Decisions being taken in Washington on the US Navy’s budget could affect the likelihood or outcome of a conflict with China over Taiwan, a new study from the Congressional Research Service says.
“Some observers consider such a conflict to be very unlikely, in part because of significant US-Chinese economic linkages and the tremendous damage that such a conflict could cause on both sides,” specialist in naval affairs Ronald O’Rourke said in the study, titled China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities.
O’Rourke’s study says that Beijing wants its military to be capable of acting as an anti-access and area-denial force — “a force that can deter US intervention in a conflict in China’s near-seas region over Taiwan.”
According to the study, China’s naval modernization has several aims, but “addressing the situation with Taiwan militarily, if need be,” is its first goal.
“Decisions that [the US] Congress and the executive branch make regarding US Navy programs for countering improved Chinese maritime capabilities could affect the likelihood or possible outcome of a potential US-Chinese military conflict in the Pacific over Taiwan,” the study read.
O’Rourke cites US Naval Institute reports saying that China is developing new unmanned underwater vehicles and has modernized its substantial inventory of mines.
He also quotes the US Department of Defense as saying that “China has developed torpedo and mine systems capable of area denial in a Taiwan [conflict] scenario.”
According to the department, “estimates of China’s naval mine inventory exceed 50,000 mines, with many capable systems developed in the past 10 years,” O’Rourke’s study says.
“Although aircraft carriers might have some value for China in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, they are not considered critical for Chinese operations in such scenarios because Taiwan is within range of land-based Chinese aircraft,” it adds.
It says that larger amphibious ships such as the Type 071 and the Type 081 would be valuable in the conduct of amphibious landings in Taiwan, although other observers say Beijing is building them to defend its territorial claims in the East China and South China seas.
In his study, O’Rourke quotes the department as saying that the People’s Liberation Army Navy “currently lacks the massive amphibious lift capability that a large-scale invasion of Taiwan would require.”
It says Beijing does not appear to be building the conventional amphibious lift required to support such a campaign, adding that “China’s navy exhibits limitations or weaknesses in several areas, including antisubmarine warfare and mine countermeasures.”
“Countering China’s naval modernization might thus involve actions to exploit such limitations and weaknesses, such as developing and procuring Virginia class attack submarines, torpedoes, unmanned underwater vehicles and mines,” the report says.
The study suggests that Congress consider whether in the coming years, the US Navy will be large enough to counter improved Chinese anti-access forces.
It also raised questions about the political and security implications that China’s growing naval capabilities — combined with the budget-driven reductions in the size of the US Navy — may have on the Asia-Pacific region.