Following the pre-G20 meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as Xi’s apparent diplomatic outreach at the G20, China’s defense ministry is open to meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a gathering of ASEAN defense ministers in Cambodia set for Tuesday or Wednesday. An actual meeting between Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe has not been officially scheduled, but it does seem likely the two defense chiefs will meet while in Cambodia. Austin and Wei have not met or communicated since China suspended dialogue with the US in August after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. On the surface this appears to be the latest indication that relations between the US and China are moving in a more positive direction now.
Whether this holds true remains to be seen, but it’s evident that Beijing wants to at least be viewed as seeking a more productive relationship with the US and nations in the Western Pacific. For the domestic audience it portrays an image of China being treated as an equal. This has the potential to provide much needed political dividends for Xi down the line as the future of COVID-19 restrictions remains fluid. On the international stage the image of a less assertive and belligerent China should give Xi a temporary buffer and allow him to either deal with the slew of domestic matters or set the stage for the next phase of maneuvers on the geopolitical chessboard. Or both, perhaps.
Sino-US relations continue to deteriorate and storm clouds continue to gather on the horizon on the Western Pacific. To the surprise of many, the US Navy is only now starting to accept the possibility of a new Pacific War breaking out in the near future. In the same manner of Rip Van winkle, the US Navy is emerging from its extended slumber and coming to terms with a changed world and evolving threats. The reasons for the slumber are numerous and spurred by non-similar root causes ranging from a two-decade long Global War on Terror, budgetary constraints, broken-down procurement, and ship building programs. Last but hardly least is the reckless complacency that the ensconced the Navy since the end of the Cold War.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is growing by leaps and bounds. China has put together a navy intended to not only spearhead an effort to reclaim Taiwan, but also to challenge the US Navy and American allies on seas east of the Second Island Chain. The modern-day PLAN is a blue water navy in nearly every respect, having become the greatest threat to American supremacy of the seas in decades.
As the US Navy moves to address its current deficiencies and face the threat posed by China’s navy, it needs to keep in mind the importance of sound training centered on fighting and winning a modern war at sea. Many officers and senior NCOs cut their teeth in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons and experiences drawn from these conflicts are inapplicable to fighting a modern-day war against a near-peer opponent. In short, the lost art of naval warfare will need to be relearned service wide.
Designing an effective doctrine to fight and win a war against China has proved to be difficult too. This is a military-wide problem with every service branch focusing on its own role in a future war, not looking at the big picture. AirSea Battle became the grand strategy in 2010, only to be replaced five years later by Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), which is the same basic doctrine. However, since 2015 scant attention has been paid to overhauling and updating the doctrine to contend with the growing power and reach of the PLAN and PLAAF. With the Navy growing more concerned about the prospect of having to fight China at some point before 2025, doctrine development needs to become a major priority for leadership.
In the last few months as the Western Pacific has heated up and fighting in Ukraine continues, a number of prominent Western geopolitical and defense analysts, along with an equal number of their less-than-prominent OSINT counterparts have attempted to take a number of lessons learned in the Russia-Ukraine War and transfer them to the deteriorating situation in the Western Pacific. More precisely, onto China’s rise and recent shift to aggressive posturing as well as onto a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict in the near future.
Geopolitically speaking, China in the Western Pacific and Russia/Ukraine are two completely different animals that share few similar parts. This is clear from the first comparison and has been discussed to death here, in academic IR journals and in government reports from around the world. There’s no point beating a dead horse, so to speak. However, there are other geopolitical aspects where the similarities and difference between the Western Pacific and Ukraine are not as clear, leaving them open to interpretation and theory from professionals and amateurs alike. This is the area that the geopolitical crowd has identified as best suited to take Russia/Ukraine lessons and transfer them to China/WestPac. A practice that’s become akin to fitting a round peg in a square hole.
On the military side of the equation the game is similar. Analysts and OSINT ‘experts’ are trying desperately to evaluate the lessons being learned in the Russia-Ukraine War and break them down to fit a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict or China-US Great Power conflict taking place at some point in the next twelve months. In this area the differences between amateur and professional is unequivocal. On one hand, the professionals have a dearth of knowledge as well as experience to draw from when putting together a plausible model to support their theories. The amateurs (OSINT) are starved for experience and formal education of military matters. Most of these folks are veterans and knowledgeable in their respective fields, such as infantry or cyberwarfare. Their inability or reluctance to contextualize tactical lessons and apply their value to the strategic picture ends up being their undoing in many instances.
