Within five years, China's armed forces may be able to prevent the US from coming to Taiwan's aid against a military attack from China, a new US congressional report warns. Some expert observers, the report adds, feel that the Chinese military may already have such capabilities.
With current US naval capabilities, it could take two weeks or longer for the US to respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, lessening the chances that it could thwart China, the report says.
The document, China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Naval Capabilities, Background and Issues for Congress, was prepared in secret by the Congressional Research Service to help Congressional committees with oversight of the military to plan for US defense needs in the Western Pacific. It was published on Monday by the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, an organization that brings security-related information to public attention.
"Some analysts speculate that China may attain [or believe that it has attained] a capable maritime anti-access capability, or important elements of it, by about 2010," the report says.
Anti-access capability refers to preventing US naval access to the Taiwan Strait.
The issue of when China could attain such capabilities, the report says, "is significant because it can influence the kinds of options that are available to US policymakers for addressing the situation."
The potential for a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait was a main focus of the report.
"Observers believe that China's military modernization is aimed at fielding a force that can succeed in a short-duration conflict with Taiwan that finishes before the United States is able to intervene," the report says.
The Pentagon wants Taiwan to focus on acquiring systems that would "lengthen the time Taiwan could deny the PRC [People's Republic of China] from gaining air superiority, sea control, and physical occupation of [Taipei]," it says.
The time needed would be "at least five days" after a "credible warning" that an attack is imminent or underway.
But even then, the congressional researchers warn, the US navy might not be up to the task.
The report notes that so-called "early arriving forces," often involving warships stationed close to the Strait, would be of particular importance in a short conflict over Taiwan. Addressing this could involve having US warships based in locations such as Japan, Guam, Singapore or Hawaii, rather than the US West Coast.
At an expected average speed of 25 knots (46kph), over long Pacific Ocean distances for US submarines, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, a ship based in San Diego, California would take nearly 10 days to reach an area east of Taiwan after setting sail.
By contrast, a US warship based in Yokosuka, Japan, would take just under two days, one in Guam would take 2.2 days, and a ship sailing from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii would take more than seven days.
But added to these times would be delays for at-sea refueling, rough sea conditions, and the need to avoid sea mines and deal with other contingencies. Moreover, it would take time to get a ship and its crew ready to leave port.
Depending on a ship's status, "preparing it for rapid departure might require anywhere from less than one day to a few days," the report quotes a military expert as saying.