The US is currently the pre-eminent superpower of the world, possessing the largest economy in terms of nominal GDP and the most powerful military in the world. However, China is fast rising and in light of the rising tensions surrounding Taiwan, the chances of the two coming to blows are greater than ever.
Though the popular belief is that the US would triumph in a conventional war against China in the pacific, simulations made by the US military over the years have pointed to the opposite outcome.
I believe that in a conflict with China, the US would be defeated as long as the war remained confined to the conventional sphere. In this article, I will elucidate my reasoning for this belief.
The military and economic competition between the US and China is shaping up to be the cold war of the 21st century. Every century thus far has featured a contest between two rival countries which ended in one of them emerging triumphant in the grand chessboard and consequently obtaining continental or global domination.
In the 17th century, the contest was between France and Spain, which ended in a French victory. In the 18th century, the contest was between France and Britain, which ended in a British victory. The 19th century featured the great game between Russia and Britain in which Britain emerged triumphantly. The 20th century saw the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, which ended in a US victory. Now the rivalry is between the US and China. And their battleground is Taiwan and the South China sea.
What once seemed like an outlandish prospect is increasingly coming to life. The USMC has recently shed its tank battalions and has reconverted to a rapid deployment infantry force dedicated to amphibious warfare. The US, Japan, Australia, and India have formed the Quad in a bid to encircle the Chinese on multiple fronts.
AUKUS (Australia, UK, and the US) is another initiative at military integration of anglosphere forces in the Pacific Ocean. The recent Australian submarine fiasco has highlighted the anglosphere’s increasing abandonment of Europe. Australia initially gave its 50-billion-dollar submarine contract to France but then stiffed them in favor of US nuclear submarines. This is an attempt at arms compatibility with the US. Japan is also proceeding forward with a massive military buildup, seeking to acquire 104 F-35s from the US and building two new helicopter carriers.
What we are seeing is another iteration of the Thucydides trap. A rapidly rising great power (China) is on the verge of eclipsing the existing superpower (The US). China is already the world’s largest economy in terms of GDP(PPP) and will surpass the US in nominal GDP terms by 2030.
The Chinese are also engaged in a massive naval buildup, adding nearly 625,000 tonnages of ships to its navy. The US navy has acquired lesser tonnage worth of ships however its overall tonnage has remained the same. This is owed to the fact that most US navy ships are very old (on average over 30 years old) and thus fast deprecating. The US has to purchase ships simply to maintain its existing strength. The Chinese ships meanwhile are brand new, featuring modern hull designs geared towards greater stealth. From 2017-to 2021, the Chinese built another 660,000 tons worth of ships in contrast to the US’s 390,000 tons.
Again, the Chinese numbers have more or less wholly added to China’s overall tonnage while the US ships barely keep the existing number.
In the next five years, the Chinese navy intends to build 1,000,000 tons of ships. This dwarves US naval shipbuilding capacity, forget any procurement plans. This means that by 2026, the Chinese navy will match the US navy in tonnage. The Chinese navy is already the most numerous in the world with 360 warships to America’s 297 warships.
However, Chinese ships are lighter, mostly consisting of submarines and corvettes while the US possesses heavier ships and more ocean-going ships like destroyers, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines. Though, the recent Chinese procurements geared toward heavier ships.
So, as we can see, it is inevitable that China will surpass the US in both naval and economic strength in the near future. This would make Washington’s international hegemony impossible to sustain in face of the Chinese dragon.
Control of the seas is essential to becoming a global superpower. He who controls the seas can control the flow of global trade. 85% of world trade happens over the seas and any nation that can block or interdict trade on a global scale can dictate the tides of world politics.
Britain owed its superpower status in the 19th and early 20th century mostly to the fact it had the world’s largest navy by far and could cut any country off from global trade if she so wished it. Thus, in the 19th century, the whole world had to pay court to London and abide by her dictates. The same has been true for the US since the end of the second world war. That naval hegemony is now at stake.
