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Dire Straits

Dire Straits

China's naval strategy pursues hegemony in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Can the United States compete?

Seth Cropsey

China poses the most direct challenge to America’s international position since the Soviet Union. True, since 2016, the U.S. public has become increasingly aware of the problem. However, there is little understanding of the nature of China’s threat. At its core, Sino-American competition is not purely an economic or ideological struggle, but a strategic contest for military dominance. To survive, the United States must win this struggle by deterring Chinese military action before conflict or by defeating it in wartime. Any successful deterrence will require an understanding of Chinese and American strategy, force structure, and vulnerabilities.

Geographic realities render the western Pacific the predominant theater of confrontation. Historically, no Asian power has successfully achieved Indo-Pacific hegemony. Nonetheless, China’s objective is to dominate the Indo-Pacific’s maritime trade, thereby making itself a regional hegemon: Three-fifths of global maritime trade and nearly a quarter of total global trade today passes through the South China Sea. Controlling this waterway’s entrances and exits would give China far more than regional power, belying any assumption that Chinese objectives are merely local. China strives not for a multipolar, chaotic world, but a world in which it can safeguard its economic and political interests working through local affiliates and wielding global military power. But China, or more accurately the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), wishes to fight a very specific sort of war based upon China’s internal weaknesses and strategic priorities.

The reforms that the CCP under Deng Xiaoping began ushering in after 1978 enabled China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and its so-called “Economic Miracle.” Given that the CCP has retained informal control of China’s financial behemoths, transforming them into state proxies through a patronage system, Chinese economic growth remains fundamentally limited. With China’s current emphasis on construction, mineral and oil extraction, and high technology, the Chinese economy requires material imports to survive. And the Chinese people require economic growth in return for their acquiescence to the CCP’s central planning—hence the CCP’s pervasive fear of an economic downturn.

If the Party is to confront the United States, it must achieve its goals as rapidly as possible while mitigating any conflict-driven damage to China’s economy. And since the Party’s elites are students of history, both Western and Chinese, they believe that in order to succeed, the CCP’s task will be to break American political will as rapidly as possible during a great-power confrontation.

To Rule the Seas: The Taiwan Focus

The initial center of gravity of any Sino-American war will be in the western Pacific: Taiwan is the CCP’s most obvious target. The island republic is a historical gadfly for the CCP—living proof that the Chinese people need not live under a unitary pseudo-imperial state to be secure and prosperous. More so than its ideological value, Taiwan’s strategic position makes it the most critical target in a major conflict. Taiwan is the core link in the First Island Chain, which links the Japanese archipelago in the northeast with the Philippine and Greater Sunda archipelagoes in the southwest. The waterways that bracket Taiwan—the Miyako Strait to the north, the Bashi Channel to the south—are the least congested access points to the Philippine Sea and western Pacific, compared to the nest of defensible islands that comprise the Philippines and the more extended Ryukyu Islands. Moreover, Taiwan is an ideal staging point for attacks on the People’s Republic of China (PRC), not the least because missiles from the island can target Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other major population centers along the Chinese coastline.

Absent external support, Taiwan’s fate is unclear. Taiwan does receive military assistance from the United States and is strengthening its formal diplomatic links with Japan. While the Taiwan Relations Act does not commit the U.S. President to defending the island, it does make it politically difficult for the President to abandon the island, by legally preventing the President from revising Taiwan policy absent Congressional consent. Thus, the CCP must assume that the United States will respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, along with U.S. allies, most notably Japan: Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s strong public remarks implied as much earlier this year.

In terms of the CCP’s explicitly military calculations, two naval capabilities are most significant—the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Strike Groups (CSG), and American and Allied submarines. A one-carrier CSG would increase Taiwan’s air defenses by a fifth to a quarter; a two carrier CSG by two-fifths to half, depending on the composition of the air wing deployed. This combat power would erode the PLA Air Force’s numerical advantage around Taiwan (a critical factor in modern air combat), forcing the PLA to redirect combat aircraft from the Southern Military District—aircraft that could be needed for a concurrent Vietnamese or Philippine contingency in the South China Sea.

The PLA’s response has been to develop a ground attack and anti-ship missile arsenal, the bulk of which can strike targets 600–700 miles from the Chinese coast in the western Philippine Sea. The more sophisticated of these missiles can reach 2,000-plus miles from launch—well into the western Pacific. Importantly, U.S. CSGs no longer field the diverse air wings they once fielded in the Cold War, that contained long- and short-range air superiority fighters, strike aircraft, anti-submarine aircraft, and carrier-launched tankers. The modern fleet contains one primary combat airframe, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, with a 450-mile combat range. The MQ-25 Stingray UCAV tanker and the F-35C will improve combat range to 700–1,000 miles—but the first squadron of F-35Cs only reached the fleet this year, while the Navy reportedly stood up an MQ-25 test squadron last month, and plans to create two fleet squadrons next year.

