Four Ways a China-US War at Sea Could Play Out
Four Ways a China-US War at Sea Could Play Out
In the mid-1970s, I set sail as a young ensign, my first deployment after graduating from the US Naval Academy. We sailed west from San Diego on a brand-new Spruance-class destroyer. As a Cold War sailor, I was deeply disappointed that the ship was not headed into northern Atlantic waters to challenge the vaunted Soviet fleet. Instead, our six-month cruise was focused on the waters of the western Pacific, those around northern Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The furthest thing from our minds was a serious threat from Communist China (as we called it then). It had a somewhat capable coastal navy in those days, but the ships and aircraft of the oddly named People’s Liberation Army Navy simply were not a significant competitor.
Things have changed remarkably. Over the course of my naval career, I watched China slowly, meticulously and cleverly improve every aspect of its naval capabilities. That trend has accelerated significantly over the past decade, as China has expanded the number of its sophisticated warships, deployed them aggressively throughout the region, and built artificial islands to be used as military bases in the South China Sea. It is now a peer competitor of the US in those waters, and this has real risks.
I see four distinct maritime “flashpoint” zones, where the Chinese navy may potentially take military against the US and its allies, partners and friends. They are the Taiwan Strait; Japan and the East China Sea; the South China Sea; and more distant waters around China's other neighbors, including Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and India.
Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait
The highest regional priority for the Chinese military is ensuring it can exercise sea control and power projection in the waters around Taiwan. President Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership have sworn to bring the “renegade province” to heel. While they still hope to do so through patience — and by strangling Taipei’s international support — they will be willing to use military force if necessary. In recent congressional testimony, Admiral Phil Davidson, head of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command, said that he saw the possibility of military action “within six years.”
The Taiwanese are carefully watching as China violates the agreement negotiated with the British in 1997 to follow a “one country, two systems” system with Hong Kong. They recognize their future within greater China would include a loss of democracy and human rights.
With Taiwan over 8,000 miles from Hawaii but just 250 miles from the Chinese mainland, the challenges for the US Navy are profound. US support for Taiwan’s security is bipartisan — but the longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity,” supporting Taiwan militarily without a formal commitment to defending it, is dangerously fuzzy. It could lead to a miscalculation by the Chinese (or the Taiwanese) and set off a larger conflict.
Were China to try to end the question of Taiwanese independence militarily, its prime objective would be to make the US incapable of defending the island. This strategy would center on anti-access/area-denial — using defensive measures to keep the already extended US Navy at a distance. (The Pentagon has made Congress well aware of this in its latest report on Chinese military capabilities.)
The Chinese plan would involve numerous surface warships (cruisers, destroyers and frigates, all with significant surface-to-surface missile capability); land- and sea-based cruise and ballistic missiles, including an increasing number that are hypersonic (capable of traveling many times the speed of sound, and for which the US currently lacks reliable defenses); cyberwarfare directed against US command, control, navigation and GPS systems; and increasingly sophisticated antisatellite weapons to reduce US intelligence and early warning.
The Chinese are unlikely to mount an amphibious invasion of the beaches — a tremendously difficult operation. Rather, the plan would probably be a lightning strike that involves establishing sea control around Taiwan, then using lighter-footprint operations. This might be done by inserting Special Forces, connecting them to “sleeper cells” of commandos already on the island, gaining control of airfields, and airlifting in a powerful military force. Simultaneously, they would use the surface-to-surface missiles and air power to decimate Taiwan’s air-defense systems. The Taiwanese could hold their own for a period of time, but eventually be overwhelmed.
If the US chose to respond with direct military force — a big if — it would move first at sea, targeting Chinese vessels and reducing their surface-to-surface strike capability. It would look to shield Taiwan with ballistic missile ships; move quickly to reinforce forward bases in Guam, South Korea and Japan; and ensure continued connectivity in what is certain to be highly contested space and cyber domains. The US might also hit China’s bases in the South China Sea with Navy Seals and Marine Raiders, forcing the Chinese to divert military assets and attention away from Taiwan.
Who would prevail? At this moment, my money would still narrowly be on the US military, but the trends are not moving in the right direction. The Pentagon will have to put more money and training toward cyberwarfare, employment of Special Forces at sea, unmanned vehicles, subsurface capabilities (both manned submarines and undersea drones); and air defenses against hypersonic cruise and ballistic missiles.