The situation is eerily similar to Britain and Germany in 1913. Germany was rapidly growing both economically and in naval might. It was only a matter of time before she surpassed Britain in both economical and naval strength. This state of affairs was unacceptable to Britain so she sought war with Germany at the earliest opportunity. This came in July of 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The US finds itself in an identical predicament and thus war is likely on the horizon. The Chinese would prefer to delay war as long as possible as they are on track to surpass the US in a business-as-usual scenario. America would like to rush it and force a conflict while they still possess some military edge. However, as both sides have nuclear weapons, it will not be a war of complete subjugation like in the world wars. Nuclear bombs are a weapon of last resort and would only be considered if the survival of the regime is at stake due to defeat in a conventional war.
The immediate US war goal would be to defeat China in the pacific, blockade it, force it to dismantle its fleet, and recognize Taiwanese statehood. Further war goals would be to force China into starvation and compel it to relinquish control over Tibet. Ideally, this defeat would also cause the collapse of the CCP and transform China into an oligarchic democracy similar to the US.
The immediate Chinese war goal would be to defeat the US and its vassals in the South China sea. Conquer Taiwan and the nearby islands. She would aim to deal such a blow to the US navy that it is rendered incapable of blockading China or operating close to Chinese waters. Further war goals would be to establish such naval superiority in the pacific and force Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea to leave the American alliance and expel US troops from their countries.
Due to the distances and the size of populations involved, no side can hope to invade each other on land. Both will naturally seek a decisive victory in conventional war and force a humiliating peace on the other.
The American strategy would be to contain China in the first island chain which consists of the Japanese islands, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The US air force can operate from bases in these countries provide full air coverage over Chinese waters and ensure US naval superiority.
For the time being, the US air force remains the most powerful in the world without much contest, boasting as many as 1813 fighters that are 4+ gen or beyond. It also boasts a further 158 strategic bombers. The US navy also fields another 550 aircraft that are 4+ gen or beyond.
Taiwan is the linchpin of this strategy and forms the central point in the island chain. Taiwan’s position at the intersection of the East China sea and the South China sea makes it a perfect base for airpower projection. Taiwan is also perilously close to the industrialized zones of Southern China.
The vital cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Foshan are all within 850 km of Taipei. The combat range of an F-15E strike eagle is 1250 km. It’s not for nothing that Taiwan is termed as the unsinkable aircraft carrier. If the US can concentrate its airpower in Taiwan, it can bomb China’s industrial heartland to dust.
However, air forces and armies don’t materialize from thin air. The US has no bases in Taiwan and would have to build up its support infrastructure for the USAF from scratch. It would have to build bases, maintenance equipment, stockpile fuel, ammo, and spare parts, and set up its communications equipment first.
This by itself is an arduous task taking months. In the presence of Chinese naval and air operations, this task would be rendered even more difficult. So, the challenge will be for the Chinese to quickly take Taiwan and break the US island chain strategy. The American alliance will attempt to prevent a rapid fall of Taiwan.
This leads us to consider two scenarios: The short war and the long war.
Scenario A: The Short War
In this scenario, we assume that after the fall of Taiwan or the failure to capture it, the sides will no longer wish to continue a war in fear of an escalation to all-out nuclear war and will accept the new reality.
So, we must first consider the immediate forces at play. China as of 2021 has a huge airborne and marine force. Both have as many as 40,000 troops in arms. The Chinese marine corps has as many as six fully manned combined arms brigades and has over 200 auxiliary ships to carry them. The PLAN also has 2 amphibious landing docks, 8
amphibious transport docks, and 33 amphibious assault ships. The Chinese airborne corps also has another 40,000 troops at its disposal and it also fields 6 airborne brigades.
Mind you these are just the elite troops of the Chinese military and no doubt contains its best soldiers and equipment. The entire Taiwanese army only has 130,000 troops. The Chinese army in addition has another 975,000 troops in its active army. Though obviously, the entire ground army can’t be dedicated to the Taiwanese campaign as many will have to be kept back to guard the Indian, South Korean, and Russian borders just in
However, the Chinese airborne and marine forces will primarily be tasked with forming and holding beachheads and airheads which could be further expanded by incoming Chinese army reinforcements. The Chinese air force is also a formidable beast now. The PLAAF boats over 984 fighters that are 4+ gen or above. It boasts some of the most advanced air-to-air missiles in the world like the PL-15 which features an active phased array seeker.
