Friday, March 17, 2023

Reading America's Fortune Cookie: Is War with China Likely?

Let's face it. The war in Ukraine isn't going well for anyone. Putin's military advisors anticipated a brief invasion followed by a ceasefire and talks about how to guarantee Ukraine's sovereignty without a NATO presence on Ukrainian soil and protecting Russian national security. But that didn't happen.

Instead, the U.S. and its European surrogate, NATO, immediately began pumping billions of dollars in weapons into Ukraine, not to mention providing intelligence about Russian troop movement. The Western media went into full propaganda mode to condemn not just the invasion (rightly so), but also to spin U.S. and NATO involvement and the reasons for the invasion in the first place.

The result has been a stalemate measured in dead civilians, massive destruction of towns and cities and the growing specter of nuclear war. Without U.S. and NATO involvement, the invasion would likely have been over with a few months at best with a practical compromise the likely result. But then again, had Russia not been forced to invade to protect its national security from an encirclement of NATO missiles on its western front, there would have been to need for anyone's involvement and nobody would be dead.  

The only nation to present a peace proposal thus far has been China, which the United States and its allies dismissed out of hand. The primary reason is that China is a ally of Russia, and besides, it has recently started providing military support to Russian troops operating in Ukraine.  You would think that after a year of war, the United Nations or someone would have stepped forward to offer a solution to stop the war, but apparently not. Why?

The most likely reason is pressure from Washington. Washington has long seen Russia a potential threat to its military and economic primacy, well, that is until the collapse of the USSR in 1989 and implosion of Soviet Russia in 1991.  Since then, the United States has sought to impose a "Pax Americana" and the global integration of economies under the auspices of a U.S. led "New World Order".  However, not everyone wants to play along.

Russia, along a few other countries such as Cuba, Brazil, Iran, and China, have been able to go about their merry way outside of this American hegemony. A few have formed their own economic solution, such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China, which formed "BRIC" in 2009. Subsequently, the name has been changed to "BRICS" with the addition of South Africa in 2010. 

There have been other economic blocs formed outside the sphere of American influence such as "The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership" (RCEP), which was signed into being in 2020 and took effect in 2022. RCEP is now the largest economic partnership in the world.

At its head is China, and it includes Vietnam, Australia, Brunei, Japan, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, New Zealand, and Thailand. It doesn't not include the United States. RCEP accounts for some 30% of the world's economy, 30% of the world's population, and will have an economic reach of at least 2.2 billion potential customers.  

China has established itself not just as the world's second largest economy with a GDP of $17.73 billion dollars(compared to the U.S. with a GDP of $23.32 billion), but is expected to surpass the U.S. by 2035. By 2075 or sooner, India will also pass the U.S., leaving the U.S. as the third largest global economy.

China seeks to do more than just wrestle economic control of the Pacific Rim from the United States. It intends to back up with military might, with a particular focus on its navy.  The Chinese have embarked on the largest military upgrade of any nation since WWII although the United States still spends more on its military budget than the next nine nations combined including China.

In 2022, China spent roughly $293 billion dollars, or 13.9% of its GDP upgrading its military while the United States spent $801 billion dollars or 37.9% of the GDP on its military. Together, China and the U.S. make up 50% of all military expenditures with a combined $1.1 trillion dollars. 

By comparison, Russia spent just 3.1% of its GDP, or $65.9 billion on its military. The UK spent slightly more, or about $68.4 billion dollars. It's worth nothing that China's military expenditures have increased 27 years in a row. The result is that China now has the newest and largest navy in the world by tonnage.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is still the best trained and equipped, it's suffering from combat fatigue. After 20 years in Afghanistan, the United States left with virtually nothing to show for it. Yes, it took out Al Qaeda's top leadership including Osama bin Laden, but Al Qaeda barely skipped a beat, replacing leaders almost immediately and continuing with its operations. The same goes for the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban were already back in charge before the last U.S. military planes had left Kabul.  

To make matters worse, following the withdrawal, the U.S. military saw a rapid exodus of its highly skilled men and women (most of whom having served at least four tours of combat duty) with replacement proving to be slow and time consuming. In addition, the military is woefully in need of a total overhaul or replacement of practically everything from ships to tanks to aircraft.

During the course of the war, the United States flew 55,150 sorties and dropped over 337,000 bombs and missiles (including some 13,000 precision guided munitions) in Afghanistan. That works out to be an average of about 49 bombs per day every day. In 2019 alone, a record number of 7,423 bombs were dropped on Afghanistan.  The result was a severe shortage in our stockpile of practically everything from bombs to bullets, not to mention spare parts particularly for aircraft.

As an aside, while we were busy blowing up Afghanistan, we were also busy rebuilding it back in our image. U.S. taxpayers shelled out $145,000 billion dollars over the 20 years in rebuilding its infrastructure, schools, hospitals and office buildings, its electrical grid as well as training and equipping its security forces, stabilizing its government, and propping up its economy...and the Taliban got it all, not to mention billions in military equipment and hardware we left behind.

