China May Win Fight 'Before America Can Respond' in Pacific, Report Says

The United States' military posture in the Indo-Pacific region has eroded due to political infighting, costly engagements elsewhere and other debilitating factors, giving a rapidly-rising China the upper hand in the event of a conflict, according to a new report.

The University of Sydney's United States Study Center published on Friday a comprehensive, 104-page document entitled "Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific" that explained how "America no longer enjoys military primacy in the Indo-Pacific and its capacity to uphold a favorable balance of power is increasingly uncertain." The report focused on China as a "great power" competitor identified as a top adversary in President Donald Trump's 2018 National Defense Strategy.

While the U.S. remains widely seen as the world's foremost military power, 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."

"Having studied the American way of war — premised on power projection and all-domain military dominance — China has deployed a formidable array of precision missiles and other counter-intervention systems to undercut America's military primacy," the report found. "By making it difficult for US forces to operate within range of these weapons, Beijing could quickly use limited force to achieve a fait accompli victory — particularly around Taiwan, the Japanese archipelago or maritime Southeast Asia — before America can respond, sowing doubt about Washington's security guarantees in the process."

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China's guided-missile frigate Liupanshui fires an acoustic decoy during a four-day exercise from August 8-11 with a flotilla of the Southern Theater Command in the South China Sea. The Chinese military has stepped up training, especially for its naval forces deployed to the contested waters of the South China Sea. Liang Zhangming/Cai Shengqiu/Chinese People's Liberation Army

While the U.S. has been largely fixated on open-ended counter-insurgency campaigns — especially in the Middle East — throughout the 21st century, China has managed to modernize its air and sea fleets and greatly expand its land-based missile arsenal in order to shore up its own ability to defend its interests in another energy-rich region, the strategic waters spanning the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Many of Beijing's goals here conflict with those of Washington.

Naval tensions have already risen between the two leading economic powers as they were separately engaged in a bitter trade war wreaking havoc on their bilateral ties and costing both billions of dollars. The U.S. does not recognize China's vast claims in the South China Sea, nor to the self-ruling island nation of Taiwan, which was reportedly set to receive $8 billion worth of new F-16V fighter jets in the latest move to stir outrage in Beijing.

Though confrontations between the two have yet to escalate into violence, Friday's report suggested that China may be able to secure its aims by waging a "limited war" to retake Taiwan or assert control over disputed islands using not only conventional capabilities but an array of cyber and political weapons as well. The paper found: "In all these scenarios, Beijing's aim would be to strike first to secure longstanding political goals or strategically valuable objectives before the United States can do anything to stop it."

The U.S. has devoted more money to its defense budget than at least the next seven countries combined and maintained hundreds of military installations across the Indo-Pacific. However, "an outdated superpower mindset" that "regards America's role in the world as defending an expansive liberal order" meant the Pentagon may be stretched too thin and Washington too distracted to address a Chinese challenge in time, according to the report.

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The U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan leads a formation of 17 other ships from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Royal Australian Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force during the Talisman Sabre 2019 exercise on July 11. The Pentagon's regional alliances, aircraft carrier arsenal and active bases still give the U.S. a distinct advantage over China in terms of power projection. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Tarleton/U.S. Navy

Researchers in Friday's report recommended the U.S. bolster ties with regional partners, especially Australia and Japan. The paper's release coincided with the conclusion of newly-appointed Defense Secretary Mark Esper's debut visit in his position to Asia, where he has expressed interest in deploying land-based medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, a class of weapon once banned a 1987 treaty that was abandoned earlier this month.

China, which was not subject to the Cold War-era treaty between the U.S. and Soviet Union, has threatened countermeasures should the Pentagon expand its missile infrastructure in the region. Beijing has also rejected Washington's offer to forge a new arms deal that included all three countries, arguing the U.S. and Russia had unique responsibilities as the world's leading nuclear powers.

As Russia and China step up their joint cooperation in the region, Friday's report called for the establishment of a "collective defense" among U.S. allies in the region. Such a strategy would be designed "to aggregate military capabilities and align operational concepts and strategy in order to present a more credible approach to blunting Chinese aggression and minimizing its strategic expansion."

With Japan and South Korea at odds of their own, new unrest in Afghanistan threatening to delay a planned pullout from a protracted conflict elsewhere in Asia and ongoing concerns about the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific as a whole, the report noted that shifting away from a path that leads to China eclipsing U.S. dominance in the region "requires hard strategic choices which the United States may be unwilling or unable to make."