The Chinese navy contributes a further 143 modern fighters. The Taiwanese air force is nowhere near as impressive boasting only 217 fighters that are 4+ gen or above. However, the Taiwanese air force will not be the main opponent for the PLAAF in its Taiwan campaign. The main opponent will be the US naval air force.
Taiwan is a mere 160 km from the Chinese coast at its narrowest and 400 km at its widest. The Chinese have developed very long-range MLRS systems that can strike anywhere in Taiwan with impunity.
The PHL-03 MLRS system has a range of 160 km and can fire massive 300 mm rockets.
The WS-01B MLRS system has a range of 180 km and can fire 302 mm rockets.
The WS-02B/C/D MLRS systems range from 200 km, 350 km, and 400 km. They can
fire 400 mm rockets.
So, the Chinese can effectively cover the entirety of Taiwan with conventional rocket artillery. This means the Taiwanese air force will either be destroyed on the ground or suppressed by Chinese artillery. Rocket artillery lobs cheap rockets that can be easily mass-produced and have vast area damage. Saturation barrages of cheap unguided rockets can easily overwhelm short-range air defenses.
The Chinese also have a huge intelligence advantage over the Taiwanese. Some 40% of the Taiwanese population is pro-China and CCP spies have infiltrated the country for decades. Furthermore, the advent of improved fire control systems and satellite GPS guidance has greatly improved the lethality of rocket artillery as of late. The Russians demonstrated this in 2014 when a single Russian Tornado-G battalion destroyed two Ukrainian mechanized battalions in the space of 40 minutes.
In addition to artillery suppression, the Chinese have 6 battalions of S-400 SAM systems. From the Chinese coast, these systems can cover the entirety of Taiwan and further incapacitate the Taiwanese air force. Thus, the main task of providing air cover for Taiwan will fall on the carrier air wings of the US navy.
Here is the hairy part. The US navy has 11 aircraft carriers in service. However, at any one time, at least 4 of them are in maintenance. In case of a war with China, it will need to keep at least two carrier groups close to its shores for protection or in reserve to discourage adversaries elsewhere.
So, at most, the US navy can deploy 5 carriers at a time to the South China sea. The carriers can each deploy 42 aircraft. The F-35C is not yet operational in significant numbers, so the USN will mostly field F/A-18 variants, primarily the Super Hornet. So, at most, the US navy will have 210 modern fighters over Taiwan. The Chinese can have over 900. In addition, the US aircraft will also have to brave Chinese air defenses like the S-400.
In addition, the Chinese also have another 200 strategic bombers that can carry cruise missiles to attack US Navy ships, and perform strategic bombings against Taiwan. Sortie rates for carrier-borne aircraft are already lower than land-based aircraft and in addition, the US aircraft will enjoy fewer hours over Taiwan. To avoid Chinese coastal missile batteries and air-launched anti-ship missiles, the US carriers will have to stay at least 400 km
away from Taiwan. The F/A-18 Super Hornet only has a combat radius of 700km.
The pentagon will hope that the Taiwanese can hold off the Chinese invasion long enough for the US and Japan to send adequate ground forces to Taiwan and sufficiently build up airpower in the northern Philippines. Whether the Philippines would even allow the US to bring its forces into its country is debatable as President Duterte has expressed anti-American sentiments in recent years.
This is probably a forlorn hope as we can see, the Chinese would enjoy huge air superiority and fire superiority over Taiwan in the opening months of the war.
Another wild card is the Chinese hypersonic missile, the DF-21. Now to clarify, hypersonic missiles are overhyped. Whether they can hit moving targets is uncertain. At hypersonic speeds, the missiles are covered by a plasma sheath that prevents the missiles from using their radars. Without radars for terminal guidance, it is difficult for missiles to hit moving targets like ships. However, they are quite well suited for hitting static targets like Taiwanese airbases or other US bases nearby.
All this does not even consider the fact that US naval aviation has abysmal combat readiness rates. In 2017, a damning report showed that 53% of US naval aircraft can’t fly due to a lack of maintenance and spare parts. The US navy is greatly overstretched and its personnel is constantly overworked as they are forced to serve as a global naval police force. And if the situation looks grim for the US and Taiwan now, we have not even considered the balance of naval power.