Even with this additional range, absent long-range missiles, U.S. carriers must still operate within Chinese missile range. Accordingly, China hopes to force U.S. planners to have to choose between deploying CSGs close enough to the First Island Chain to influence a cross-strait conflict, risking the destruction of one of eleven carriers, or remaining outside of the PLA’s missiles, and thus unable to support Taiwan effectively. The longer-range American missiles needed to remedy this gap, particularly hypersonic weapons like the AGM-183A, remain under development. Practically speaking, they don’t exist.

Why hold American and allied warships at arm’s length during a confrontation? The PLA hopes thereby to bring its short-range missile arsenal to bear on Taiwanese airfields, port facilities, and national command centers, delivering a punishing first strike that would neutralize Taiwan’s ability to project power. The PLA could then execute an amphibious landing with its amphibious assault ships—the majority of which are short-range and of limited capacity, but which are numerous enough to support operations against Taiwan.

American submarines could spoil this plan. The U.S. Navy’s Los Angeles-class and Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines are quiet enough to avoid PLA detection and also lethal enough to disrupt PLA amphibious movements against Taiwan. The United States currently has 10 Los Angeles-class and five Virginia-class submarines based at Pearl Harbor, along with four Los Angeles-class submarines at Guam. A twenty-plus Pacific submarine fleet would be difficult for the PLA to defeat, especially since the PLA navy must divide its fifty-three attack submarines between the South and East China Seas. And so the PLA has invested in medium and large surface combatants, now fielding one cruiser, thirty-one destroyers, and forty-six frigates—the more modern of which are equipped with towed sonar arrays—in response to America’s present undersea advantage. The PLA’s objective is to saturate the area around Taiwan with these medium and large surface combatants, using them alongside undersea monitoring stations and submarines to detect and defeat U.S. subsurface forces.

China currently distributes its more advanced, larger warships between the East and South China Seas. But its 150-plus fleet of corvettes and missile boats serves a more obvious purpose in the South China Sea, where the PLA confronts a mix of medium- to low-capability adversaries like the Philippines and Vietnam. China has transferred several older surface combatants from the PLA navy to China’s coast guard to use alongside its smaller frigates and corvettes in order to obtain South China Sea control, and to be supported by aircraft from its artificial islands—should they survive any missile attacks. An American presence in the South China Sea would change the PLA’s calculation, but a lack of local bases and the vulnerability of South China Sea-based carriers to Chinese attack makes such a presence a remote possibility. Additionally, if China develops Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, to which it allegedly purchased rights in 2019, it will have a foothold far closer to the South China Sea’s western points of passage, the Straits of Malacca and Lombok.

Despite China’s identification of American military weaknesses, Chinese planners still face a unique strategic quandary. If the PLA’s first strike does not break Taiwan, or if the PLA takes Taiwan but does not destroy U.S. combat capacity in the western Pacific, then the United States and its allies can seek a fleet action in the Philippine Sea and defend both Japan and the Philippines from Chinese naval pressure. Additionally, even if China controls the South China Sea, so long as the United States maintains its control of the Middle East’s maritime littorals—and particularly if it either has a presence in the Indian Ocean or if India is an American co-belligerent—it can conduct a far blockade, denying China imports through the Straits of Malacca and Lombok.

This is significant: Slightly under half of China’s imported petrochemicals are purchased from the Middle East, while (apart from Russian supply) the rest of its oil imports are carried by ship. Absent forces or allies outside the South and East China Seas, the CCP will be forced to escalate and to commit the PLA to a fleet action or else await strangulation. Moreover, the further from mainland China PLA forces operate, the less capable they become. Currently, the PLA fields two short take-off but arrested recovery carriers, neither of which can match a U.S. CSG in combat power. And the PLA air force has only three dedicated tankers. It is rectifying this situation with the Y-20U’s production, but that will remain precarious for the next several years.

