A harder US line? Potential Pentagon chief floated idea to sink China fleet in 72 hours

Liu Zhen in Beijing, South China Morning Post

Posted at Nov 15 2020 08:56 AM

The next Pentagon chief could cement the US' already hard defence line on China, with one contender suggesting that American forces could bolster deterrence with the ability to "sink all" Chinese vessels "within 72 hours" in the South China Sea.

Michele Flournoy, an undersecretary of defence in the Obama administration, has been touted as a possible defence secretary in the cabinet of US president-elect Joe Biden.

In an article in the journal Foreign Affairs in June, Flournoy said that as Washington's ability and resolve to counter Beijing's military assertiveness in the region declined, the US needed a solid deterrence to reduce the risk of "miscalculation" by China's leadership.

"For example, if the US military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China's military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk," Flournoy said.

Defence and diplomatic observers said that realising that idea would come at huge cost but appointing its advocate would signal that the US would keep piling military pressure on China.

Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said one point was certain no matter who took office.

"Irrespective of who's in the White House, the ability to sustain credible deterrence and if necessary, defeat (People's Liberation Army) aggression against Taiwan in line with the Taiwan Relations Act, would have been seen as a given," Koh said.

In the article, Flournoy also stressed the need for innovation, especially on unmanned systems augmented by artificial intelligence, as well as cyber and missile defence, and resilient communication and command networks.

She said the United States had overinvested in "legacy platforms and weapons systems" while underinvesting in emerging technologies that would determine who had the advantage in the future.

"To re-establish credible deterrence of China, the United States must be able to prevent the success of any act of military aggression by Beijing, either by denying the PLA's ability to achieve its aims or by imposing costs so great that Chinese leaders ultimately decide that the act is not in their interest," she said.

The US military should rely more on smaller and more agile forces such as unmanned underwater vehicles, and highly mobile units that could move around to complicate China's planning.

But observers said that with the coronavirus pandemic casting a shadow over the future US defence budget, there was added uncertainty about whether investment could be reallocated from competing programmes to realise such plans.

Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University's Centre for American Studies, said that even if the US did make such a shift and ramp up its deterrence, Beijing's military plans regarding Taiwan would not change.

"Such a threat could hardly work, because the PLA has already and always taken direct American interference into calculation when planning for military operations on Taiwan," Wu said.

Flournoy also highlighted the unique US advantages over China - a network of allies and partners, and suggested Washington should reach out to countries in the region to jointly resist the "authoritarian, revisionist" China and its "coercive measures".

She proposed more regular military exercises with allies and partners, more senior officials and military forces deployed in the region in a more dispersed manner, and a portfolio of economic, technological and political measures in addition to military.

Su Hao, director of the Centre for Strategic and Peace Studies at China Foreign Affairs University, said that compared to Trump's unilateralism, a Biden administration would obviously prefer collective and multilateral approaches to contain China.

These could include strengthening military ties through the US-Japan-South Korea alliance, the US-Japan-Australia-India "quad", and in partnership with Southeast Asian countries around the disputed South China Sea.

He said that although the Biden administration would strengthen its alliance ties, a "Nato in Asia" against China was unlikely, as the Asian countries would avoid a total hostility or confrontation with the biggest economy in the region.

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