China flaunts its hypersonic prowess in the Dongfeng-17 hypersonic glider during a military parade in Beijing in a file photo. Photo: AFP

In 1976, world heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali fought an exhibition bout in Tokyo with karate master Antonio Inoki. Inoki spent most of the match on his back kicking at Ali’s shins crab-fashion.

“Ali was only able to land two jabs while Inoki’s kicks caused two blood clots and an infection that almost resulted in Ali’s leg being amputated,” Wikipedia reports. “The match was not scripted and ultimately declared a draw.”

Archival footage can be viewed here showing Ali hoisting himself on the ropes to avoid Inoki’s crab kicks.

That’s why there won’t be a shooting war between the US and China. China has spent massively on anti-access/area denial weapons – A2/AD for short – that make war impractical.

As I explain in my book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World, China’s defense posture is founded on the same idea as Inoki’s defense against Ali: Beijing wants to make it impossible for the US to get close enough to use its superior forces. The popular “Thucydides Trap” argument that the US will go to war to stop the rise of China is, on close inspection, Thucydides claptrap.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the worst-trained and worst-equipped land army fielded by a major power today, and perhaps ever. The PLA spends just $1,500 to equip an infantryman – not much more than the price of a rifle and a uniform – compared with $18,000 for an American soldier.

Chinese tanks are mediocre and unlikely to stand up to newer American and Russian vehicles. The PLA’s air force has no dedicated ground-attack aircraft comparable to the American A-10 Warthog or the Russian SU-25. 

At least 30,000 Chinese marines and 60,000 seaborne mechanized infantry stand ready to invade Taiwan, or what would be left of Taiwan after an initial bombardment in the event of war.

But China’s rapid deployment forces are tiny compared with America’s. Analysts estimate that China has between 7,000 and 15,000 special forces, versus about 66,000 in the current US defense budget. 

But China has invested enormously in coastal defenses. Its surface-to-ship missiles, from the initial DF-21 unveiled in 2008 through the DF-26 first displayed in 2018, are dubbed “carrier killers” by the press.

China’s Dong-Feng 26, literally ‘East Wind-26’, is displayed during a military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the nation’s founding at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, October 1, 2019. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

The DF-26 reportedly has a 2,500-kilometer range, long enough to hit US military installations in Guam. The Chinese missiles come down vertically from the stratosphere, and US ship defenses are not designed to counter this sort of attack.

Then there is the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle that piggybacks atop the DF-17 heavy missile with speeds that likely can defeat any existing anti-missile system. 

Whether the Chinese can sink American carriers with missiles – or with undetectably quiet diesel-electric submarines – is a matter of controversy. The trouble is that there is only one way to find out for sure, namely to actually have a war. A year ago the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney offered this dour assessment:

“This growing arsenal of accurate long-range missiles poses a major 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 throughout the region.

“Alongside China’s broader A2/AD capabilities—including large numbers of fourth-generation fighter jets, advanced C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] systems, modern attack submarines, electronic warfare capabilities and dense arrays of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles—it permits the PLA to hold US and allied expeditionary forces at risk, preventing them from operating effectively at sea or in the air within combat range of Chinese targets.

“Following Beijing’s construction of a network of military outposts in the South China Sea that can support sophisticated radars, missile batteries and forward-based aircraft, the A2/AD threat is further intensifying in this critical waterway.”

To be sure, there are some enormous unknowns about Chinese military capacity. Some American observers think that China’s J-20 stealth fighter is an effective weapons platform against US naval ships and aircraft; others are not so impressed. The point is that Chinese aircraft don’t have to defeat F-18’s or F-35’s in aerial dogfights. They only need keep US forces at a distance from China and make it difficult for the US to reinforce Taiwan.

America’s high-tech F-35 Lightning stealth fighter has often been referred to as a flying computer because of its AI capabilities. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

China has had the capability to destroy US satellites with missiles since 2008 and may be able to blind them with lasers. In the first minutes of a US-Chinese war, US military communications and positioning systems would be destroyed. 

China also deploys the Russian S-400 air defense system, with sufficient range to sweep the skies above Taiwan. Whether US countermeasures can defeat the S-400 is a military secret, but the Russian system clearly compromises Taiwan’s defenses.

Of course, a confrontation between US and Chinese forces near the Chinese coast isn’t the only possible war scenario. The US might try to block Chinese imports of oil from the Persian Gulf. That explains why China is so eager to lock in overland delivery of oil and gas from Russia.

Still, China produces 85% of its energy consumption (in terms of BTUs) at home. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan depend on imports for virtually all of their energy, so an attempt to stop the flow of oil would have even more devastating consequences for US allies.

The US could devise new weapons to defeat China’s formidable arsenal of missiles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency earlier this year gave Grumman $13 million to study the issue. That is not exactly a Manhattan-Project level of funding. The US Navy claims that it is working on a defensive system, but details are scarce.

In theory, lasers can transmit energy at the speed of light against any kinetic weapon. But sensing, focusing on and destroying very fast objects poses a host of problems that haven’t been solved.

It will take years before laser weapons will change the power balance on China’s coasts. As such, China’s high-tech defensive strategy makes war with the US improbable for the foreseeable future.