China’s Military Dominance in the Western Pacific Is Exaggerated

September 15, 2021 Updated: September 15, 2021


There is a tendency nowadays to accord China’s military a certain amount of implicit superiority in the far western Pacific Ocean. This includes the East and South China Seas, and especially in the Taiwan Strait.

China’s new emphasis on projecting maritime power puts considerable pressure on the United States when it comes to maintaining its supremacy in the Pacific Ocean. But where and how might China possess a military advantage over the United States?

In the first place, it is true that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has an undeniable numerical superiority in several types of platforms. The PLAN possesses 50 frigates (including nearly 40 very modern Type-054A frigates), 70 corvettes, and more than 80 modern Houbei-class patrol boats (a stealthy, high-speed catamaran bristling with anti-ship cruise missiles). In addition, the PLAN operates at least 50 modern attack submarines, including nine nuclear boats.

In comparison, smaller-sized forces in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific consist of only 24 attack submarines, 13 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), and no frigates. For its part, too, the LCS has been heavily criticized as too small and too lightly armed to fight in naval battles.

Moreover, the Chinese possess around 1,500 modern land-based combat aircraft—approximately 1,300 fighters operated by the PLA Air Force and 200 by the PLAN Air Force. Consequently, the PLA could conceivably surge and swarm its forces to overwhelm the U.S. Navy.

More importantly, China has a critical “home field” advantage. Any clashes would take place close to the Chinese mainland, in nearby seas where it already possesses a considerable dominance such as the South China Sea. It can send in more ships in less time, while its logistic train would be comparatively short. These forces would also be protected by an expansive integrated air-defense system along the Chinese coast, consisting of radars, land-based aircraft, and surface-to-air missiles.

Aircraft and anti-ship missiles based onshore could also attack U.S. Navy vessels, particularly utilizing anti-ship ballistic missiles (such as the DF-21D) and nascent hypersonic weapons—so-called “carrier-killer” munitions expressly intended to take out U.S. aircraft carriers.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese military vehicles, carrying DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, drive past Tiananmen Square during a military parade in Beijing, China, on Sept. 3, 2015. (Andy Wong/Pool/Getty Images)

In stark contrast, the U.S. Navy suffers from the centuries-old challenge of the “tyranny of distance.” It can take up to three weeks for U.S. naval forces to steam from ports on the west coast to the South China Sea. This is not much faster than it was for U.S. warships during World War II.

Ships based in Hawaii could take up to 16 days to reach this area. Even Guam—one of the United States’ most westerly territories and the site of a considerable buildup of U.S. military forces—is still 1,700 miles from the South China Sea, a three- to five-day journey away.

Recent U.S. wargames have also found that when U.S. forces arrive in places like the South China Sea, they are too often sitting ducks. This is because the U.S. Navy has traditionally emphasized concentrated operations, that is, ships operating closely in one area in order to combine firepower and reinforce one another. This, however, makes them more susceptible to anti-access/area-denial tactics, like attacks with hypersonic weapons and other long-range fires.

At this point, things look pretty bleak for U.S. forces. It is important, however, to note that the United States has plenty of arrows in its quiver as well.

In the first place, while the PLAN dominates in smaller warships, the U.S. Navy has a huge advantage in large surface combatants. Just in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, there are five nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, each equipped with around 75 combat aircraft. In addition, the U.S. Navy deploys four flat-deck amphibious assault vessels to the Pacific, each capable of acting as a mini-aircraft carrier (flying F-35s off its deck).

In comparison, the PLAN currently operates only two much smaller carriers, each capable of launching at most two dozen fighter jets.

In addition, the U.S. Navy operates 48 large cruisers and modern destroyers just in the Pacific, compared to just 38 for the entirety of the PLAN, and over the next few decades, the U.S. Navy will be acquiring several dozen new multi-mission frigates. The U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet is more modern and, more importantly, all-nuclear.

At the same time, U.S. forces are almost certainly better-trained, better-led, and more experienced. The U.S. Navy has nearly 100 years of experience in operating aircraft carriers, and it has perfected the art of the carrier strike group. Morale, logistics, and intelligence—all intangibles, to be sure, and hard to measure—are probably nonetheless higher in U.S. forces than in China.

Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group
Three F/A-18E Super Hornets fly in formation over the aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and their strike groups along with ships from the Republic of Korea Navy as they transit the Western Pacific, on Nov. 12, 2017. (Aaron B. Hicks/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters)

Michael Beckley, in his book, “Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower,” argues that Chinese military strength is overblown. Chinese combat pilots fly fewer hours per year than U.S. pilots, and Chinese troops spend up to 30 percent of their training time studying Marxist-Leninist-Maoist dogma. At the same time, he says, PLA exercises “heavily scripted,” and scored using “subjective judgments” simply to determine “whether a training program has been implemented rather than on whether the goals of the program have been achieved.”

The U.S. military, meanwhile, may be slow to learn new lessons, but it can and does constantly reassess itself. Losing in wargames, for example, has prodded the Joint Chief to explore “expanded maneuver” concepts, which include distributed operations (that is, spreading out more), and relying more on networking and autonomy (such as more self-contained logistics).

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the United States has one ace up its sleeve that the Chinese will never have: allies. Japan—which is increasingly concerned about a growing Chinese military threat to the region—has a sizable force it could contribute to any Sino-American competition. These include 22 submarines, four large flat-deck helicopter assault ships—two of which are being converted to fixed-wing aircraft carriers—36 destroyers, and two light frigates. In addition, the Japanese are in the process of building 22 frigates of a new modern design.

Taiwan would also likely offer its four destroyers, 22 frigates, and dozens of fast missile boats. In addition, it is presently constructing 12 Tuo Chiang-class corvettes—these stealthy, high-speed vessels are intended for hit-and-run actions against Chinese aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships.

Australia, Vietnam, and perhaps even India could add to these forces. The Australians, for example, possess three modern air-warfare destroyers and are acquiring 12 new nuclear-powered submarines over the next decade. Vietnam operates six Kilo-class submarines, while India operates its own aircraft carriers, as well as 16 French and Russian subs.

Add in their respective air forces and an anti-Chinese coalition could comprise thousands of fighter jets, as well as bombers, ground-attack aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft, spy planes, air-to-air refueling aircraft, and so on. This could more than level the playing field with China.

Of course, a comprehensive net assessment of the U.S. and Chinese military power is beyond the scope of a short piece like this. However, it suffices to say that while China does have some military advantages, the United States still possesses its own strengths—the most important of which, perhaps, is the ability to draw on regional allies and partners.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.