While tensions between Beijing and Washington remain primarily in the economic realm as the two great powers levy massive tariffs on each other’s exports, as relations continue to sour, those antipathies could spillover into the military realm.
As it currently stands, China and the United States do not see eye-to-eye on a number of issues including Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its construction of artificial islands in those waters.
There are also tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan, where Beijing considers the island to be a renegade province while Washington has essentially provided Taipei with a de facto security guarantee under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
If tensions between the United States and China were to somehow reach a boiling point during a crisis, there is a possibility that a conflict might break out. However, with both nation fielding long-range precision-guided weapons, a war between the two great powers might be fundamentally different than previous engagements between such titans during prior conflicts. Indeed, the capabilities of these new weapons might mean that one side or the other might be tempted to launch a massive preemptive strike to win a swift victory because of the advantages of striking first.
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“U.S. leaders and policymakers should understand that in the event of an unforeseen U.S.-China crisis, especially one that appears to threaten China’s claimed core strategic interests or the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, a preemptive missile strike against the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific could be a real possibility,” Thomas Shugart, the U.S. Navy’s branch head for Sea Based Strategic Deterrent Acquisition—the a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security—wrote in a report in War on the Rocks.
“This might be the case particularly if China perceives that its attempts at deterrence of a major U.S. intervention—say in a cross-strait Taiwan crisis or in a brewing dispute over the Senkaku Islands—have failed.”
In Shugart’s estimation, given the range and precision of Chinese cruise and ballistic missiles, Beijing could hit most of the United States’ bases in the Pacific without warning. If the Chinese could strike with a large enough salvo or salvoes of weapons, Beijing could potentially knock the United States out of a war in the Western Pacific in rapid order—though the risks would be grave. Such a strike would be similar in concept to what the Imperial Japanese fleet hoped to accomplish during their attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
“When weapon accuracy is improved to a few meters (or tens of feet), the estimated likelihood of destruction for some “soft” targets by conventional weapons (perhaps equivalent to a .001kT warhead) appears roughly equivalent to the effects of typical tactical nuclear weapons, which were likely to miss their targets by several hundred feet,” Shugart wrote.
“By marrying great accuracy with numerous ballistic missiles, China may have developed a capability that the Soviet armed forces never had: the ability to strike effectively, in a matter of minutes, U.S. and allied bases, logistical facilities, and command centers without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons, and without having established air superiority.”
As Shugart notes, the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military, states that Beijing has about 1,200 conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs, three hundred to one thousand kilometers range), two hundred to three hundred conventional medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs, one thousand to three thousand kilometers), an indeterminate number of conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs, 3000-5,500 kilometers) and two hundred to three hundred ground launched cruise missiles (GLCMs, 1500 + kilometers).
Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has—as Shugart’s analysis has shown—been developing the capability to target U.S. bases, ships in port and at sea with these weapons.
But would China launch such a preemptive strike?
It is impossible to know for certain, but Chinese military literature does seem to emphasize preemptive strikes—particularly under “high-tech conditions.”
“Striking only after the enemy has struck’ does not require China to have actually suffered a physical first blow; Active Defense provides the basis for preemptive action,” Michael S. Chase at the U.S. Naval War College wrote. “The Science of Military Strategy’s final chapter takes preemption a step further by proposing an active strategic counterattack on exterior lines. While reiterating that Active Defense is the essential feature of China’s military strategy, ‘it is necessary to adjust our way of thinking and enrich the contents of active defense on the basis of the characteristics and laws of the modern local war.’ The active strategic counterattack differs from other preemptive actions because it is taken at the strategic level of war and conducted at the beginning of a war.”
But while a massive modern day precision-guided Pearl Harbor might cripple U.S. forces in the Pacific and cut off American logistics, it is not necessarily a war winner.
As U.S. Naval War College professor Toshi Yoshihara wrote, Chinese strategists might be making the same mistake as the Imperial Japanese in underestimating American resolve.
“It is unclear whether Beijing has thought through the likely strategic fallout following a missile blitzkrieg against U.S. forces on allied soil. But, the PLA’s continuing missile buildup suggests that Chinese leaders might succumb to the false promise of a quick military fix that so beguiled Japanese strategists seven decades ago,” Yoshihara wrote.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveMajumdar.