Western Pacific Update 5 August, 2022

  • Tensions remain on the rise in the Western Pacific as Chinese naval and air exercises in and around Taiwan continue ramping up. Today, 68 aircraft and 15 surface vessels were involved in maneuvers. Some Chinese aircraft and ships even crossed the median line. Today saw the largest number of Chinese aircraft operating over Taiwan straits in a 24 hour period ever. Taiwanese government officials have warned again that China’s increasingly aggressive actions are threatening the stability of Taiwan Strait and the region.
  • Yesterday, the White House summoned China’s ambassador to the United States. The purpose of the meeting was for the Biden administration to condemn China’s military exercises that began in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has halted military and climate change dialogue with the US in response to her visit as Beijing is showing no restraint in adopting a hardline stance.
  • The Pentagon has ordered the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts to remain in the region to monitor Chinese operations in and around Taiwan. US Navy warships and aircraft are expected to begin operating in Taiwan Strait waters next week or sooner. It is not clear if they will begin operations during Chinese maneuvers, which are scheduled to end on Sunday.

The US Military Is Woefully Unprepared To Fight The Next War

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.

China’s Evergrande Debt Crisis

The debt crisis now threatening to overwhelm property developer Evergrande arrives at a decidedly inauspicious time for China. With the national economy continuing to slow, the prospect of an economic crisis centered on a Chinese entity is quite real. Global markets sense it and investors are preparing for the ripple effects. Last week, Fitch Ratings agency downgraded its forecast for China’s economic growth, citing the slowdown in the property sector as the prime contributing factor. Evergrande has been in trouble for some time now and its current problems did not arrive out of nowhere. In fact, alarm bells have been sounding for years over the state of the Chinese property market.

All eyes are focusing on Xi Jinping now as it becomes clear the Chinese government will likely have to intervene. To put it simply, Beijing cannot stand on the sidelines and permit a chaotic default where citizens lose large sums of money. Allowing that could cause a ripple effect in other sectors of the national economy, another prospect Beijing cannot allow. As a hedge against a worst-case scenario coming about, the Chinese government has ordered local officials to prepare for a potential Evergrande collapse. Local governments and Chinese-owned enterprises are being directed to intercede only if Evergrande is unable to meet its obligations. Some Chinese officials have described the measures as storm preparation.

How Beijing handles the crisis in coming days will set the tone for market behavior. If investors are encouraged by the way the Chinese government handles the Evergrande situation it will minimize the damage and perhaps instill a burst of positivity to China’s national image, which has absorbed considerable damage over the past 18 months.

The Expansion and Modernization of China’s Strategic Forces

For decades the People’s Republic of China has accepted the inferiority of it’s strategic forces when compared to those of the United States and Russia. The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, coupled with the limited amount of damage it could inflict upon an enemy led many experts over the years to question China’s beliefs about nuclear warfare as well as its strategy for fighting one. The overall consensus is that since China exploded its first atomic bomb, the nation’s nuclear posture has been one of minimal deterrence.  In recent years the questions have become louder as China’s nuclear forces undergo modernization and expansion. As a consequence of this, China’s nuclear posture will inevitably shift away from minimal deterrence to one which offers more flexibility and options.

Minimal deterrence is a Western term not frequently used in Chinese military and political circles. In application, minimal deterrence is a doctrine in which a state possesses only enough nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear adversary from undertaking a first strike. It revolves around a no first use policy and the principle that the primary role of nuclear weapons is deterrence. The small size of a state’s nuclear arsenal severely limits the second strike options available to its leadership in the event of an attack. A counterforce second strike is not feasible under minimal deterrence. The only viable option then, is a countervalue second strike aimed at an enemy’s population centers. Realistically, minimal deterrence can only be achieved if the survivability of a state’s nuclear force can be guaranteed.

China’s strategic modernization appears to be the result of a political decision to make China’s nuclear force more survivable in the face of US strategic upgrades.  For years the primary component of Chinese nuclear forces was the liquid fueled, silo based DF-5A ICBM. This changed as the more survivable DF-31A entered into service. The DF-31A is a solid-fuel missile based on a mobile launch system. Hence, it is not restricted to a stationary launch site and can be readied in minimal time, unlike its liquid fueled counterparts.

The newest ICBM to enter Chinese service is the DF-41. This missile can be delivered by mobile launcher or silo and has significantly updated capabilities compared to its predecessors. In August, 2021 it was also reported that China is building new missile fields, with each expected to house over 100 DF-41s in Inner Mongolia. Three fields are expected to be operational at some point in the near future with a total of 350 to 400 new long-range nuclear missiles. If 10 warheads are deployed on each missile, China‘s warhead level will rise to over 4,000 warheads on the DF-41s alone

China’s strategic modernization is not confined to land. At sea, the single Xia class SSBN which was in service since the mid-80s was withdrawn early in the 2010s. The PLAN has replaced it with the Type 094 (Jin Class) ballistic missile submarine. Six are presently in service with more under construction.  As many as ten boats are planned. The Type 094 is a marked upgrade from the Xia.

Modernization of China’s nuclear forces is pacing upgrades to the conventional forces. US interest and concern is understandably high. The primary question at the moment is: what do the new capabilities in Chinese nuclear forces tell of China’s future intentions?

At the very least, it is becoming apparent that minimal deterrence is fast becoming an obsolete doctrine for the People’s Republic of China.

Beijing Moving Ahead With Electoral Changes For Hong Kong

The Chinese government has made official a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system. The changes include restrictions on democratic representation in the city that will help Beijing consolidate its grip over the city-state. Since the passing of the national security law last June, the Chinese government has moved cautiously with regard to Hong Kong. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic the world was watching Chinese actions carefully and Beijing believed it best not to rock the boat. Now, the situation has changed enough for further action to be taken.  

One major change will affect the Hong Kong legislature. The number of directly-elected representatives is going to be reduced to 20 from 35 while the amount of representatives appointed by Beijing will rise considerably. A vetting system will be installed to screen potential candidates for public office. This will allow Chinese government to select candidates who are loyal to Beijing and making certain pro-democracy voices in the city-state are minimized. These measures, coupled with the national security law passed last year, constitute the largest overhaul of Hong Kong’s government and political infrastructure since the handover in 1997. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, herself a figurehead of the Chinese government, has expressed unabashed support for the overhaul. “I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said yesterday. Later in the day, she said the changes will be submitted to the Legislative Council next month and are expected to be fully approved by the end of May.