In spite of the disparities between professional defense analysts and their OSINT counterparts, they share a common quirk. A startling number of people from each group have found themselves caught up in the moment, so to speak, and issuing bold prognostications about the future of warfare with conclusions reliant almost entirely upon the latest news releases from the Ukrainian battlefield. Irresponsible behavior at best, simple laziness at worst. Especially when one remembers that in the first months of the war, Western media outlets were receiving their information directly from the Ukrainian government and military and often reporting it word for word. The kill numbers being reported, in both men and material, were significantly inflated, as initial numbers usually are. Fog of war and all of that.
I intend to delve into some of the geopolitical and military lessons from Ukraine that are being translated both properly and improperly for use in the Western Pacific in the coming month. I’d give a more accurate timeline for when these posts will be published, but as many readers are aware, this act usually backfires on me. This time I’ll play it safe 😊 Besides, with the unstable and uncertain world we’re dealing with at present it’s probably best not to commit to a firm schedule. Lord only knows what crisis will pop up next, or where.
Over the last week, comments made by senior US government officials and general officers indicate the United States is taking seriously the prospect of China moving faster than earlier thought to take Taiwan. After Xi Jinping said at the Communist Party Congress that the PRC reserves the “option to take all necessary measures” to reunify with Taiwan the warning was sounded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The secretary said Beijing has made the “fundamental decision that the status quo is no longer acceptable” and China is now pursuing “reunification on a much faster timeline.” On Friday, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday picked up where Blinken left off. He stated at the Atlantic Council that the US needs to be prepared for a possible Chinese military move to be made against Taiwan by 2024. Perhaps even by the end of this year.
Gilday’s warning flies in the face of estimates and forecasts that China will not be prepared to move against Taiwan until 2027. The 2027 window has become embedded into the thinking and planning of the US military and intelligence community. Since the Pelosi Trip to Taiwan back in August, circumstances have changed somewhat. Beijing wasted little time in flexing its military muscle in the air and sea space surrounding the island nation. It became clear the Chinese government was moving to permanently alter the status quo. With the Chinese Communist Party Congress coming to a close this weekend and Xi Jinping seeming to have been successful in consolidating his hold on power, the warnings by US officials might indicate growing concern about Xi and his intentions.
Or the warnings could be more self-serving, at least on the part of Gilday. An attempt to cover his own failings as CNO with the prospect of war growing larger amid global geopolitical uncertainty. The current condition of the US Navy is not good, to put it bluntly. Readiness issues, a shipbuilding program dominated by political considerations and lack of a coherent doctrine for taking on a near-peer opponent in the air and at sea plague the service. China, on the other hand, has been preparing the PLAN and PLAAF for an eventual confrontation with the US Navy in the Western Pacific. While Gilday promotes a woke culture and readiness plummets, China is pumping out warships and submarines from its shipyards like hotcakes and focusing on the US Navy as its main enemy.
Russia wasted little time in responding to Ukraine’s “terrorist attack” against the Kerch Strait Bridge. Early this morning Russian forces executed a well-coordinated and massive missile strike against targets across Ukraine. “This morning, a massive high-precision strike was conducted on Ukrainian energy infrastructure, military command, and communications,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a video address to his security advisors. “In case Ukrainian terrorist attacks continue on Russian territory, our response will be tough and proportional.” Infrastructure and military targets were struck from Kiev (Kyiv) to Lvov. Over fifteen Ukrainian cities were struck this morning.
Despite Putin’s claims that the targets were military and infrastructure, the Ukrainian government says otherwise. Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskiy said in a video posted to social media that the Russians are “Choosing targets to harm as many people as possible.”
There could be some truth to this. However, Zelenskiy has a well-known penchant for exaggeration. Civilian infrastructure and communications nodes are legitimate targets of war. Ukraine’s own attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge took place at a moment when there appeared to be civilian traffic going across the span. This did not make the bridge any less of a legitimate target.
The attacks, mostly carried out by cruise missiles, have resulted in large-scale power and communications outages around Ukraine. Air raid warnings went off through the day, sending Ukrainian citizens to basements and bomb shelters in scenes reminiscent of the war’s first days. It is not clear if today’s strikes will be followed up by further attacks in the coming days and hours. Putin promises proportionate responses to future attacks on Russian soil, so at first look these missile attacks look to be a one-day affair. Yet if Russia senses real success building as a result of today’s action, expect to see similar strikes in the near future.