Admiral James Stavridis was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander NATO and the 12th Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He has spent most of his operational career in the Pacific and is the author of “2034: A Novel of the Next World War”.
Much has been written about the possibility of a war between the United States and China. It tends to be measured in theoretical terms, and a lot of the analysis focuses on exactly when it might happen. But the vital question is really very simple: who would win?
Of course – no one really “wins” a major war. But the best way to avoid having to go to war is to convince your potential opponent that he would definitely be the biggest loser. The military balance between China and the United States is complicated and requires thinking about budgets, the number of warships and planes, geography, alliance systems and technology – especially the capabilities under -marines, cybersecurity and space.
Let’s start with the dollars and the yuan. The US defense budget is fairly transparent, at least in terms of total dollars. Defense spending was around $ 714 billion in FY2020 – and is expected to increase to $ 733 billion in 2021. Somewhat opaque, China’s defense spending is certainly lower, with this budget defense set at 1.36 trillion yuan ($ 212.6 billion), or 6.8 billion yuan ($ 212.6 billion). % increase over the previous year.
But China does not have the high personnel costs of an all-volunteer force, and its military activities are largely focused on East Asia, not the US military’s very expensive global footprint. And a significant level of their spending does not appear “in the public books”. Overall, in terms of resources, the US has an advantage, but it’s not as overwhelming as it looks.
In terms of simple numbers of warships, China already leads the United States, around 350-300, in combat ships. And Chinese shipyards are pumping out new warships almost every week, especially relatively low-tech patrol boats, corvettes and frigates. Yet American ships are ton-to-ton bigger, have better offensive and defensive systems, and have much more experienced crews.
In addition, the United States has a very sophisticated network of command and control capabilities to link its long-range aviation platforms alongside surface warships and, of course, submarines. . Given the tight geography of East Asia, I would say China has a slight advantage in terms of sheer numbers of both sea and air platforms, with the US having better quality assets.
Geographically, China enjoys a great advantage in a potential conflict with the United States in the South and East China Seas. Notably, China would be able to logistically support its warships in terms of fuel and ammunition, provide combat repair facilities nearby, and get sailors on and off easily. For the United States, long supply and labor chains would hamper American forces, even allowing the presence of American bases nearby.
In addition, the chain of man-made islands built by China throughout the South China Sea would somewhat balance the US bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam. The US Navy, by the way, does not refer to the 10 or so Chinese “islands” as artificial islands – rather, they are considered unsinkable aircraft carriers.
Indeed, much of the tactical and strategic thinking of the United States in war combat is devoted to how to neutralize these installations, one of them being to deploy special forces of the United States Navy – Marine Raiders – to destroy their offensive ability at the start of a fight. While the United States would try to compensate for its long logistical tail by engaging our allies, geography is clearly a factor that favors China.
What about alliances? The United States has long believed that its greatest comparative advantage over China is its network of allies, partners and friends around the world. In Asia, that means strong support from Japan – the world’s third largest economy, Australia – highly skilled navies, South Korea, Singapore and many more. The United States also strongly cultivates India through the Quad concept which consists of aligning it with the United States, Japan and Australia. Yet to what extent the United States could rely on such partners in the face of a Chinese attack is a growing question.
In addition, China increasingly takes the page of the United States and strengthens its systems of partnerships. The Belt and Road Initiative is designed to do just that, and the Chinese are making inroads both in Asia and on the east coast of Africa. More importantly, Beijing is consolidating its relations with Russia – the two nations frequently exercise together militarily, Iran – China has just announced an investment of 400 billion dollars, Pakistan and the Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte seems to favor China in many matters compared to the United States. , theoretically a formal ally of the treaty.
Overall, America’s allies are bigger, richer, and have stronger armies, so an advantage for Washington – but the gap is narrowing.
Last but not least, victory in an American-Chinese war would be heavily influenced by whoever has the best technology. In the key areas of submarine silence, the number of military satellites in space, offensive and defensive cyber tools, and unmanned vehicles, the United States continues to lead. But China is closing fast, especially in the arena of artificial intelligence, hypersonic cruise missiles, cyber, and the emerging field of quantum computing. The recently published National Commission on Artificial Intelligence is revealing in this regard. Once again, a slight advantage – but conclusive – for the United States.
Bottom line: If I were the admiral commanding US Indo-Pacific Command – the head of all US military forces in the Pacific and Indian Oceans – I would still want the US card hand to play. But as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo, a fight with China would be a “near thing.” And over the next decade, that gap will narrow and – if the United States does not respond – favor China.
That’s why I put my recent novel, 2034: A novel from the next world war, 10 to 15 years in the future. These alarm bells go off at Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor and monitor the United States’ strategic direction, resources and advanced technology heading west over the next decade.