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Selasa, 29 Juni 2021

If the US went to war with China, who would win? It depends how it starts - Sydney Morning Herald

China and the United States are the great rivals in the competition to win the 21st century. But which one would have military superiority in outright conflict?

China-US superpower showdown: military strength

China-US superpower showdown: military strength Credit:Matthew Absalom-Wong

If China chooses to attack the island of Taiwan, the United States could be helpless to stop it.

By the time the People’s Liberation Army launches its third volley of missiles at the island Beijing considers a breakaway province, the US could be just learning of the attack.

In a matter of minutes, Beijing’s Rocket Force could cripple Taiwan’s military, infrastructure and ports.

Yet if China wanted to conquer Taiwan, the outcome could be different. Possibly completely different.

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China would have to launch an amphibious invasion, deploying troops along its beaches as the first step in a march towards the capital Taipei. Despite its 1.9 million-strong army, compared to Taiwan’s cohort of 150,000, the task of taking its island neighbour and holding it is a mammoth military challenge.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said on June 3 that Taipei did not anticipate a conflict was going to break out any time soon, “but we are trying to get ourselves ready”.

“If there is going to be a war between Taiwan and China, we will fight the war ourselves,” he said. “If other counties come to our aid, that will be highly appreciated, but we will fight the war for our own survival and for our own future.”

In this scenario, the US and its allies could respond by conducting airlifts to Taiwan. The US could also use submarines and stealth aircraft to attack China’s shipping fleet in the Indian Ocean to cripple its economic lifelines in times of a crisis.

The divergence of the two Taiwan scenarios, a Chinese military attack or an invasion, says a lot about the relative military power of the US and China, itself a barometer of the strength of the two superpowers.

“I told President Xi that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe not to start conflict, but to prevent conflict,” US President Joe Biden told a joint session of Congress in April.

A month earlier, Xi Jinping had told the People’s Liberation Army: “We should persist in using combat to guide our work; step up preparations for war.”

Today, China’s military spending is the second-highest in the world after the United States and continues to rise. Its military budget is greater than the combined expenditure of India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The Chinese defence budget reached $324 billion this year. It has been growing by 6-8 per cent each year for the past five years but according to defence intelligence agency Janes, US spending remains miles ahead at $759 billion.

China had 55 small war ships in 2020, more than double the number it had five years ago. Six large amphibious vessels have been launched, three since 2015, and a third aircraft carrier, larger than its predecessors, will soon be completed.

Meia Nouwens from the International Institute for Strategic Studies said Beijing was intent on achieving primacy in the waters that surround China.

“China is also developing the capabilities needed to support military operations at range,” said Nouwens, suggesting they could attack across large distances.

China’s focus on its region would give it a local advantage in any clash with the US.

Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford University has testified that “China dedicates all its resources to planning and preparing for a contingency in east Asia, while the US has additional responsibilities in the Middle East, Europe and worldwide”.

If a conflict were to erupt in east Asia, “then the Chinese military is closer to on par with the United States”.

China’s military build-up is making a difference.

Only a decade ago, the US would have easily dominated the Chinese military in almost any scenario, says Australian National University Professor Stephan Fruehling. “I think the US now accepts it may lose a conflict – at least at the conventional level – with China.”

Better trained or better placed

The geographic focus is decisive. The US Air Force boasts nearly 2300 warplanes in service, with another 1422 aircraft in use for the US Navy and Marines, Janes calculates.

But all the US planes cannot be dispatched to China’s coastline. Certainly not in the six-to-eight minutes it could take a DF-11 A rocket to cross the 130 kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait to its target.

China’s 1264 warplanes, meanwhile, are based in China.

It’s a similar story with troops.

The US’s 1.38 million active personnel are better trained and equipped than many of their 1.9 million Chinese peers – but getting them in place, and in time, to take on China would be a crucial task.

There are less quantifiable aspects as well.

The last time Chinese troops saw direct action was 1979 when China launched a costly month-long war against Vietnam to teach it a lesson in retaliation for Hanoi’s actions in south-east Asia.

The US military has been racking up decades of in-the-field experience, most recently with deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Middle East. While these have been costly, they also provided invaluable combat experience.

US soldiers, some seen here at a military exercise in Morocco earlier in June, have been deployed to battles across the world for the past 50 years.

US soldiers, some seen here at a military exercise in Morocco earlier in June, have been deployed to battles across the world for the past 50 years. Credit:AP

China is aware of this gap. Its army is now deploying troops to Africa for peacekeeping missions that give first-hand experience in conflict zones after decades of relative peace.

The structure of the military is also different. Rockets figure heavily in Beijing’s arsenal. The 100,000-strong Rocket Force was made a separate branch of the People’s Liberation Army in 2015.

“The PLA’s missile forces are central to China’s efforts to deter and counter third-party intervention in a regional conflict,” a US congressional report concluded this month.

The US believes China has about 2000 mid-range missiles in place, which could ward off the US Navy in a conflict.

China’s nuclear weapons are estimated to number between 200 and 350, a mere 5 per cent of the United States’ arsenal, but potentially enough to deter broader conflict through the prospect of mutual destruction.

The frontlines of sea and space

Should a war break out around the South China Sea, the US would be under pressure to quickly neutralise the roughly 10 man-made islands China has created (seen as “unsinkable aircraft carriers”) to use as military bases.

The US would be challenged by a powerful Chinese fleet in the region.

Brooking Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon writes that the location of China’s new fleet of attack submarines could act as a deterrent to US military escalation.

“The only truly reliable way to counter the threat would be to attack the submarines in port when they refuel and rearm,” he writes. But that would require strikes on China’s mainland, “with all the enormous risks of escalation that could portend”.

One option to attack the man-made islands would be to send in teams of US Marine Raider commandos to destroy weapons systems.

Satellite image of Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef in a disputed zone, March 23, 2021.

Satellite image of Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef in a disputed zone, March 23, 2021. Credit:Maxar Technologies via AP

But precision bombing requires the military to have access to space, where orbiting satellites help guide munitions.

In July 2020, BeiDou, China’s version of GPS became fully operational, allowing it to track ships, planes, cars and smartphones from space without relying on the US technology that has dominated global positioning for decades.

“Space would be the first place both sides would go to strike the others’ forces in event of a conflict,” says Tate Nurkin of the US-based Intelligence Group.

China or the US could do this by feeding misleading information to satellites from the ground – known as “spoofing” – to stop the space-based location pinpointing needed for weapons.

“China would seek to pluck out the eyes and ears of the US and allies to make them blind on the battlefield,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The US has launched 615 satellites into space in the last three years, compared to 168 by China, according to Lowy.

While the US remains ahead in space for now, Davis says how long US dominance lasts “is not clear”.

Performers dressed as the military celebrated China’s military might on Monday night’s gala in Beijing to celebrate the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary.

Performers dressed as the military celebrated China’s military might on Monday night’s gala in Beijing to celebrate the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary. Credit:Getty

Changing the status quo

Mastro notes that in war scenarios the US wants to maintain the status quo in the region while China wants to change it.

“China is largely trying to take territorial control,” which makes east Asia a likely location for trouble.

And that takes the issue of US-China military prowess back to the all-important issue of politics.

In the event of a war: what would Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Australia do? These are all Cold War allies of the US, but they have not had to think about war in the region since the 1970s.

What determines victory, loss or stalemate between the US and China is likely to be determined by the murky calculus of how much risk and how much pain and loss both sides could endure.

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2021-06-29 19:00:00Z
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