Could the era of US military primacy in the Pacific be over?
According to a new study by a neutral Australian think tank, the power of the United States is fading, while China is gaining an increasingly favorable military position in the Indo-Pacific, Defense News reported.
The Sydney-based United States Studies Centre says the region is now vulnerable to China making a quick move to secure a military or strategic advantage, with the cost of an American counter-move potentially too high to bear.
In its report, analysts also lament the “combined effect of ongoing wars in the Middle East, budget austerity, underinvestment in advanced military capabilities and the scale of America’s liberal order-building agenda has left the US armed forces ill-prepared for great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.”
The report, titled, “Averting crisis: American Strategy, Military Spending and Collective Defence in the Indo-Pacific,” adds that over the next decade, the US defense budget “is unlikely to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy owing to a combination of political, fiscal and internal pressures.”
Meanwhile, the regional balance of power has tilted in China’s favor, which the report says is also a product of the way Beijing has modernized and postured its armed forces. Central to this is the massive investment in conventionally-armed ballistic and cruise missiles, which analysts consider the centerpiece of China’s “counter-intervention” efforts.
This “growing arsenal of accurate long-range missiles,” some of which are able to reach the critical American air and naval bases located at the U.S. territory of Guam in the northern Marianas from mainland China, “poses a major threat to almost all American, allied and partner bases, airstrips, ports and military installations in the Western Pacific.”
According to a 2017 article by Capt. Thomas Shugart, then a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security, open-source satellite imagery suggests that China has even been testing its ballistic missiles against mockup targets similar in layout to those found at American and allied bases.
These mockup targets range from vehicles to above-ground fuel tanks, runways, hardened aircraft shelters and moored ships, with Shugart pointing out that the latter are arranged in a “near-mirror image of the actual inner harbor at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka.”
He went on to suggest that “the only way that China could realistically expect to catch multiple US ships in port … would be through a surprise attack.”
The risk is compounded by the fact that many of the US and allied operating bases in the Indo-Pacific that are exposed to possible Chinese missile attack lack hardened infrastructure, while “forward-deployed munitions and supplies are not set to wartime requirements” even as “America’s logistics capability has steeply declined.”
China’s growing military might in what is known as the “first island chain,” which stretches from Japan and the Ryukyu Islands archipelago down to Taiwan and the Philippines, has now effectively been flipped, according to the think tank.
That provides China “with the coercive leverage it would need to quickly seize coveted territory or overturn other aspects of the status quo by pursuing a fait accompli strategy.”
Furthermore, “China has deployed a formidable array of precision missiles and other counter-intervention systems to undercut America’s military primacy,” the report states. Those missiles number “in the thousands,” the report says.
Almost all US military installations in the Western Pacific, as well as those of its key partners and allies, “could be rendered useless by precision strikes in the opening hours of a conflict.”
According to a Pentagon report, upwards of 2,000 short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can hit land and sea targets are part of that formidable plan.
“Put simply, as the environment above the surface becomes more deadly because of Chinese deployments of cruise missiles, hypersonic technologies and anti-air defenses, America’s enduring advantage in undersea warfare will become increasingly important in the regional balance of power,” the report says.