The era of U.S. dominance in the Pacific is over, a study claims, with China now capable of launching devastating military attacks that could crush American forces in the region in a matter of hours.
A startling study from the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Center argues that decades of military engagements, budget shortfalls, a lack of investment in military technologies and other factors have cost the U.S. the edge it has held in the Indo-Pacific region since the end of World War II. A Chinese attack, the Australian researchers say, could overwhelm U.S. forces in the air and at sea.
President Trump brushed off those warnings and said any military confrontation between the world’s leading superpowers would end badly for Beijing.
“We have the strongest military in the world right now,” Mr. Trump said. “Right now there’s nobody that’s even close to us militarily — not even close.
“They’d pay a price they wouldn’t want to pay,” the president said of any Chinese aggression against U.S. assets in the Pacific.
But concern is growing inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill that, in a worst-case scenario, the U.S. military is ill-equipped and ill-positioned to deal with an all-out Chinese offensive. The Defense Department’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” report released this year focuses on containing Chinese expansion in the Pacific and bolstering partnerships with key regional allies such as Japan and Australia, but researchers say Washington hasn’t made the necessary investments to prepare for a full-scale military attack.
“The combined effect of ongoing wars in the Middle East, budget austerity, underinvestment in advanced military capabilities and the scale of America’s liberal order-building agenda has left the U.S. armed forces ill-prepared for great power competition in the Indo-Pacific,” the University of Sydney study says. “Chinese counter-intervention systems have undermined America’s ability to project power into the Indo-Pacific, raising the risk that China could use limited force to achieve a fait accompli victory before America can respond; and challenging U.S. security guarantees in the process.”
While China’s defense budgets surge as the country emerges as an economic superpower, officials in Beijing deny they are crafting plans for any such assault.
“What I can tell you is that China unswervingly follows the path of peaceful development and a national defense policy that is defensive in nature,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.
The report was released against the backdrop of broader tensions between the U.S. and China over a host of issues. The two nations remain embroiled in an increasingly bitter trade war — a policy tack that Mr. Trump defended Tuesday — and have repeatedly clashed over China’s expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
Late last week, the Trump administration approved an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. Beijing has condemned the weapons sale to a state it considers a renegade province of the mainland.
The U.S. also is closely monitoring Beijing’s response to protests in Hong Kong amid fears China could respond militarily or even impose martial law. Prominent lawmakers are urging the White House to prepare a slate of options should the Chinese government mount a violent crackdown.
“We ought to reconsider the kind of visas that we give to senior-level Chinese officials, or the number of Chinese nationals we allow into our universities,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday. “We could also just say simply that trade talks will no longer go forward and the tariffs will remain in place.”
China’s newfound military supremacy in the Pacific complicates each of those issues and adds another dangerous layer to the Sino-American relationship.
In recent years, the U.S. has routinely condemned China’s claim to islands in the South China Sea and its broader effort to exert power and influence in the region. U.S. forces also regularly sail warships throughout the Pacific to assert “freedom of navigation” rights in international waters.
But if push comes to shove, scholars say, the U.S. would stand little chance against an assault from China’s People’s Liberation Army.
“Asymmetries in power, time, distance and interest would all work against an effective American response,” the Australian study concluded. “Under present-day U.S. posture in the region, most American and allied bases and forward-deployed ships, troops and aircraft would struggle to survive a PLA salvo attack, and would be initially forced to focus on damage limitation rather than blunting the thrust of a Chinese offensive.
“American forces that are able to operate would be highly constrained in the early phases of a crisis — lacking air and naval dominance, outnumbered by their PLA equivalents and severely challenged by the loss of enabling infrastructure, like functioning airstrips, fuel depots and port facilities, all of which would be at least temporarily degraded by precision strikes,” the study continues.
Specifically, China has made huge military investments in recent years, leading to its undeniable advantage. The nation has produced hundreds of fighter aircraft and dozens of cutting-edge submarines and warships, the study said, most of which could be immediately thrown into a fight with the U.S.
China has an estimated 570 missile launchers that could be used in war, an increase of nearly 100 over its 2014 arsenal, underscoring the massive buildup in just five years.
The situation remains at the top of the priority list inside the Pentagon, which under Mr. Trump has refocused its core mission on countering competing world powers such as China.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper traveled to the Pacific earlier this month and spoke extensively with allies about the need to counter an increasingly bold Beijing, though he and other officials typically don’t discuss the possibility of direct military confrontation.
“It’s pretty vast in terms of where they’re going or where they’re touching,” Mr. Esper said during his trip. “We’ve got to be able to compete with them. … We’ve got to be conscious of the toeholds that they’re trying to get into many of these countries.”
His predecessor at the Pentagon, Patrick M. Shanahan, memorably listed his priorities during his brief tenure as acting secretary of defense as “China, China, China.” In May, Mr. Shanahan unveiled a revamped Indo-Pacific strategy for the U.S. military that centers on ensuring sovereignty of all nations, and freedom of navigation and flight in and over the South China Sea.
To counter China’s growing claims in the South China Sea, Defense Department officials said they will make unprecedented investments in cyber and space defense, undersea warfare, tactical aircraft, missile defense and a host of other areas.
Indeed, the University of Sydney study argues that the U.S. must ramp up its military presence in the Pacific, launch new military exercises and partnerships with key allies in the region, pour more money into hypersonic technology and other cutting-edge weapons, and take other steps to avoid falling further behind.