The Chinese naval force is as follows:
- 48 frigates
- 56 diesel-attack submarines
- 51 corvettes
- 32 destroyers
- 9 nuclear attack submarines
- 6 nuclear ballistic missile submarines
- 2 aircraft carriers
- 1 cruiser.
The US naval force is as follows:
- 11 Aircraft carriers
- 115 Large Surface combatants
- 68 Nuclear Submarines
The Chinese have 131 surface combatants to the US navy’s 115 and 71 submarines to the US navy’s 68. The Chinese already surpass the US navy in numbers but not in tonnage. Furthermore, all the US navy’s submarines are nuclear-powered. Nuclear-powered subs have a longer range and endurance but are much noisier. The Chinese mostly have diesel-powered subs, these have less range and endurance but significantly better stealth.
However, the lack of tonnage is not a problem for China. The US has an advantage in the oceans far from the coastline however, the Taiwanese war will happen very close to the Chinese coasts. The Chinese have accomplished what the US navy calls distributed lethality.
They have a large number of smaller ships that can carry deadly anti-ship missiles. A modern anti-ship missile will cripple a huge US destroyer just like it will destroy a small Chinese corvette. In a missile exchange, China’s smaller but more numerous ships have the advantage. The US would have the advantage if the combat moved to the high seas but the Chinese have no need to venture that far.
Chinese subs operating near home waters could also wreak devastation on American and Japanese merchant ships and warships. Another huge advantage the PLAN holds is that it is focused entirely on the west pacific, in the battle zone. The US navy is deployed all across the world and is forced to keep forces in the middle east to guard Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran and to dissuade Russia in Europe.
So, it’s quite likely that the PLAN would be able to successfully blockade Taiwan and prevent the Japanese or the Americans from sending reinforcements or supplies. This is made more probable if we consider the fact that the Chinese will enjoy air superiority over the region and can cover the whole sector with their ground-based SAMs.
But all this is putting the cart before the horse. As I said before, armies don’t materialize from thin air. They need vast supply chains to deploy and sustain. The US was able to sustain a 5 million strong force away from US shores in WW2 because it built over 3500 merchant ships in that great conflict.
Well, in 2021, the US merchant fleet is all but dead thanks to oppressive taxation, regulation, and corporate greed. Only 182 ships with more than 1000 ton carrying capacity and ocean-going capabilities flew under the US flag as recently as 2019. Almost all of these ships engage in domestic American trade and are of vital economic importance.
So, they can’t be drafted into the navy. The US federal government’s organic fleet of military sealift vessels is too small to sustain supply operations in support of a prolonged conflict without being augmented by commercial ships. Plus, the pentagon would in the case of war rely heavily on merchant mariners drafted from the commercial sector.
As most of the commercial ships are already irreplaceable due to their vital economic role, the mariners can’t be drafted for the US navy. So, the US navy merchant fleet would suffer sailor shortages from day one. In any case, merchant mariners are a dying species in the US as companies make every effort to avoid hiring expensive American mariners and fewer and fewer young men choose the harsh livelihood. And the ships that do exist in the pentagon’s merchant fleet are on average 50 years old. As Loren Thompson observed: “A war might be lost for no better reason than the absence of available shipping, even though Washington greatly outspends countries like Russia and China on military forces”.
So, as we can see, the US has little chance of stopping China from invading and successfully conquering Taiwan due to the multitude of issues. In all likelihood, the Chinese would take Taiwan in a month or two and the US would be
forced to sue for peace. The Island chain would be broken and the entirety of the South China Sea and the East China sea would be laid bare to Chinese air attacks from newly captured Taiwanese airbases.
It will be impossible for the US to fully blockade China or mount a successful strategic bombing of its industrial heart in the South. In the short war scenario, I predict a resounding victory for China.
Scenario B: The Long War
This scenario assumes that even after the fall of Taiwan, the US, UK, Japan, and Australia would continue the war against China. The American goal here would be to force China to relinquish Taiwan and accept peace on its terms. It will attempt to do this via a strategic bombing campaign of China from the Kyushu islands and a distant naval blockade far away from Chinese shores. They could blockade Chinese trade by placing its forces in the seas between Vietnam and Malaysia and also the waters between Malaysia and the Philippines.