To Rule All Lands: Economic Encirclement

China’s solution to its current military disadvantages is to cultivate economic and political ties with various Middle Eastern actors. The Belt and Road initiative is the most apparent element of this project. Its objective is to circumvent the straits of Malacca and Lombok, both by constructing overland pipelines that link Iranian and Levantine oil to Central Asia and then western China. Nevertheless, America’s Middle Eastern security architecture undermines this strategy’s effectiveness, as does India’s hostile stance toward China. The CCP’s response has been to develop port infrastructure throughout the Indian Ocean, most notably at Gwadar and in Colombo. The PLA now operates an overseas base in Djibouti—although Djibouti lacks fixed-wing aviation facilities large enough for combat aircraft, its port can still accommodate Chinese carriers and submarines.

China and Russia share complementary Middle Eastern goals. Russia desires the stability and security necessary to project power from the Levantine Basin against southern Europe in a NATO-Russian confrontation. Chinese investment and economic might can provide this stability, while Russian political control would prevent a U.S. re-engagement there. China’s goal is either to forge a tacit alliance with Iran or Pakistan against the United States within the next five years, or to deploy naval forces to one of its potential bases and thereby to tempt the Gulf Arabs—or even Israel—to view China as a more credible benefactor than America. At minimum, they believe these efforts will force the United States to maintain a major force presence in the Middle East and also in the Indian Ocean, rather than to concentrate in the western Pacific. Alternatively, they hope that American global sea control will be broken before conflict, in the event that a regional realignment will jeopardize basing access and so expand a potential Sino-American confrontation beyond the western Pacific.

There are clear U.S. responses to China’s actions. Given its energy and resource import dependence, the CCP is most vulnerable to economic pressure in a long-term conflict. Thus, the United States must construct a fleet large enough and diverse enough to support Taiwan in a cross-strait conflict, and to close the sea-lanes that approach the Malacca and Lombok Straits. The United States must develop weapons capable of penetrating Chinese air and missile defense systems that can strike targets within the First Island Chain. It must diversify its undersea fleet, incorporating smaller, cheaper conventional boats, manned or unmanned, alongside its attack submarine fleet. It must maintain a presence in the Middle East great enough to preclude Sino-Russian alliance disruption, and to prevent China from expanding a Pacific conflict further west. And in any contingency, the U.S. military’s survivability and range will be paramount in denying the PLA the ability to deliver a decisive knockout punch while also exploiting China’s lack of range-extenders and the clear power projection difficulties it encounters beyond the First Island Chain.

Paradoxically, Middle Eastern deployments present a thornier long-term problem to U.S. planners than Indo-Pacific operations. The United States must reserve at least two, perhaps three, operational CSGs at any given time for the western Pacific, leaving at most one to cover the Malacca and Lombok Straits. Accordingly, the United States must maximize the flexibility of its big-deck amphibious warships. Carriers and submarines provide the bulk of American combat power; big-deck amphibious warships like the Wasp and America-class are designed for Marine Expeditionary Units. As it stands, they field a small air wing of attack helicopters, vertical takeoff, and landing fighter aircraft to support Marine companies transported by well deck deployed landing craft. However, it is ever more apparent that American amphibious assault ranges are well below contemporary necessities.

The days have passed when deploying U.S. Marines from “over the horizon” was sufficient to avoid anti-ship missiles. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are developing faster landing craft for well deck deployment. Nevertheless, the versatility of flat-decked assault ships still enables their employment in other missions, and increasingly so if the United States can develop unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) capable of operating on small runways without catapults or arresting gears. While a Middle Eastern contingency would require U.S. naval forces and combat airpower, careful planning could shift some of those responsibilities to ground-based units, allowing the United States to use amphibious assault ships as hybrid ground support; as maritime intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting capabilities; and as anti-submarine units.

To Rule the World: Undermining American Resolve

To achieve its strategic goals, China is not simply focusing on military measures and countermeasures. China has identified two broader weaknesses in American political inclinations that it will exploit. First, the United States likely will avoid striking the Chinese mainland for as long as possible, to avoid escalation. But PLA fighters, once they retreat to Chinese airspace, will have unimpeded ground support, and PLA missile launchers will be equally secure. This places the United States and its allies at a burdensome disadvantage.

Consider this, too. Do we have a problem with American resolve? Every American president since 1984 has been a target of impeachment. Republicans now continue this tradition, with at least some congressmen introducing impeachment articles against Mr. Biden for the Afghanistan debacle. Distrust and disruption are by now commonplace.

If China were to attack Taiwan, would partisan actors exploit such a conflict and seek to destabilize American governance? Surely Chinese leaders have studied the events of January 6. Certainly Beijing is contemplating how our internal weakness can aid their external aggression.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and from 1984 to 1989 as deputy undersecretary of the Navy.

U.S. Foreign PolicyChina