The U.S. allegedly has the capability to defeat Chinese military, but at what cost?
By Richard Walker
Despite gloomy predictions that the U.S. could lose a war with China in the South China Sea, the reality is that the U.S. military has all the weapons to defeat its Chinese counterpart, though the cost in lives and the subsequent political and economic fallout from a war of that magnitude would be devastating. There is also the unquantifiable and horrifying possibility that a conventional conflict could spiral into a nuclear exchange, which would impact all life on Earth.
When warnings were made in Congress this year that America could lose a war with China or Russia, the immediate reaction in many sections of the media was to assume the worst and to focus on a potential conflict with China as the most likely one to occur in the near future. It is true, of course, that there is a greater risk of a war breaking out in the South China Sea than one with Russia in Eastern Europe.
One with China would spread quickly into the Pacific region. In recent years, China had been militarizing the South China Sea through which 100,000 merchant ships pass annually. China regards the South China Sea as its own, its aim being to control all the energy resources within it to the exclusion of the rights of neighboring countries like Vietnam. But the Chinese military strategy has a dual purpose. In placing bases and advanced weaponry on islands throughout the South China Sea, it is preparing for a conflict with the U.S. military. The islands would not only be a defensive chain to create a barrier between mainland China and the Pacific, but a staging ground for the Chinese to use their massive arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles to attack U.S. bases like Guam and U.S. aircraft carriers.
There is no question that China militarily has the means to inflict serious damage to U.S. forces, but it has to be remembered that China has not fought a war since it invaded Vietnam in 1979, and that was a short conflict. America, in contrast, has the kinds of capabilities China lacks, both in terms of military experience as well as strength in the air, on the sea and under the waves. In the field of cyber and drone warfare, as well as command and control, it has the targeting precision China lacks.
While China may imagine its chain of militarized island outposts represents a major threat to the U.S., the Pentagon has made it clear those islands will be wiped out at the beginning of a conflict. In May 2016, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, made it clear to China that the U.S. military would do just that.
“We have a lot of experience, in the Second World War, taking down small islands that are isolated,” he said. “It’s a core competency of the U.S. military that we’ve done before.”
A conventional war with China might be long and drawn out with considerable damage done to its military assets within China. The U.S. would use its airpower and missiles to devastate Chinese military infrastructure. There would also be a massive cost in lives, especially if China decided to attack Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines, or sought to engage India, another U.S. ally.
It is impossible to predict how such a war could be ended without one side capitulating, and, during such a war, because of the long supply lines needed to sustain U.S. forces, Washington would need the unquestioned support of allies in the region and of people back home.
Few military experts who understand the capabilities of both sides doubt that the United States has the capability to win, and all agree the cost in lives will be astronomical and the risk of such a conflict going nuclear cannot be ruled out.
America’s massive nuclear edge means it could quickly overwhelm China with nuclear strikes just from its submarines in the Pacific. China, on the other hand, lacks the intercontinental ballistic missile strength to impose equivalent damage on the U.S. But whatever happens, the costs would be terrible, and the nuclear fallout would eventually affect everyone.
No one should doubt the fact that there is a growing drumbeat in Washington for the U.S. to degrade China’s military power before it becomes impossible to achieve that goal. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, he has played a game of military chess, promising on the one hand President Barack Obama and now President Donald Trump that China has no strategy for militarizing the South China Sea while doing just that on a scale never seen before.
But what options does the U.S. have?
Senior U.S. generals and strategists contend that Xi has given his military the task of preparing for a war with the United States and that the building of fortifications on island chains is designed to create operating bases to attack the U.S. fleet and U.S. bases in the Pacific when a conflict begins.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is convinced it is time for the U.S. military to devise a plan to destroy all island fortifications maintained by China should war break out. He argues that, if China thinks the U.S. does not have the stomach to confront it, it will become unstoppable. His reasoning is that, if the U.S. does not prepare for a war in the region, it will be driven from it.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.