stressed enough.
Many on the left, and much of the media (not that there’s a significant difference between the two), continue to bicker about the extra $52 billion for the Department of Defense requested in President Trump’s budget.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where bullies are all too eager to take advantage of the weak. Both history and common sense show that the best way to maintain the peace is through military superiority. The left may complain all it wants about the extra money for defense, but there is a real and valid need for those additional funds.