History never repeats, as Mark Twain once said, but it does often rhyme. Even more significant, history can offer crumbs and clues about what the future may hold. Provided an observer is adept enough to separate the wheat from the chaff and draw the proper conclusion. I cannot help but look at the current Sino-US relationship and draw a comparison to Japan-US relations in the spring or summer of 1941. The parallels are there for certain. From an ascendant Asian naval power to a distracted US government and population either unable or unwilling to read the writing on the wall.
In the spring of 1941, the world was at war. Germany had conquered most of continental Europe and had new offensives underway in Yugoslavia and Greece. Preparations were also underway for the invasion of the Soviet Union which would commence in June, 1941. In Southeast Asia, Germany’s successes in Europe prompted Japan to put pressure on European governments. The Dutch agreed to provide Japan with oil from the Dutch East Indies, but nowhere near the amount Japan needed. When Japan sent large numbers of troops into Indochina and threatened British, French and Dutch territories in the Far East, Western nations retaliated with economic sanctions. Namely an oil embargo. Negotiations between the US and Japan to ease the strain on their relations continued on, but were going nowhere. Although US, British and Dutch officials were discussing plans for a joint defense of their Pacific territories, the US and its service branches were not making serious preparations for war. The Japanese, on the other hand, were.
The state of the US Navy by summer of 1941 was regrettable. The Pacific Fleet was making plans to fight a naval war in the Pacific centered on the fleet’s battleships, not its aircraft carriers. It was clear by this point, however, that the future of naval warfare would revolve around the carrier and not the battleship. US doctrine being developed at the time supported this and at the Naval War College in Newport, officers were developing the tactics and training to fight this new carrier war. It is useful to remember, though, that even though the NWC had the correct idea about how naval warfare would pan out in the coming war, the US Navy was hardly prepared in summer of 1941 to take on the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Fast forward to the present day. China has assumed the role of ascendant Asian power and its navy is reaping the benefits. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is now the largest navy in the world. Shipbuilding is nothing short of a national priority. Every month new warships join the fleet in ever-increasing numbers. Curiously, China’s naval ascent has not raised alarms within the US Navy or the United States government. A sense of complacency seems to have settled over Washington. US military leaders and politicians are convinced the qualitative edge of the US Navy will be more than sufficient to neutralize China’s quantitative advantage in the event of a war in the Western Pacific. Therefore, US admirals and politicians continue to wage budget battles and strive to lay the groundwork for less-than-substantial naval buildup and modernization that may not be completed before the shooting starts.
Author’s Note: This was the introductory post of a 2-3 part series on the US Navy’s preparations ..or lack thereof…to fight and win a potential naval war against China in the next 5-10 years. The next entry will be posted on Easter Monday.
With Sri Lanka bankrupt and remaining politically unstable, China looks prepared to move in and take advantage of the situation. Earlier in the week a Chinese flagged vessel arrived in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, a facility constructed by Sri Lanka through Chinese loans. The port never lived up to its potential, Colombo defaulted, and China took over port operations in 2017 with a 99-year lease. Since then, there has been growing concern that China will use the infrastructure it helped build in Sri Lanka, and other nations around Asia, for military purposes. In fact, even though the ship that arrived this week is called a scientific research vessel by Beijing, its real purpose is more nefarious. The Yuan Wang 5 is a PLAN ship used to track satellites and missiles. Hambantota is of little use to Sri Lanka, but it can be used for military purposes and Yuan Wang 5’s arrival could signal a change in China’s stance in the aftermath of heightened tensions with the US over Taiwan as well as domestic and economic concerns at home.
There has always been concern in the West over China’s heavy infrastructure investments across the globe since the early 2000s. Airports, seaports, roads and bridges have been built in many countries through Chinese loans. With its foreign debt crisis mounting, China appears set to assume operational control of many facilities. Sri Lanka might only be the beginning. This infrastructure can quite easily be modified to handle military roles in areas of the world where China has never had a military presence before. Aside from Asia, China has also invested heavily in areas of the Middle East, Africa and is making inroads into the South Pacific. The growing presence and influence in places such as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are especially alarming and hold significant military implications in the Pacific for the United States and may of its allies in the region.
The process might be commencing in Sri Lanka with the arrival of Yuan Wang 5, but in all likelihood we will see considerably more activity in other locations around the world soon.