Working with allies (especially Japan) will be critical. The degree to which the US is willing to make explicit defense guarantees to Taiwan will have an impact on the calculus in Beijing. So will the quality of weapons systems provided to Taipei — especially better air defenses and next-generation fighter aircraft — the level of joint training and exercises, and the number of high-level visits to Taiwan by senior military and diplomatic figures.
Of the four potential maritime flashpoints in East Asia, Taiwan is the most dangerous — and the most likely to explode.
Japan and the East China Sea
Japan and China have a long and difficult history, including two significant military confrontations in the modern era. In the first Sino-Japanese War, begun in 1894 largely over control of Korea, a newly dynamic Japanese war machine easily defeated the fading Qing Dynasty of China. A second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 and lasted until the end of World War II. The Japanese killed, wounded, raped and imprisoned millions. The bitterness between the two nations is palpable today.
In my Navy years, I returned again and again to Japan, often spending weeks on ships in the large base of the Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force is formidable. It includes destroyers equipped with the US Navy’s Aegis guided-missile system, excellent diesel submarines, long-range patrol aircraft, and seamless command and control knitting it all together. In my conversations with senior Japanese officers — including while lecturing at their naval war college a few years ago — their overriding concern was China’s growing influence throughout the western Pacific.
China and Japan both claim a group of islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese. Located close to Taiwan, these five uninhabited islands are important because ownership provides a 200-nautical-mile exclusion zone and buttresses competing claims around them. They are part of the chain descending south from the Japanese main islands, and form a gateway to the South China Sea. Ownership would also provide fishing rights, access to exploit hydrocarbons, and the possibility of deep-seabed mining.
China is gradually increasing the numbers and capability of air and sea patrols around and over the islands. Warships and long-range patrol aircraft are making frequent appearances, leading to similar steps by the Japanese. The chances of miscalculation between pilots or ship captains of the rival nations is far from negligible.
The US recognizes the islands as part of Japan, thus a Chinese move to occupy them would activate the US-Japan mutual defense treaty, something successive American presidential administrations have made clear.
How would the US respond militarily if China were to move on the islands? Given the Seventh Fleet in Tokyo Bay and the III Marine Expeditionary Force in Sasebo, there is strong capability in Japan. Long-range bombers from Guam, roughly 1,500 miles to the southeast, and other regional bases would also be available.
All US forces would of course operate in alliance with Japanese ships and aircraft. Unlike Taiwan, the Senkakus have no civilian populace, and all combat would be conducted at sea unless the Chinese actually landed forces ashore, much as the Argentines did in the Falklands in the 1980s.
This is a fight that the US would prefer not to have, especially as it faces off with China on other contentious issues, from trade sanctions to the fate of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. But Washington is bound by a formal treaty, and these tiny, uninhabited rocks will continue to be an oversized focus of US military planners at the headquarters of the Indo-Pacific Command in Honolulu.
The South China Sea
The South China Sea is huge, nearly half the size of the continental US. As you approach the coasts of the many nations that ring it, you’ll see huge clusters of coastal fishermen; oil and natural gas platforms; small tankers and breakbulk cargo vessels; and massive supertankers. It is a busy waterway; by some estimates it carries nearly 40% of the world’s shipping.
Alongside all those maritime silhouettes, you will also see the warships of many nations — China and the US, to be sure, but also local combatants from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Other Asia-Pacific nations, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and South Korea, maintain a military presence. And warships from other side of the world — France, Germany, the UK — routinely deploy there as well.
China stakes a territorial claim over essentially the entire body of water. Relying on voyages of the admiral Zheng He from the 1600s, China in the 1940s delineated what it calls the “Nine-Dash Line,” a maritime boundary within which it maintains the fiction of sovereignty. This is disputed by virtually every other nation in the region (many of whom have overlapping and competing claims with not only China, but each other as well). An international court largely dismissed the overarching Chinese claim in 2016.
As China plays the long game to consolidate control, it is building artificial islands. These are mostly in areas with promising oil and gas fields in the sea’s southern reaches and around the Spratly Islands, which are themselves disputed between several of the nations. There are seven completed islands, all militarized and some with airfields, but nobody thinks Beijing will stop there.
For the US, the paramount value to defend in these waters is freedom of the high seas. The Chinese firmly believe that over time, the US will acquiesce rather than fight. The US demonstrates its intent though increasing numbers of “freedom of navigation” patrols; China objects, and sometimes sends its own ships in challenge. So far, calmer heads have prevailed, and there have been no major incidents.
Both nations have well-rehearsed war plans in the event of actual combat across the South China Sea. The Chinese would flood the region with their capable surface ships (destroyers, frigates, corvettes); launch land-based hypersonic cruise and ballistic missiles at US flotillas; employ diesel and electric submarines; and try to disable American space assets and maritime command and control structures with cyberattacks.
