As expected, the China war prognostication talk ramped up over the weekend following a memo released on Friday by Air Mobility Command’s commanding general urging his officers to prepare for a war against China in the near future. Now on Monday morning, some US politicians are coming out in support of the AMC memo while the first signs of Chinese discontent are appearing on pro-China internet news sites. Recently, a handful of former and current US general officers have publicly warned that China appears to be moving nearer to using its military power against Taiwan and perhaps in other areas of the Western Pacific as well. It remains to be seen if these warnings will assimilate into a wakeup call for the United States or if they will go unheeded.
Realistically speaking, the prospect of a military conflict between the United States and China continues to rise with every passing week. Although the US has been preparing for a potential war with China in the Western Pacific, the arrangements have so far lacked a unifying element comparable to what was found in US military doctrines during the later years of the Cold War. Specifically, I’m referring to the US Navy’s Maritime Strategy and the combined US Army/USAF Airland Battle 2000. From the start these doctrines identified the Soviet Union as the adversary in the North Atlantic and in Western Europe respectively. Ten years ago, US attempts to fashion a doctrine for wartime operations in the Western Pacific created AirSea Battle, a combined US Navy/USAF plan to counter China’s increasing anti-access/area deniability. AirSea Battle evolved into JAM GC, the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. JAM GC was intended to build upon the foundation of AirSea and finalize a doctrine for conducting operations against determined, capable, and elusive opponents who avoid U.S. strengths, emulate U.S. capabilities, attack vulnerabilities, and expand operations beyond physical battlegrounds.
Despite all the work done on AirSea Battle and its successor concept, the US has little to show for it at present in terms of an effective warfighting doctrine for a conflict against an increasingly aggressive and militarily capable China in the Western Pacific. In the absence of such a formal doctrine, the services have developed their own concepts, ostensibly for incorporation into JAM GC. However, it is unclear if the concepts will connect successfully and produce a war plan that will bring success in a future Sino-US war. Time is not on the side of the United States in this regard. With Ukraine still dominating attention, the prospect of the United States not being prepared to counter a Chinese attack against Taiwan remains real. General Minihan predicts such an attack will come around 2025. But it could also come sooner and if so, the US will not be as ready as it needs to be.
Late last week and into the weekend China and the United States each had a carrier group training in the South China Sea. On Thursday the USS Nimitz carrier strike group entered the South China Sea to conduct exercises. Within a day of arriving, the Nimitz group was being shadowed by PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) vessels. China also dispatched the aircraft carrier Shandong and her escorts into the South China Sea shortly thereafter to conduct combat-oriented exercises. The move was undoubtedly in response to presence of the Nimitz group in a region which China increasingly claims as nothing less than territorial waters. The significance of the South China Sea to international trade is a main factor in the US 7th Fleet projecting a meaningful and consistent presence there.
In a time where Western Pacific tensions are centered on Taiwan it is important to remind ourselves of the South China Sea’s importance to both the West and China. Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims there, its encroachment on islands claimed by its neighbors and the untapped natural resources beneath SCS waters make it clear China will not pump the brakes on its activities there. Add to the mixture the importance of the sea lanes there and it is clear that a crisis there, either by design or accident, could spiral out of control and lead to a major conflict.
Yet most Western and regional analysts continue pointing the finger at Taiwan as the main flash point in the region and the true objective of China’s designs. It hardly seems to be the case that China’s massive naval buildup in recent years is intended just to help bring about a successful conquest of Taiwan and nothing more. The Chinese strategic plan goes beyond Taiwan Strait and the island-nation south into the SCS and east to the First Island Chain. Eventually, the Chinese appetite will extend beyond these points and into the Indian Ocean and the waters of the Pacific beyond Philippines. Japan recognizes this to a degree, and it is assuredly one motivating factor present in Tokyo’s plans to enlarge the Japanese military.
The bottom line is that China’s strategic goals extend beyond Taiwan. The sooner the United States and its allies apply this to their plans for challenging China, the better. Long story short: It’s not only Taiwan we need to think seriously about.
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.
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.
PLAN and PLAAF exercises in Taiwan Strait are concluding today. China is apparently honoring the exercise schedule, which allows the region to breath a sigh of relief for the time being. This is not the end of drama in the Strait, however. As the PLAN exercises conclude, Taiwanese naval vessels are maintaining a close watch and keeping the Chinese honest. There will be more exercises in the future, though. According to China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy will conduct regular exercises east of the median line.
As the exercises conclude, attention is turning to the intentions of the US Navy over the coming days. The White House announced last week that Seventh Fleet warships, as well as US Navy and USAF aircraft will conduct freedom of navigation (FON) exercises in the Strait in the future. Although the US was not clear about exactly when the FON exercises will begin. If they do not start for another week or longer, there’s potential damage to US credibility in the region. Beijing can say the US was deliberately waiting until China concluded exercises and its warships returned home before moving its own assets into the Strait. Selective power projection, for lack of a better term.
With the Strait temporarily quieting down, I plan to take an opportunity to look over some other global hotspots on Monday and Tuesday. The war in Ukraine continues on and tensions flared up between Israel and Gaza over the last few days leading to rocket attacks on Israeli cities and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes against targets in Gaza. We’ll circle back a bit and see what’s going on over there now.