We are at a pivotal moment in history as the consequences of a global pandemic have created turbulent waters in a wide variety of areas from international trade to socio-economic concerns. China’s increasingly assertive nature has been regarded as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the past eighteen months. However, the fact of the matter is that China’s emergence was preordained by two decades of inconsistent and short-sighted US policies and actions. As I mentioned over the past weekend, China has reached a point now where it confidently views itself to be an ascendant superpower, while regarding the United States as a declining power. This new ethos, whether an accurate assessment of the global picture or not, raises the prospect of the People’s Republic of China resorting to military force in to achieve its expansionist-minded ambitions.
The writing has been on the wall for quite some time. For the United States military, the prospect of having to square off against China is hardly new, whether Washington is keen to admit it or not. Unfortunately, the current condition of the US military leaves much to be desired. On the surface, its branches make up the most powerful military force that the world has ever known. With a potential war with China on the horizon, the Pentagon’s priorities are out of order. Rather than concentrating on repairing readiness issues and preparing for the next war, the current Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their civilian leaders in the Defense Department are fixated with implementing ‘woke’ and socially popular policies upon the troops. Even more damning is the fact that every effort to construct and implement a sound doctrine for conducting a future war in the Western Pacific region against the People’s Republic of China has been stillborn or developed into a half-baked abortion of failed past tactics and amateurish concepts on the future of warfare that its growth was stunted.
The failed efforts of the Pentagon, and the dangers of the US entering into a conflict against a near-peer opponent without a plan to win will be discussed at length through 2-3 entries next week. I have not forgotten about North Korea and will return to it by Christmas. But for now, exploring the troubles facing US military efforts to develop both a doctrine and the forces necessary to defeat Chinese forces in a future war seems a more pertinent research topic for November.
Monday marked the start of the world’s largest international naval exercise off the coast of Hawaii. RIMPAC 2020 is a large multi-national biennial exercise hosted by the United States. The US Navy, are joined in the exercise by warships, aircraft, and submarines from the Pacific Rim nations. RIMPAC promotes regional stability, and interoperability among the navies. The COVID-19 pandemic is having an effect on the exercise this year. All of the exercise will be held at sea. All visiting ships needing to make logistical stopovers at Pearl Harbor prior to the exercise have done so. No personnel were permitted to leave their respective ships.
The number of nations sending warships to attend is less than fifty percent than in 2018. Predictably China is not taking part this year, and Taiwan was not extended an invite. Many close US allies in the region, and around the world are participating though. South Korea, Canada, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, New Zealand, Brunei and France have all sent ships to Hawaii for RIMPAC 2020.
Current world events will keep the attention off of RIMPAC this year, which is somewhat ironic given the growing Sino-US tensions in the Western Pacific, and the continuing importance of the entire Pacific region. And although this year’s exercise is not as large as normal, it will focus primarily on warfighting. “This year we will focus solely on warfighting in the maritime domain, to include anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and maritime interdiction operations, as well as some robust live-fire events,” said Vice Adm. Scott Conn, commander of U.S. Navy 3rd Fleet.
With President Trump essentially calling him out in front of the UN earlier this week, and the sanction noose tightening even more so, it was only a matter of time before the world heard from Kim Jong Un. In a recalcitrant personal statement released Thursday, Kim resorted to a creative blend of name calling. He referred to Trump as a ‘mentally deranged US dotard’ and claimed he was greatly insulted by the president’s speech to the UN General Assembly. Responding to Trump’s promise to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea should it launch a nuclear missile at the US, Kim vowed to take the ‘highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.’
Not long after Kim’s statement, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho delivered prepared remarks from his hotel in New York City. He hinted that North Korea might possibly conduct the ‘biggest ever hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific.’ It is not likely that the North has perfected a hydrogen device yet. Even if North Korea had a hydrogen weapon in its possession staging an atmospheric nuclear test is far beyond that nation’s current and future projected capabilities. The threat itself, though, remains significant as it marks an escalation in the current deadlock with the United States. By issuing a personal statement in his own name, Kim Jong Un transformed the crisis into an affair of honor between himself and President Trump.
He has now staked his reputation on confronting Trump and the United States, making Kim more unlikely to back down. Kim will probably now use the escalating rhetoric as reason to conduct more ballistic missile and nuclear tests. These will be seen by the US as proof of the continued progress of the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Further, additional tests at this point will portray Pyongyang as being indifferent to the economic and diplomatic penalties that have been placed on North Korea. That is where the true danger is right now. If sanctions and diplomatic pressure are not working effectively, it only brings the military option closer to being put in play.
This is brinkmanship combined with the cult of personality surrounding the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Nothing good can come of this. Right now, the chances of a peaceful resolution to the North Korean crisis are just below fifty percent and dropping.