As with a conflict over Taiwan or the East China Sea, the US would respond with long-range airpower operating from Guam, Japan and South Korea, armed with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs. Principal targets would be Chinese warships and their artificial island bases. After these aircraft have degraded Chinese offensive capabilities, US aircraft carrier battle groups would gingerly enter the South China Sea, using as much sea space as possible to remain outside the range of Chinese land-based air and missile systems.
Both sides would try to maintain control of the ladder of escalation, because an attack that ends up destroying bases and infrastructure on the mainland of China would provoke a furious response. That could even cause China to retaliate against the US mainland. I explored this scenario in a new novel, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” which has many twists and turns — as such a war surely would.
India and the Indian Ocean
I entered the waters of the Indian Ocean for the first time in the late 1970s, as the Cold War was raging and India was a leader of the “non-aligned” nations. I was a junior officer on a destroyer, and on the long night watches, I would see the coast of India on the radar, and would wonder what the Indian Navy was capable of doing.
After all, India’s coastline is among the 20 longest in the world, on the globe’s third-largest body of water. In those days, the Indian navy did not venture out much, and had a modest collection of older warships inherited from the Soviet Union.
Today, India is cornerstone of an emerging Indo-Pacific geopolitical alignment, known as colloquially as the Quad, along with Australia, Japan and the US. One of Biden’s first actions after taking office was a video summit with the other three nations’ leaders.
It has not developed into the “Asian NATO” that some strategists envisioned. As is often the case in Asian geopolitics, it’s complicated. China is among the largest trading partners of three of the members, and there are very real differences in outlook and approach to Beijing among the group. But the Quad is increasingly touted as part of the strategic response to Chinese military activity.
India, the US and Japan (with Australia and Singapore occasionally joining) have been conducting war games, the Malabar Naval Exercises, in the Indian Ocean for the better part of a decade; the most recent, in late 2020, was largely conducted in the Bay of Bengal. While not comparable in scale to the massive Rimpac exercises led by the US in the central Pacific each year, Malabar included a wide variety of tactical operations and provided a high degree of symbolic cooperation among the navies engaged.
The Quad alignment is strategically interesting because it foreshadows the potential for broader maritime conflict throughout East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Picture a scenario in which China attacks Taiwan, with the US coming to the assistance of the Taiwanese. Given that Australia and Japan are part of a mutual defense treaty with the US (along with Asian nations South Korea, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand), this could easily broaden from a conflict localized around the Strait of Taiwan to one spreading across the South China Sea. With Australia in the conflict, the Indian Ocean might easily become another zone in the battle.
If so, how would India respond? While not treaty allies, Washington and New Delhi are drawing closer together. India’s relations with China are deteriorating, with recent clashes over disputed Himalayan borders. If India were to join with the other Quad nations, it would mean war at sea in the Indian Ocean.
While this is the least likely of the four flashpoint scenarios looked at here, it’s not a negligible risk. China is expanding naval operations as part of its vast infrastructure project, One Belt, One Road — which has “one problem”: India. India sits across the Chinese southern trade and raw material routes, and its military operates with short logistic lines throughout the northern Indian Ocean. While India’s navy is far smaller than China’s, when married with those of the other Quad members, it could prove a significant factor.
China, on the other hand, would be operating at a long logistics chain and has few allies or bases in the region (Chinese ships could perhaps access ports of Iran and Pakistan, although neither nation would be enthusiastic about diving into a US-China conflict). The Chinese are building a naval base on the Horn of Africa, and have significant influence on the island of Sri Lanka as well; but overall, the Chinese navy would be at a significant disadvantage.
Meanwhile, bases in India could provide the other Quad members with fuel, provisions and long-range air patrol bases (particularly important against submarines). The US would also depend on its basing rights in Singapore, which hosts portions of the Seventh Fleet, and access to northern Australia and to Thailand. China would need to commit forces to ensure its oil supply flowing through the northern Indian Ocean.
How great are the chances of such a multi-ocean military conflict between the two superpowers and their allies? Far, far lower than the likelihood of a flare-up in the Taiwan Strait or East China Sea. But much as Europe stumbled into World War I because of extensive networks of alliances, it is entirely possible a war in the western Pacific could bring conflict to Indian waters.
It would have been hard for young Ensign Stavridis to imagine any of this while sailing across the Pacific in the 1970s — but alliances have significantly shifted, even if geography has not.