2016 has been an extraordinary year in the history of China-US relations. In the few months before the award on South China Sea arbitration was made, June and early July in particular, Chinese and American naval fleets were at loggerheads in the South China Sea. The scale and tension of military confrontation exceeded the level when an American aircraft carrier formation approached the Taiwan Straits in March 1996.
In mid and late June, after attending a joint exercise with Japan and India in waters off Okinawa, the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis joined the USS Ronald Reagan on its way south from Yokosuda to form a battle group formation. The two carriers and their escorts went into the Philippine Sea to the east of the South China Sea for operational drills. On June 25, three Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system went into the South China Sea to conduct ‘alert and surveillance’ operations. From 8 am 0n July 5 to 8 am on July 11, the main battleships of the three Chinese naval fleets, including conventional and nuclear submarines, gathered in the South China Sea and conducted joint sea and air exercises of an unprecedented scale. It is also worth noting that on July 12, when the arbitration award was published, the American aircraft carrier formation was still in the sea east of the Philippine archipelago, far away from the South China Sea where the risk of accidental exchange of fire was high.
Before these events unfolded, although strategic competition between China and the US had shown a tendency to intensify, it had remained moderate on the whole. Meanwhile, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue had not only displayed a dialogue atmosphere in bilateral relations but also produced some tangible results. However, the posture now seemed to suggest that the China-US relationship was in such a state that the American government started to consider the use or threat of force to deter China’s international conduct. The publication of War with China, a report from the famous American think tank RAND Corporation, seemed to testify that the American strategic community now sees markedly greater risks of military conflict with China.
Although the RAND report repeatedly stresses that neither country could afford a war between them, it believes that should there be a war, be it in 2015 or 2025 (the beginning and concluding year covered by the research), China will suffer a loss much greater than the US does. However, this author believes that, a series of political and economic factors aside, many military factors will render the US unable to operate a war against China.
First, war with China will be a star war that the US is unable to operate. The RAND report suggests that the most likely venue of war will be the Western Pacific. The region is far away from the American homeland and the US only has limited combat platforms here. Judging from the current situation, the US will have as its forward bases its military bases in Japan, the ROK and Guam plus combat platforms of several aircraft carriers. Without using weapons of mass destruction (the report excludes the possibility of either side using nuclear weapons), it will be impossible for the US to basically destroy China’s counterattack capability with one round of military attacks. In order to effectively contain such counterattacks, the US will have to first of all, before attacking Chinese targets on land and sea, eliminate Chinese satellites that offer precise positioning for its military counterattacks. China now possesses up to 150 satellites that are capable of this mission. How could the US deploy a sufficiently large number of anti-satellite weapons to bring all of them down in a short period time so as to avoid precision strikes on its limited number of military bases and carrier formations from China with missiles? It is virtually mission impossible.
Second, Chinese land- and shore-based missiles constitute a lethal threat to US forward bases and combat platforms in the Western Pacific. As argued above, the US will not be able to destroy Chinese satellites in a short time. Then the numerous medium- and short-range missiles will play a huge role in war. Even without a defense offered by Chinese anti-missile systems, the American homeland will not have sufficient conventional intercontinental missiles to inflict heavy losses on China’s numerous and hidden missile bases. The precision strike range of sea-base cruise missiles is only about 1,000 kilometers, and sea-base launch platforms are susceptible to saturation missile attacks, which may well overwhelm the ship-borne antimissile systems. Although American fighters are technologically more advanced than Chinese ones, given the fact that Chinese warplanes will be more numerous and closer to bases, the US will not have sufficient warplanes to escort its strategic bombers. As such, it will also be hard for America’s powerful strategic bombers to undertake and complete the mission of destroying the majority of China’s missile bases.
Finally, the US is unlikely to crush China in a short time and then in a sustained war America will find it difficult to secure logistics. The RAND report also admits that it is impossible for the US to defeat China in a short time and that a war between the two countries may well last months or even years. As the American homeland is over 10,000 kilometers from the Western Pacific, the long distance and slow speed will make transport by sea vulnerable to attacks. Logistics bases in Japan and ROK are more likely to be destroyed, paralyzing the US army’s logistics.
Since July 12, the US has shown no desire to defend the arbitration award with force as hinted by the exercise in the Philippine Sea. In other words, American decision-makers also don’t believe that the US has the ability to change or stop China’s international conduct by force.