War with China would be an 'onslaught' like the US hasn't faced in decades

11 months ago 70
  • The US has started bracing its economy for a potential conflict with China, but it's a work in progress.
  • A clash would be devastating, and experts say the US has work to do increase its military readiness.
  • War would also have severe consequences for China and US allies in the Western Pacific.

In a showdown between the world's two largest powers, neither side is ever going to come to the table fully prepared for war. The mobilization required to fight in a global conflict is momentous, and until the fighting starts, it can be impossible to anticipate the scope of resources that are required.

While the world should hope a full-scale conflict between US and China can be avoided, relations between the two superpowers continue to deteriorate. Now politicians, experts, and even America's military leaders have started to raise the question: Just how prepared is the US if the threats from Beijing become something more serious?

War in the Western Pacific is likely not an immediate danger, according to experts, but it is a possibility. Were the US to end up in a war with China, the likely cause would be a Chinese military assault on the self-run democratic island of Taiwan, which Beijing has long claimed as Chinese territory and is seen as a challenge to its authoritarian rule. President Joe Biden has said that the US would come to Taiwan's defense if China attacked, a break from previous administrations' policy of strategic ambiguity. But as major rivals, the US and China could also find themselves at war for other reasons, such as China's militarization of the South China Sea, where US and Chinese military ships and planes often find themselves in close proximity. 

American intelligence officials have asserted that China is the "most consequential threat to US national security," and experts told us that a conflict with Beijing would trigger an "onslaught" of military threats for which the US was unprepared. A war would likely devastate the militaries involved and plunge the global economy into peril — a bleak scenario with far-reaching consequences. Any war with China would be fought on multiple fronts — from the air and sea to the web and financial markets. While the US has plenty of advantages, years of underinvestment and complacency have left America lacking in several key areas that it would need to strengthen to successfully counter threats from China. Top officials, such as Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agree America needs to bolster its readiness.

"There is nothing more expensive than fighting a war," the general said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in spring. "And preparing for war is also very expensive, but fighting a war is the most expensive. Preparing for war will deter that war."

While it would be foolhardy to predict the outcome of a war between the US and China, the possibility of it happening certainly has experts warning that America is unprepared.

America needs to build things again

During World War II, the US emerged as an industrial powerhouse when it came to cranking out warships and aircraft. Take the Navy, for instance. As the US ramped up its capacity, the country was able to produce certain ships in a matter of weeks. And the Navy often worked miracles to revive heavily damaged ships — the battered USS Nebraska was all but sunk at Pearl Harbor, but the military revived it to fight again during the Allied invasion of Normandy. This industrial might allowed the size of the US Navy's fleet to grow from just 700 to over 6,000 over the course of the war. 

The US maintained this capacity for decades, but America's manufacturing prowess has atrophied since the end of the Cold War. Nowadays, it might take years to build a US Navy ship. The reasons for this are complex — shifted priorities, increased technology on board, overseas labor costs — but the effect is clear: In a high-intensity conflict, the US would face challenges in not only producing vessels but also repairing any ships damaged in battle.

US defense production has a tendency to be over budget and behind schedule, Dan Blumenthal, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia at the US Department of Defense, told us. If the US wants to get to a place where it's prepared for a full-scale conflict, he said, it will need to reverse some of these trends.

"We are up against a strategic competitor that has power across many domains of military power," Blumenthal said. "And we have to be prepared to face an onslaught of the kind we haven't had to respond to in many decades."

Marine Corps amphibious landing Zambales Philippines

US Marines conduct an amphibious landing during Kamandag 6 in Zambales, Philippines on October 7, 2022. US Marine Corps/Cpl. Ujian Gosun

Take, for example, ammunition, which has been sent in heaping amounts to help Ukraine fend off the invading Russian forces. As it stands, America makes about 30,000 artillery shells each month, but the military wants to increase this figure to as many as 70,000. The US also has plans to boost the production of 155 mm artillery shells by 500% in the coming years, which would help rebuild the stockpile of needed munitions. But not all areas of defense production are seeing the same increases.

In comparison with China's massive industrial sector, the US is woefully behind. Control of the Pacific would be a crucial part of any war with China, and Beijing boasts the world's largest navy. According to a 2022 Pentagon report on Chinese military might, the country has about 340 ships and submarines. The US, meanwhile, has fewer than 300 warships.

China not only has more ships but also builds them at a faster pace. Both China and the US in the 2010s launched somewhat comparable destroyers — the Nanchang and USS Zumwalt, respectively. While they both spent about five to six years under construction, the Nanchang was immediately delivered to China's navy after it was commissioned. The US Navy, on the other hand, didn't receive the Zumwalt until four years after it was commissioned. The Zumwalt, which is a more technologically advanced vessel than the Nanchang, had several issues that kept it from being delivered sooner.

We have to be prepared to face an onslaught of the kind we haven't had to respond to in many decades

To keep up with China's growing naval strength, the US will need to build more ships and submarines, but it faces disadvantages, including a smaller number of shipyards and a skilled-labor shortage. Despite this, the US is committed to growing its fleet. Its number of ships is expected to increase to 350 by the 2040s, according to a 2022 US Navy Navigation Plan, and there are aims to augment the fleet with unmanned naval assets. And while the US fleet is smaller than China's, it isn't outmatched. The technology in many US vessels far outstrips that of their Chinese counterparts. The new Ford-class aircraft carriers, or even the older Nimitz-class carriers first fielded in the 1970s, are significantly more capable than China's Liaoning, Shandong, or Fujian carriers. And China would have a "very difficult time tracking our excellent, high-quality classes of submarines," Blumenthal said.