In the immediate term, this aerial bombing and naval blockade could prove to be very successful. Shanghai is only 890 km from the Kyushu islands and the USAF can feasibly mount heavy strikes against it. However, it would still be an arduous task, even with its F-35s as they would have to brave multiple lines of Chinese air defenses in the form of Surface ship SAM systems, Ground-based SAM systems, and the Chinese fighter force. Since the Chinese will be on the defensive, the PLAAF will have the advantage of greater air coverage and situational awareness thanks to ground-based early warning systems and AWACs.
Furthermore, the Chinese will hardly sit by and let the US air force operate unimpeded from Kyushu. In all likelihood, US bases in the region will be subjected to thousands of strikes by long-range cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles.
The naval blockade could prove to be quite serious however as China does import a lot of raw materials, particularly oil and coal from abroad. The Chinese would be forced to introduce rationing and mobilize to a war economy. China is a totalitarian state so it is much easier for her to do so.
American attempts to starve China will largely fail thanks to China’s big ally to the North: Russia. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, the second-largest exporter of oil, the largest producer and exporter of natural gas, and the sixth-largest producer of coal. And Russia would be all too happy to get rich by selling China its resources.
China has over 3000 tons of gold reserves and can pay the Russians to their heart’s content. In any case, the Russians would help enthusiastically as a Chinese defeat would further isolate them on the world stage. The Russians and the Chinese are allies and have planned a 400-billion-dollar oil and gas pipeline from Russia to China. The Russians wouldn’t join the war, but they would certainly sell them arms, food, mineral resources, and petroleum to sustain the war.
With help from Chinese engineering firms, it would not be too hard for them to rapidly expand trade and road links to the Chinese border. China can similarly import food, gas, and oil from central Asia with which it enjoys a land border. The Chinese strategy would be to force Japan out of the war by similarly launching a strategic bombing campaign and starving it via naval operations. The Chinese would likely resort to a submarine campaign against Japan to starve it of resources. Japan is a very resource-poor country and relies on imports for everything ranging from food to arms to iron ore and fossil fuels.
Unlike WW2 however, submarines are far more deadly in the present day. Thanks to the advent of guided missiles, Chinese subs would be able to safely attack allied merchant ships from hundreds of kilometers away. Merchant ships are noisy vessels and can easily be tracked by passive sonar from great distances
The same issue is faced by aircraft carriers. Chinese subs are estimated to be just 10 years behind the US in submarine technology and are fast closing the gap. Chinese strategic bombers can also launch long-range anti-ship missiles against allied merchant shipping to Japan.
In any case, the war would now come down to industrial production like WW2 and here, the Chinese blow the US out of the water. I am going to show you some basic stats on vital industrial resource production to drive home the point.
Steel is the backbone of the war industry. Everything from ships to subs, artillery, rifles, tanks, and automobiles rely on steel. The US outproduced all other combatants in WW2 mainly because it had the largest steel industry on earth to build all that equipment. The Ruhr bombings in 1943 halved German military production that year by simply
destroying German steel mills in the Ruhr region.
- US steel production in 2020 = 72.7 million tons.
- Chinese steel production in 2020 = 1064.8 million tons.
Vital for aircraft production.
- US aluminum production in 2020 = 1.1 million tons.
- Chinese aluminum production in 2020 = 36 million tons
- US automobile production in 2020 = 8,822,399 units
- Chinese automobile production in 2020 = 25,225,242 units
- US ship production in 2020 = 71,289 gross tonnage
- Chinese ship production in 2020 = 23,257,200 gross tonnage
So, the writing on the wall is clear. If the war devolved into a long total war like WW2(highly unlikely btw), the Chinese would massively outproduce the US and ultimately overwhelm Japan and the US through attrition.
China also has more than twice the population of Japan, the US, the UK, and Australia combined. So, for all these reasons, I believe that the US cannot prevail over China in a long war either.
So, as we can see, the tides do not bode well for the US and her allies. America had a great run as a global superpower, but I fear her days are numbered. Material and geographic realities have finally caught onto her, and the days when Washington could command obedience wherever the sound of crashing waves could be heard are numbered. Yet, let us hope that we never have to test this hypothesis in the real world.