‘The United States (US) has invaded China’. This would certainly be the message that Chinese President Xi Jin Ping will tell to the Chinese masses if ever US President Donald Trump makes good on his threat to blockade Chinese-controlled artificial islands in the South China Sea.
It would be a statement that accurately reflects the view China has of its islands in the South China Sea and it would reverberate around the world to billions of people who trace their lineage back to China. Its effect is likely to be more galvanising and divisive than any call by Muslim terror groups to date.
Previously believed to be far-fetched, a war between the two powers is an increasing possibility with the new hardline approach taken by the Trump Administration on China and the steadfast, uncompromising position the Chinese have taken in almost every territorial dispute it has ever been involved in.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during his confirmation hearings, threatened to block Chinese access to the artificial islands it built in the area. His boss, Mr Trump, followed that up with his own belligerent statements aimed at the Chinese. Chinese state media lashed back, saying that the US better prepare for a war if they blockade those islands.(See: With TPP Trumped, Finalisation of RCEP More Urgent as War Drums Beat).
Mr Trump’s rapid implementation of his “Muslim ban” along with attacks on other Obama administration policies confirms that he “walks the talk”, and his bluster is not empty rhetoric. The only question now is when will he get around to implementing the promised naval blockade?
If news reports are to be believed both sides are now gearing up for a limited war.
According to a report in the military site Naval Technology, a carrier strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is on its way to join two carrier battle groups already in the South China Sea, implying that the US is gearing up for “something big” there.
A Monumental Logistics Problem For The US
Engaging in war far from home will always be a logistical nightmare, even for the US which has the ability to conduct sustained, extended range maritime operations.
One only needs to look at the British experience during the Falklands War to get a clear view of logistical difficulties of waging a war far from home.
The US has bases in Korea and Japan, while Singapore and Australia allow it to use their territories as staging areas for military operations. But a war with China will likely force these countries to remain neutral due to their own extensive trade ties with China.
While it would be a major beneficiary from a US victory in a South China Sea conflict, the Philippines is also unlikely to offer its territory as a staging area given the Duterte Administration’s ever deepening relationship with China, despite the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
The same can likely be said of other US allies in the region such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Thailand, despite the latter and the US set to jointly host the 36th annual Cobra Gold military exercises in the name of promoting ‘international cooperation and stability within the region’ later this month.
While Thailand allowed the US to use its air bases to launch bombing attacks during its war with Vietnam, it is unlikely to be involved in a US-China war for the same reasons as the Philippines. The Chinese are good trading partners and good providers of aid, without the annoyance of human rights clauses, or good governance restrictions. The plethora of mutual defence treaties and agreements the US has in the region are also likely to be meaningless if push comes to shove.
The alternative for the US is to use staging bases farther away from the area such as Palau (2,367km/ 1,470 miles away), Guam (3,275km/ 2,035 miles), Saipan (3,355km/ 2,084 miles), or Hawaii (9,422km/ 5,854 miles).
The US can also send supply ships and tankers to accompany its fleet, but that would require a lot of them and they would be vulnerable to Chinese attacks from the air and sea. The US 7th Fleet, which will be at the forefront in any South China Sea conflict, has 60 to 70 ships, 300 aircraft, and 40,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel – which is a lot of vessels, aircraft, and people to keep supplied.
Chinese Preparedness And Capability To Wage A Limited War
Given that China regards the South China Sea and most of the islands within as sovereign territory there is little question that China will go to war over them… and has been preparing for such eventuality for a very long time.
China has been building up its military, particularly air and naval assets, with an eye on simmering maritime territorial disputes with its neighbours for years.
Just last month it sent its sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to the South China Sea to conduct war games, which has been interpreted as preparing the ship for use in the area in the event of hostilities.
China is also said to have completed putting up permanent structures on many of the islands it controls in the Paracels and Spratlys, which are also wholly or partly claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
While China will have the advantage of shorter supply lines and ample information on the seabed in the areas surrounding the South China Sea as a result of participating in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, its military is still not ready at this time to challenge the US in the South China Sea.
One problem it faces is the ability to mount sustained air operations over the South China Sea from air bases in Hainan island and the Chinese mainland due to limited aerial-refueling capabilities (despite the purchase of several IL-78 “Midas” tankers from the Ukraine) and a lack of interceptors and attack aircraft configured for aerial-refueling with the exception of its Russian-made Su-30 jets.
The presence of airstrips and weapons such as the HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) on some of the islands in the Spratly islands and Paracel islands is of little tactical value and these can be easily be neutralized by Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from US submarines and warships up to up to 1,700km (1056 miles) away.
Save for harassment raids by its few modern Kilo-Class submarines and Type 052D guided-missile destroyers, the Chinese Navyis also ill-equipped to fight the powerful US 7th Fleet.
While China is expected to lose badly if it fights the US over the South China Sea, perhaps the biggest casualty will the long established cordial relationships between individual Asean Community members and the US.
- PREPARING FOR WAR China set to ‘place nukes on its border with Russia’ – as chilling satellite images ‘show secret anti-aircraft guns on South China Sea islands’ (The Sun)
- China’s Air Force: Just a Paper Tiger (Or Ready for War with America)? (National Interest)
- US-China war increasingly a ‘reality,’ Chinese army official says (CNBC)