Starting between now and 2035, the U.S. military is expected to undergo a major overhauls of its ships (combat and auxiliary), aircraft, tanks, trucks, artillery, and so forth. If it moves or shoots, it's getting a makeover.  Some ships, however, are beyond the makeover phase. The Pentagon confirmed in late 2022 that 26 ships will be decommissioned, leaving the Navy shorthanded with just 276 active ships (300 is considered its minimal effective force)

However, over the next ten years the Navy is expected to be back up to its fighting weight with the addition of eight new "deep water" combat ships and a projected fleet of 500 ships by 2040; most of whom are destined for the Pacific (by comparison, the British Royal Navy, once the world's dominate naval power, has just 76 combat ships while Australia has a mere 44).

The problem is that China is already at or near its fighting weight. China currently has 355 combat ready ships, including two aircraft carriers and a third, the Fujian, preparing for sea trials. Analysts predict that by 2030, China will have five aircraft carriers and ten new submarines capable of carrying nuclear ballistic missiles. However, China still lacks adequately trained carrier based pilots. Nevertheless,  projections show that if China continues to build its fleet at the same rate it has over the past 27 years, it will have a whooping 425 warships by 2030.

China is also increasing the number of missile carrying destroyers, cruisers and landing craft as well.  China's new Type 075 amphibious assault landing ship will come in at 40,000 metric tons with the capability of carrying 30 helicopters along with landing craft and just over 1000 assault troops.  The Type 075 replaces the Type 071 by 15,000 tons. There are now 32 Type 075's combat ready.

The Type 071 is another, albeit slightly smaller, amphibious land ship. Displacing 20,000 metric tons, it has capacity to carry four helicopters and roughly 800 combat troops. There are currently six known Type 071 ships in service at this time.

In addition to its combat fleet, China has greatly expanded its merchant fleet as well. Something you would expect with a growing economy. China now has 40.3% of the world's merchant shipbuilding market. Compare that to South Korea and Japan which has a 31.5% and a 22.2% share respectively.

China now has the second largest fleet of ships with 5,600, of which approximately 800 merchant ships. Greece has the largest, with 20.4% of the world's tonnage while China has 14.4% and Japan is third with 13% of the world's tonnage. China also has completed or updated the number of ship building facilities to six.

So, bringing this all together, what does it mean for the United States? The United States is still capable of projecting its military might around the world on a moment's notice. However, the question is whether it is still capable of maintaining that projection against a determined foe like Russia or China.

According to a report by the Heritage Foundation entitled "Index of U.S. Military Strength", only the Marines were rated at "strong" while the Navy and Space Force were categorized as "weak". The Air Force was rated as "very weak" and the Army was "marginal".  

Our stockpile of munitions and spare parts were badly depleted by our 20 year misadventure in Afghanistan, and much of what we were able to build back has found its way to Kyiv. The U.S. Navy, our principal tool in the projection of our foreign policy, is currently undergoing a phased overhaul and updating which isn't expected to be completed before 2035. The other branches are also undergoing their own updating which will take several years to complete.

Meanwhile, China is already at or near its ideal fighting weight, with the development of many of its ships progressing ahead of schedule. China's economy, while slowed, is still doing well while ours remains sluggish thanks to rising inflation and lingering effects of COVID on the economy.  Meanwhile, China has become much more aggressive.

It has claimed both the East and South China Seas as its own, and warned other nations to stay away. It has declared some of the territorial waters around South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and India are in fact international waters, and thus has asserted its fishing rights there. China is also involved in a "warm war" with India along its mutual border in the Himalayas.

The creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) may have a severe impact of America's ability to protect its interests in the Pacific, especially in light of China's growing economy, its expanded merchant fleet, along with a modernized navy capable and apparently ready to defend its economic interests.

For allies like Taiwan, the future doesn't look bright. Over the next seven to ten years, Taiwan will be particularly vulnerable. China has the means and ability to block off the South and East China Seas, and from there launch as rapid air and sea invasion of the island nation before the United States or anyone else has an opportunity to do anything.

This is especially true given our current preoccupation with Ukraine (and doubly so should we make the mistake up upping the ante and forcing Putin into some direct action against NATO. To make matters more interesting, China's ally, North Korea, could start something with South Korea which would further divert the attention a weakened U.S. military (some military analysts have states that given our current situation, we are unlikely to be able to operate effectively on two fronts). 

Of course, there's the economic angle. The U.S. is heavily dependent on Chinese imports, especially on electronics and computer chips. We depend on China for textiles, batteries, and machinery needed  in industry and even the military such as Neodymium which powers magnets used in hard drives or Praseodymium in the manufacture of aircraft engines which are "rare earth" metals.  

The U.S. doesn't manufacture these and other rare earth metals in abundance, but China does. In fact, they control 90% of the world's rare earth market. Heck, most of our cell phones---72%---are made in China!

 90% of our antibiotics come from China. 80% of the ingredients used in our medicines come from China. They also control 90% of the nine critical vitamins, 70% of acetaminophen, and 50% of the anti-coagulant Heparin.  Most of the medical devises we commonly use are of Chinese origin. 

Where does that leave us? The short answer is between a rock and a hard place. Internally we are increasingly unstable socially, economically, and politically. We can no longer afford to be arrogant about the supposed superiority of American capitalism or invincible military might as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have shown.

We can't forget that China also owns about 20% or $1 billion dollars of our debt. They can call the tune economically with their influence on our domestic market, and even their growing economy and military power, they are likely to exert de facto regional control over the Pacific Rim and eventually they may surpass us as the world's most power nation. From all appearances, China has outfoxed the fox.    


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