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A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine of the Chinese PLA Navy. Photo: Reuters

Chinese missiles likely to cripple Asia-based US forces in event of conflict: report

  • Report by Australian researchers urged US allies such as Australia and Japan to revamp investment to prevent US military might from being eroded in the region
  • The report also detailed the prowess of the PLA Rocket Force, which is capable of making precision strikes as far from the mainland as Singapore
If an armed conflict broke out between Beijing and Washington, China’s hi-tech ballistic missiles would likely cripple the United States’ military bases and naval fleet across the Western Pacific region within hours, a new report by Australia-based researchers has said.
With China making rapid technological advancements and sharpening its hard power, the report urged the US and regional allies such as Australia and Japan to overhaul military investment and deployment plans, or face the prospect of American “military primacy” being undermined by the Asian power.

The 104-page report by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney assessed US military strategy, spending and alliances in the region.

Lead author Ashley Townshend told This Week in Asia that the region’s changing balance of power should be of concern to all Asian states – including those seeking to maintain good relations with both superpowers – as it was in their interests to deter Beijing from wielding an “aggressive foreign policy”.

“As its power rises, it may well be emboldened to make a play for parts of the first island chain, including Taiwan, which would seriously constrain the security horizons for all concerned,” said Townshend, referring to the arc of islands that stretches from the Japanese archipelago to the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.

Chinese military analysts, however, brushed off that assertion – claiming that as it stood, Beijing continued to believe the US was the region’s superior power.

“We respect the US’ reasonable presence in the Western Pacific … now and in the future, we hope the US will be a responsible player in the world, including in the Western Pacific,” said Zhao Yi, a former senior captain with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy and a visiting researcher at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Wu Shang-su, also a research fellow at RSIS, said while Beijing’s ability in “denial” – disrupting enemies’ use of space – may have been enhanced in recent years, that did not necessarily mean it was able to use that capability to control that space.

Said Wu: “For example, to capture Taiwan, [the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands] or even further locations requires Beijing to establish control over specific air, sea and electronic space. The PLA’s firepower may deny the US military’s control, but the former needs to build up control to achieve its goals as well.”
Military vehicles carry DF-16 short-range ballistic missiles past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade in September 2015. Photo: AP

One of the report’s starkest findings was on the prowess of the PLA Rocket Force.

According to the authors’ independent calculations, the force has fielded an estimated 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles, 450 medium-range missiles, 160 intermediate-range missiles and hundreds of long-range ground-launched cruise missiles.

These conventional ballistic missiles are able to make precision strikes on targets as far away from the mainland as Singapore – where the US has a major logistics facility – as well as mammoth American bases in South Korea and Japan .

China is also in possession of so-called “carrier killer” missiles such as the DF-21D, which can hit moving US aircraft carriers at a range of up to 1,500km (932 miles).

US-China battle for dominance extends across Pacific, above and below the sea

Because of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty the US signed with the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1987, it was banned from deploying missiles with ranges from 500km to 5,500km.

The deal is now dead after the US pulled out of it, citing Russian non-compliance, and Washington has signalled it wants to deploy these missiles – or more advanced versions of them – in the Asia-Pacific region.

The capabilities of the PLA Rocket Force have previously been raised by the likes of military researcher Jim Fanell, a former top US navy officer, as well as by a Reuters special report published in April.

The Australian think tank report – to be formally launched on Monday – said China’s “growing arsenal of accurate long-range missiles poses a threat to almost all American, allied and partner bases, airstrips, ports and military installations in the Western Pacific”.

“As these facilities could be rendered useless by precision strikes in the opening hours of a conflict, the PLA missile threat challenges America’s ability to freely operate its forces from forward locations in the region,” it said.

In such a scenario, American reinforcements are likely to take time to arrive – and will also have to “fight to get to the fight”.

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This means the US will be faced with a choice of entering a conflict that is potentially “enormously costly and dangerous” or choose not to intervene – giving rise to the possibility of a fait accompli victory for Beijing.

“Because America’s interests in the security of its allies are ‘fundamentally secondary’ to its own survival, and arguably less tangible than the core interests Beijing has at stake in many of these flashpoints, Washington may ultimately wager that intervention is not worth the candle,” the report said.

The report’s authors also pointed out that China’s advancements in military technology were not the sole reason for the waning might of the US’ forward deployed force in Asia.

The PLA Rocket Force, the authors calculate, has fielded an estimated 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles, 450 medium-range missiles, 160 intermediate-range missiles and hundreds of long-range ground-launched cruise missiles
Among internal factors flagged by the report were overuse of naval and aerial assets – partly due to the US’ commitments to wars in the Middle East – and a backlog in infrastructure maintenance funding to the tune of some US$116 billion.

Some 23 per cent of US defence facilities are marked as being in “poor condition” with a further nine per cent labelled as “failing”, the report said, citing Pentagon data.

At a time of a crucial need for defence funding, US government spending in the sector dropped by 21 per cent in real terms between 2011 and 2018. Last year President Donald Trump signed into law the biggest year-to-year increase in defence spending since 2003.

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Ideological differences about defence spending among lawmakers at both intraparty and inter-party levels was another factor viewed as a major issue.

Among the recommendations by the report’s authors were for Australia to step up its contributions to regional security alongside Japan through a range of measures, including expediting submarine construction plans and acquiring land-based strike capabilities. It also urged Canberra to pare down the country’s naval deployments in the Middle East.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: china can ‘wipe out asia-based u.s. forces’