What if there’s a war between Beijing and Washington?

April 08, 2016 16:02
The first island chain and the South China Sea are the most likely spots where Beijing and Washington will face off in the event of any emergencies in the Taiwan Strait. Photo: Google Maps

Beijing has in recent years spent staggering amounts on arms expansion, particularly high-tech weaponry.

Yet there is no guarantee a specific type of weapon will give China a key advantage in case of war.

History offers some lessons.

Six large battleships of the Qing Dynasty dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay in 1891 in a proud display of the Chinese navy's voyage and combat capabilities.

Yet when a top Japanese commander visited the Dingyuan (定遠艦), one of China’s flagship vessels, he found soldiers hanging their uniforms on the ship’s artilleries.

That prompted him to conclude that the Chinese navy was weak inside despite the powerful image it tried to project.

And, believe it or not, the most senior officer in the Qing navy’s first major drill in the Yellow Sea in 1886 was Li Lianying (李蓮英), a eunuch close to Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧).

No wonder China suffered a crushing defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War eight years later.

It is said that many Chinese war vessels back then could only sail at half their top speed due to the inferior coal used.

The navy’s top-quality fuel coal was resold to fund the renovation of the Summer Palace (頤和園), a vast royal complex in Beijing, for the enjoyment of Cixi.

We are now still hearing modern versions of such corruption: a major-general of the People’s Liberation Army’s South Sea Fleet overseeing equipment development committed suicide in September 2014 and a year later his successor was charged with corruption.

The former director of the logistics department of the PLA’s air force has also been nailed down for taking briberies.

Today's PLA navy may pale in comparison to its counterpart back in 1911, when the cruiser Hai Chi (海圻號) of the Qing navy’s Beiyang Fleet sailed past the first island chain in the East China Sea and visited Britain for King George V’s coronation and subsequently crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New York.

And when anti-Chinese conflicts broke out in Cuba and Mexico that year, Hai Chi even cruised into the Port of Havana for a show of force.

Before long Cuba and Mexico all agreed to Chinese demands for reparations and action against the rebels.

PLA war vessels didn’t pass the first island chain until 1976.

Asian frontiers that may entail Washington’s direct military engagement include the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

The Pentagon has long formulated counter-strategies in the event that Beijing mounts anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) operations to seize Taiwan.

Washington can never abandon Taiwan in such a situation, but defending the island at whatever cost will also be impractical.

Thus AirSea Battle, a predominant strategy for the US forces in East and Southeastern Asia, is the most feasible contingency plan. It was renamed Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC) in 2015.

The emphasis is on sentinel and pre-emptive strikes with intelligence gathering and battlefield surveillance: surgical strikes to paralyze key A2/AD facilities before the enemy’s troop and supply deployments.

Various blockade and lockout plans have been proposed: placing naval mines in waters close to China’s major ports or sealing up key fairways that run through the first island chain or along the Malacca Strait.

Beijing’s trade and energy imports, which make up 60 percent of its domestic consumption, will then be largely intercepted.

Beijing is aware of all of these, and over the years it has been busily stocking crude oil and diversifying its energy mix, though the problem is that hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants are highly vulnerable during wars.

China can also import oil and gas from Central Asia, provided that Russia is still reliable during emergencies.

That said, much of China’s trade still relies on a few maritime arteries, which means that when Washington and its allies in the region cordon off much of the East and South China Sea, the Chinese economy will inevitably be choked.

External threats and rampant corruption in the army are both insurmountable problems to China.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Apr. 7.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal