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Focused on Ukraine and Israel, the U.S. Neglects the China Threat

China is undergoing “the largest military buildup in history since World War II… across all domains, maritime, air, land, space, cyberspace.” So warns Adm. John Aquilino, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which comprises China’s navy and air forces as well, has expanded more rapidly in the past 30 years than any armed force in history. “When I look at the military China is building, it is not a general-purpose military,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III. “It is designed around the goal of being able to take Taiwan and keep the U.S. out.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has set a deadline of 2027 for the PLA to be ready to invade Taiwan, according to Central Intelligence Agency chief William Burns. The unification of Taiwan with mainland China “must be achieved”, says Xi. In December, the Chinese foreign ministry said, “China will realize reunification, and this is unstoppable.” Matt Pottinger, who speaks Chinese and was deputy national security adviser under Trump, says Xi has shown urgency about “recovering” Taiwan, viewing the absorption of the island nation into mainland China to be his signature legacy.

article illustration
China's sailors and their ship on review.

Actually, China's and Xi's ambitions extend well beyond Taiwan. The "nine-dash line" on Chinese maps that embraces the South China Sea as Chinese territory is only the first dash line. Successive semi-circular dash lines extending eastward into the Pacific show China's intentions to make the Western Pacific a Chinese lake and carve out a vast economic empire across the global south — all part of the “national rejuvenation” that will return China to its former place as the most powerful country on Earth. We covered this in "What China Wants: Today, the South China Sea. Tomorrow, Everything Under Heaven". China’s navy makes no secret of its aim to be able to operate in what former naval chief Adm. Wu Shengli called “the far seas”—the Arctic, Indian and wider Pacific.

the new great wall

When China attacks Taiwan, should our military intervene it will come up against China's formidable ability to control their near seas from land. China has developed a surfeit of weapons to defend its coastline. Land-based rocket installations are in place to clear the region of our ships and air assets. Longer-range missiles can target ships more than a thousand miles at sea. It would be a priority for us to take out those coastal defenses. But a year ago, the top U.S. Air Force officer in Japan warned that China’s air defenses were becoming impenetrable to all but the most sophisticated U.S. jet fighters, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.

China's military is the world's largest, with 2.2 million in uniform. Its annual military spending is second only to the U.S. Its military budget for the coming year has been increased by 7.2%. The budget that President Biden has just proposed raises defense spending by 1% — a reduction when inflation is factored in. Yet Biden has said four times that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China attacks – not just aid, defend.

China has joined in an increasing number of joint naval exercises with Russia, exhibiting "increasing complexity and sophistication", Oriana Skylar Mastro, who researches the Chinese military at Stanford University, told the Journal a year ago.

By 2021, China had surpassed the United States in shipbuilding, conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems. A year ago the Pentagon said that Beijing's air force is "rapidly catching up" to the West's. Its air force has built some 200 advanced J-16 fighter jets and J-20 stealth jets in the past six years.

China has produced a huge parallel air force of drones and the manufacturing capability for their uninterrupted production, whereas the U.S. has neither a vast fleet nor is there an industry for building drones under development.

In what Gen. Mark Milley, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said was “very close” to a “Sputnik moment”, the U.S. was taken by surprise in mid-2021 that China had successfully article illustration
The Dongfeng-17 is a Chinese solid-fuelled road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile designed to carry the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle.

fired a hypersonic missile, a weapon that the U.S. has still not been able to develop. The nuclear-capable missile, rides on a rocket that can orbit the Earth at multiples of the speed of sound at a low trajectory, then to be released at will, and can then maneuver to evade defenses. “We just don’t know how we can defend against that technology, neither does China, neither does Russia,” said Ambassador Robert A. Wood, then the U.S. representative at arms control sessions in Geneva.

Last April, a hacker leaked what the Pentagon didn't want us to know about, a high-altitude supersonic drone developed by China that at three times the speed of sound will markedly strengthen their surveillance capability.

down to the sea in ships

China's wars have been on land, and it still has an enormous army, but the expected coming war will fundamentally be fought at sea. It could begin slowly, with their ships or planes contesting ours in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits, or rapidly when China attacks Taiwan and the U.S. decides to engage.

China now has the world's largest navy with 370 ships, as estimated in October by the Pentagon's China Military Power Report. That is 30 ships more than the year before. Naval old hands are quick to point out that much of China’s navy consists of small patrol boats, no match for the U.S. Navy's fire power. But at this pace they are on course to have 415 surface vessels by 2030.

In contrast, the U.S. has 299 combat ships. The administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton slashed troops, ships, aircraft, and shore-based infrastructure. During the Obama administration, the Navy’s battle force bottomed out at 271 ships.

The Navy has said for years that to be capable of defeating peer adversaries like China, it must have 350 ships and another 150 unmanned or lightly manned vessels for a total of 500. Former President Trump promised a 355-ship navy when campaigning in 2016, a promise quickly forgotten. Instead, procurement averaged eight ships a year during his term, which is only the replacement rate for the 30-35 year expected life of the Navy's ships.

Prospects under Biden so far appear to be worse. His administration projects that it will take 20 years to reach the required battle force inventory of 355 ships.

China has three aircraft carriers, with a fourth, possibly nuclear powered, said to be in the works. The U.S. has 11. China's first, with a curved "ski jump" deck to lift planes into the air, was bought from Russia and completely rebuilt. But China has since learned the level-deck electromagnetic catapult system that launches heavier munitions payloads and fuel, matching what previously only U.S. carriers had.

America's submarine fleet of 53 attack submarines, 14 ballistic-missile submarines and four guided-missile submarines is the world's most powerful. Of the total, the U.S. Navy hopes to have 66 nuclear attack submarines against the 49 in the fleet today. Working against that goal, the Navy retires two submarines per year while adding three every two years, for a net loss of one submarine every other year. Moreover, "America’s submarine fleet is in disrepair", writes naval expert Seth Cropsey in National Review.

"At any given time, around 40 percent of attack submarines are not deployable because of repairs, maintenance, refueling, and ageing, which shrinks the fleet to around 30 boats."

China plans to have 99 manned and unmanned submarines by 2030. The Chinese earlier opted for the quantitative advantage of cheaper diesel-powered boats but now has six nuclear-powered attack submarines carrying nuclear missiles with a range of 4,500 miles that reach Alaska or Hawaii and the continental United States, if launched from out in the Pacific.

China can build ships at quintuple the rate of America. As with many U.S. industries, shipbuilding began moving offshore to lower-cost nations such as South Korea decades ago. The downsizing of the Navy after the end of the Cold War eviscerated the industry.

In a recent Journal op-ed, retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix, who often writes candid appraisals of the Navy's status, says that...

"The Navy's budget, size and force architecture all need urgent attention from Congress if the U.S. is to preserve its ability to deter its enemies."

This is Part I. In coming weeks, we'll explore what war with China would be like.

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1 Comment for “Focused on Ukraine and Israel, the U.S. Neglects the China Threat”

  1. Tony White

    While the threat which China poses for Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and the United States is obvious, spending money on the military is a huge drain on the country when so many other issues are lacking support, health care, education, infrastructure, climate change solutions and technology. We are already stretched by the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, both humanitarian crises, and that has led to huge protests here and abroad. Increasing the military budget endlessly is not the solution and would be highly unpopular under Biden or Trump.

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