But these advantages may erode if America doesn't steel itself against the threats posed by China, which is quickly mastering advanced military technologies through both espionage and domestic ingenuity. The challenge facing the US is to get the gears in motion now so the country isn't caught flat-footed should it ever go to war with China.

Cash wars

While a military conflict between the US and China is only a hypothetical, the two countries are already competing on the economic battlefield. If this financial tit for tat were to escalate, it would have devastating consequences for the world economy, Glenn O'Donnell, a vice president and research director at Forrester, previously told Insider.

"This could be bigger than 1929," he said, referring to the Great Depression.

Just as the US needs to boost its domestic production of munitions, there's a growing recognition of the dangers of relying on China for inputs that are crucial to producing things such as pharmaceuticals, electric vehicles, and children's toys. In particular, the US is looking to boost its production of semiconductor chips — the minuscule pieces of tech that power smartphones, cars, and refrigerators. About 90% of the most advanced semiconductors are produced by the Taiwanese semiconductor powerhouse TSMC, leaving the US vulnerable if Beijing were to take hold of Taiwan. In an attempt to wean itself off this dependence, the US has passed legislation such as the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, which include large incentives designed to bring semiconductor manufacturing back home. The US has also imposed export controls in an effort to stymie China's own semiconductor industry.

People view a model of the TSMC fab map at a ceremony to start mass production of its most advanced 3-nanometer chips in the southern city of Tainan, Taiwan, December 29, 2022.

People view a model of the TSMC fab map at a ceremony to start mass production of its most advanced 3-nanometer chips in the southern city of Tainan, Taiwan, December 29, 2022. REUTERS/Ann Wang

But it's not just semiconductors, William Alan Reinsch, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told us. The US also needs to decide just how much domestic production of basic goods it will need to survive a fight with Beijing.

"Deciding that chips, batteries, critical minerals, pharmaceuticals matter is easy," he said. "What about autos? Does our national security depend on the US being able to make enough cars to meet domestic demand? What about eyeglasses? Toasters? Where you draw the line matters."

"We cannot meet 100% of our needs for everything domestically," Reinsch added, but America can work with other countries to "friendshore" manufacturing — that is, work with allies to make sure production of crucial goods is always nearby.

You can only prepare so much, and then you would have to deal with the consequences

Beyond hard goods, a conflict with China would also be contested in financial markets. The US and its allies would almost certainly impose sanctions on Beijing — like they have against Russia — and the Chinese economy would be "unbelievably damaged by the consequences," Scott Kennedy, an expert on China's economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told us. But deciding exactly which sanctions to deploy and when is another key part of preparing for economic warfare. Figuring out which measures are likely to be most effective and getting allies on board are no easy tasks. Then there's the tricky balance of inducing some economic pain while leaving some bullets in the chamber. In April, two national security experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Columbia University called for the US to establish an Economic Contingency Planning Committee, whose first priority would be determining various sanctions options that could be deployed in response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan

While the US economy would be significantly influenced by a war with China, Kennedy said China's economy would feel much more pain, a factor that could help prevent a conflict from arising in the first place. 

"China would suffer 100 times more than the US in the short term if we went to war and our economic connectivity was suddenly halted," he said. "In fact, one of the reasons I think that interdependence is highly valuable for the United States is because of that fact."

Many hands make for light work

US readiness for any bout with China would go beyond America's physical capabilities. Wars aren't won alone — they require a strong set of allies who are aligned strategically and ideologically. Unfortunately, much like America's rusty manufacturing skills, our diplomatic abilities have also slipped. 

One of the key ways that the US can project strength is to have actual hard power on the ground in the region. "We've long let the size of our force posture erode in the Western Pacific, and that doesn't help with competition," Blumenthal said. Washington has taken several positive, high-profile steps this year to boost its military presence in the Pacific and increase cooperation with allies. These include new US Marine units taking position in Japan, increased US submarine visits at Australian ports and plans for an eventual submarine base, and additional sites in the Philippines that will play host to US forces. But while Washington has been moving to strengthen its posture and presence across the region, Blumenthal said, the US needs to do more, including hardening and protecting its bases and ports in allied countries so that they can't be destroyed by Chinese missiles.

Then there's the element of boosting the US's "soft power" abroad and strengthening ties with allies, many of whom have strong economic links with China. In fall, when the US introduced export controls that restricted the sale of semiconductors to China, Washington was able to get Japan and the Netherlands to implement similar measures — which helped ensure the bans packed a punch.  

A worst-case scenario

If America wants to feel prepared for a conflict with China, it's clear that it needs to get back to building — building ships, building semiconductors, building up relationships with allies. Ramping up the country's long-slumbering industrial and diplomatic might is a tall task, but experts agreed that the US had the resources to reestablish itself in those areas, as long as it had the will. But even if the US shores up its production issues and gets allies on board, the harsh reality remains: A war with China would take a significant toll on all parties involved — wrecking militaries and the economy.

"You can only prepare so much, and then you would have to deal with the consequences," Kennedy said. "That's why diplomacy and finding a pathway through our differences is so vitally important."

Jake Epstein is a defense reporter for Insider covering national security and military issues.

Jacob Zinkula is a reporter for Insider covering the US economy.

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