China’s growing military power in Asia could have “dire consequences” for the U.S.-led regional order, according to a new report that says its powerful missile arsenal could embolden Beijing in the “near-term” to seize the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands and other territories in the Ryukyu chain.
The study, released Monday by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said that a decade of “delayed and unpredictable funding” for the U.S. defense budget has seen Washington lose its primacy in the western Pacific, giving an edge to an increasingly tech-savvy Beijing.
China, the report noted, has thoroughly studied the American way of war, particularly in the Middle East, and in response has deployed “a formidable array of precision missiles and other counter-intervention systems” to undercut the U.S. military’s regional dominance.
China’s “growing arsenal of accurate long-range missiles poses a major threat to almost all American, allied and partner bases, airstrips, ports and military installations in the Western Pacific,” it said.
If an armed conflict were to break out between Washington and Beijing, these ballistic missiles would likely cripple U.S. and allied forces across the Western Pacific region “within hours,” it added.
China has systematically increased, upgraded and extended the range of its inventory of missiles and launchers in what the U.S. government has characterized as “the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world.”
Although exact numbers are not known, the Pentagon estimates that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force now fields up to 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles, 450 medium-range ballistic missiles and 160 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, in addition to hundreds of long-range ground-launched cruise missiles.
Beijing also appears to have been practicing for pre-emptive missile strikes on the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the western Pacific, using detailed apparent mock-ups in the Gobi Desert of important American military facilities in Japan such as the naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and air bases in Kadena, Okinawa Prefecture and Misawa, Aomori Prefecture.
But any quick use of limited force with these weapons, the report said, would be premised on achieving 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.”
The United States’ alliance system and its international commitments — once deemed as an unassailable bedrock of American military and economic dominance — have repeatedly been called into question by U.S. President Donald Trump, though nowhere more visibly than in the Asia-Pacific region.
Under his “America First” policy, Trump has eschewed Washington’s long-standing ties and alliances, demanding that allies pay more for hosting U.S. troops and bases and threatening to pull out if these “unfair” practices are not curtailed.
The report did not specifically point a finger at Trump, instead praising his administration for its forward-thinking National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy as well as offering mild plaudits for defense-spending prioritization. But it did hint at the difficulties U.S. alliances would face in a conflict with China.
“The broader ramifications of a Chinese fait accompli would be devastating for the Indo-Pacific balance of power and the stability of America’s alliance and partner network,” the report said. “In a direct sense, China’s seizure of strategic locations along the First Island Chain, such as key nodes in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands archipelago, would provide the PLA with significant military advantages.”
These, it said, could include a bolstered ability to threaten U.S. and regional forces, an enhanced capacity to project power into the East China Sea and over Taiwan and a Japan that could potentially be isolated from its security partners to the southwest in a crisis.
Any failure to prevent a Chinese attack on allied territory would exacerbate rising concerns about the United States’ capacity and willingness to act as a security guarantor in the Asia-Pacific.
“Although the United States would probably — but not certainly — prevail in an extended war, escalation at this point would be enormously costly and dangerous,” the report said. “Herein lies the nub of a fait accompli: Because America’s interests in the security of its allies are ‘fundamentally secondary’ to its own survival, and arguably less tangible than the core interests Beijing has at stake in many of these flash points, Washington may ultimately wager that intervention is not worth the candle.”
The report recommended that the U.S. and its allies, including Japan and Australia, pursue a strategy of collective self-defense as a way of offsetting shortfalls in American regional military power and “holding the line against rising Chinese strength.”
However, it warned of “hard strategic choices” that Washington “may be unwilling or unable to make,” including the scaling back of other global responsibilities.
“A growing number of defense planners understand this trade-off,” the report said. “But political leaders and much of the foreign policy establishment remain wedded to a superpower mindset that regards America’s role in the world as defending an expansive liberal order. This mindset, if it persists, will continue to overstretch defense resources, increase future warfighting risks, and prevent the robust implementation of U.S. military strategy in the Indo-Pacific.”