Why China Will Lose the War It is Planning

How do we know the war is coming in the first place?  Because the advertising for it is out.  Amongst plenty of other evidence, one Chinese front organisation conducted a poll on Australian attitudes to the ANZUS treaty and a Chinese attack on Japan.  Why would they conduct such a poll unless they are going to attack Japan?  Not that they were interested in the results as such.  They just wanted to be able to publicize the poll in order to try to keep Australia on the sidelines of their war.

The war will have two functions for China.  Firstly, it will provide legitimacy for the regime as economic growth stalls.  Secondly, the Chinese will have pride in humiliating their neighbouring countries, and the United States, by defeating them in battle and creating no-go zones in the oceans which other countries won’t be able to enter without Chinese permission.  The war will have nothing to do with oil and gas resources under the seabed and securing sea-lanes.  The Chinese have never offered those excuses for their behavior themselves.  The excuses are the creation of Western pundits for something that otherwise is stupid, destructive, and primitive.

Some have seen this war coming well in advance.  In 2005, Robert Kaplan wrote an article entitled How We Would Fight China.  In it he notes that China will approach the war “asymmetrically, as terrorists do. In Iraq the insurgents have shown us the low end of asymmetry, with car bombs. But the Chinese are poised to show us the high end of the art.” 

To win the war, China has to seize territory and then hold it against the US/Japanese counterattack.  There will be two main theatres of operation -- the Senkaku and Yaeyama island chains in the East China Sea and the Paracel and Spratly Islands south of Hainan Island in the South China Sea.  In the East China Sea, China claims the uninhabited Senkaku Islands and has made noises about being the rightful owners of the Ryuku and Yaeyama Island Chains.  This part of the world is complicated for China in that there are US bases on Okinawa in the Ryukus. 

They could leave the US bases out of their attack in the expectation that President Obama will renege on his commitment to come to Japan’s aid if China attempts to seize the Senkaku Islands.  More likely they will attack US bases in the region at least as far out as Guam on the basis that the United States will be entering the war anyway and they are better off getting a surprise attack in first.  Also, they can’t be number one on the planet until they have defeated the United States.  So their pride will be a big part of it.

If China is going to seize the Senkaku Islands, it would take only a little bit more effort, morally and militarily, to seize the Yaeyama Islands at the same time.  Part of the preparations for this operation includes building the Shuimen airbase on a ridge on the mainland at 26° 56’ N, 120° 05’ E.  More recently an expeditionary base for helicopters is under construction in the Nanji Islands at 27° 27’ N, 121° 04’ E.  China has been conditioning the Japanese by having their fishing vessels run incursions into Japanese territory with each incursion lasting two hours.  In late 2014, the fishing transgressions extended to the Osagawa Islands further east.

In the East China Sea, China is likely to start the war off with helicopters landing troops on the Senkaku and Yaeyama Islands quickly followed by a swarm of coast guard and commercial vessels to dilute the targeting of the naval vessels among them.  They may also use fishing vessels to land Special Forces further east in the Osagawa Islands.  These troops would be used sacrificially to dilute the response to the main thrust.  That would be why China is conditioning Japan to get used to fishing vessels making incursions in the Osagawas.  China would also be attacking US and Japanese bases with intermediate range ballistic missiles -- everything that would throw the Japanese off balance and make the problem of the Chinese attack seem overwhelming.

The US Marines are confident that they could recapture the Senkaku Islands once control of the sea and air was assured.  Japanese and US forces would have no desire to set foot on Chinese territory.  After the initial Chinese onslaught, the campaign would settle down to a blockade of shipping to China conducted beyond the reach of Chinese aircraft.  China wouldn’t run out of oil because they are building a large stockpile and they could easily cut consumption down to the level of domestic production of 4 million barrels per day.  But 26% of the economy is export-related and so economic activity would collapse.  The effect of the blockade in the rest of the world would be a major boost to economic activity as companies tried to make good the loss of Chinese supply. 

In the South China Sea, China would declare an Air Defence Identification Zone and enforce it using the airbase they are currently building on Fiery Cross Reef.  They may attempt to seize other countries’ bases in the Spratleys or they might just sink their ships and starve them out.  The problem for China is that the South China Sea is a natural kill box for Chinese shipping.  On the western side, Vietnam has upgraded its radars (with assistance from the French company Thales) and has an inventory of about 500 anti-ship missiles.  Singapore’s air force is likely to assist Vietnam and stage through Cam Ranh Bay with their 36 F-15s. 

On the eastern side, the US has plenty of basing opportunities in the Philippines.  Once the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef was degraded, Chinese shipping would have to rely upon air cover coming from bases 1,000 km to the northwest.  Eventually the Chinese air defences will be worn down and the Chinese ships will be defenseless.  Then will come bombardment of the bases they have built and it will be all over. The US Marines now have a base at Oyster Bay on the western side of Palawan Island in the Philippines in preparation for this battle.  If the Chinese are particularly intractable, then the US might go on to capture Woody Island in the Paracel Group.  That will be a lot tougher in that it is only 300 km from Hainan Island and the depth of Chinese basing behind it on the mainland.  

What if you don’t like the idea of the US being involved in a war with China?  Well stop buying anything made in China.  The US takes 17% of China’s exports and if that dried up, the Chinese economy would shrink by 4.5%.  The social dislocation that would cause might be enough to topple the warhawk who is driving the Chinese aggression, President Xi Jinping.  Until President Xi is gone, prepare for war.

David Archibald, a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance (Regnery, 2014)

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