Key point: It would be very bloody and not very easy.
With President Xi Jinping having consolidated his power at the 19th Party Congress, and the United States increasingly distracted at home, it may seem like a given that China will reestablish its predominance over the Asia-Pacific region. A new study casts doubt on this, however, arguing that Beijing doesn’t have the military power to defeat its neighbors. In fact, it probably can’t even conquer Taiwan.
The new study by Michael Beckley, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, was published in the academic journal International Security. In the article, Beckley argues that China’s neighbors could thwart Chinese military aggression through anti-access/area denial strategies with only minimal U.S. assistance.
“My main finding is that there is a budding balance of military power in East Asia, which the United States can reinforce at moderate risk to U.S. forces,” Beckley writes in the article. “Furthermore, this balance of power will remain stable for years to come, because China cannot afford the power-projection capabilities it would need to overcome the A2/AD forces of its neighbors. The main reasons are that power projection forces are more expensive than A2/AD forces by an order of magnitude.”
A2/AD is most commonly discussed in relation to China’s efforts to deny America the ability to intervene in any regional conflict or make it so costly that Washington is deterred from doing so. Some observers, including James Holmes, Toshi Yoshihara and Andrew Krepinevich, have argued that the United States and its Asian allies should this strategy around on China. Instead of seeking to maintain command of the sea and air as America has traditionally done, these scholars suggest Washington and its allies could simply seek to deny China the ability to achieve its goals. As Beckley puts it, “Under this strategy, the United States would abandon efforts to command maritime East Asia and, instead, focus on helping China’s neighbors deny China sea and air control in the region.
Beckley’s main contribution is to test the viability of this strategy for a number of foreseeable conflict scenarios. One of these, of course, is a Chinese invasion of the Taiwan strait. While amphibious invasions have always been the most difficult military maneuver to pull off, they are especially difficult in an era of precision-guided munitions that can pick off an invading force while they are still at sea.
To have any chance of successfully invading Taiwan, then, China would have to establish total air superiority and command of the sea in the area. As Beckley explains, “If Taiwan retained substantial air defenses and offensive strike platforms, a Chinese amphibious invasion would be impossible, because Taiwan could pick off PLA landing craft as they motored across the Taiwan Strait.and sea command in the strait.” Although China has amassed an incredibly large missile force to destroy Taiwan’s defensive capabilities at the outset of a conflict, it would still need to take Taipei by total surprise to be successful. If Taiwan had some advanced warning of an attack, it could disperse its aircraft to some thirty-six military airfield across the islands, while also relying on a number of civilian aistrips and even some highways that double as emergency air bases. Taiwan also has a bunch of road-mobile missile launchers and anti-aircraft weaponry, as well as a number of ships and submarines capable of attacking Chinese forces with cruise missiles.
As Beckley points out, there is little reason to believe that China would be able to knock out all of these defenses in a surprise first strike. To begin with, Taiwan has sophisticated early warning air defense systems. Moreover, the United States has not even been able to achieve this level of destruction against much lesser enemies like Iraq during the First Gulf War or Serbia in 1999.
But if China was far more successful than the United States had been in those conflicts, Beijing’s ability to execute an amphibious invasion is still far from certain. For instance, Beckley notes that only ten percent of Taiwan’s coastlines are suitable for an amphibious landing, which would allow Taipei to concentrate its forces on a few key areas. Chinese forces trying to land would likely be severely outnumbered.
Thus, even using the the most optimistic assessments (from Beijing’s perspective), China would have its hands full trying to conquer Taiwan. Consequently, Beckley writes, “the United States would only need to tip the scales of the battle to foil a Chinese invasion, a mission that could be accomplished in numerous ways without exposing U.S. surface ships or non-stealth aircraft to China’s A2/AD forces.” More specifically, by the U.S. military’s own estimates, America would need “10,000 to 20,000 pounds of ordnance to decimate a PLA invasion force on the beaches of Taiwan.” This could be done, Beckley notes, using a single B-2 bomber or an Ohio-class submarine.
Beckley goes on to demonstrate that China would have difficulty gaining control over the East and South China Sea, given the nearly certain resistance it would face from countries like Vietnam and Japan. Thus, China’s ability to militarily dominate the region is more unlikely than is commonly appreciated. That being said, China’s strategy to date seems to be to win without fighting. So far, this has been relatively successful.
Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of The National Interest. This first appeared several years ago and is being republished due to reader interest.