China is preparing for war

Chinese premier Xi Jinping has ordered his forces to prepare for war
Ships, men and money - Damian Pawlenko/AP

Tensions between the West and China show no sign of easing. Interdependence and mistrust continue to mix uneasily. Triggers are many and varied including; human rights, relations with Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine, microchip manufacturing and the big one, Taiwan.

Then there is the rhetoric. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is in Beijing for talks aimed at easing some of these tensions. It’s ironic, but not unprecedented, that at the exact same time, President Xi is telling the troops of the Eastern Theatre Command – the one that faces Taiwan – that they need to step up their combat readiness and “… persist in thinking and handling military issues from a political perspective, dare to fight, be good at fighting, and resolutely defend our national sovereignty, security, and development interests.”

This is not the first time Xi has timed an info-ops stunt like this to coincide with a diplomatic visit and neither is he the first Chinese President to do it.

Hu Jintao did something similar in 2011 telling his military to “make extended preparations for warfare”. It has happened many times since. One can make a case that this constant need to posture in this way masks a lack of confidence.

Xi’s military numbers and rate of build might be eyewatering but what experience underpins them? Russia’s efforts in Ukraine have shown repeatedly that spectacular parades do not equate to hardened fighting competence. His message is timed with Yellen’s visit to create maximum international effect but internally it is as likely to be a kick aimed at his generals than an immediate call to arms.

In the longer term, is war with China inevitable? General Mike Minihan of the US Air Force says it is; a hawkish stance that I suspect is shared by quite a few in the US military. But, as is the way, there are plenty who believe that the situation will continue to be managed by ongoing diplomatic efforts and the deterrent effect of our combined militaries.

Certainly, the ongoing importance of both conventional and nuclear deterrence cannot be underestimated right now. This, coupled with maximum diplomatic effort, soft and hard, should sit alongside military operations and exercises designed to demonstrate what it could look like if these efforts fail.

One thing we can be sure of is that US Pacific Command will be planning for all ‘fighting’ eventualities with a high degree of granularity. Having been part of a US led contingency plan myself (thankfully not one that was put into action in my time) I know that the level of detail that goes into American wargaming is exceptional and the algorithms they use to determine levels of damage and casualties are sophisticated.

Having said that, the quirk of taking a kicking from Enemy X during a wargame but then telling the General in the final debrief that ‘we issued a beat down’ was interesting to watch from close up. Nevertheless, PACOM’s planning for a war with China will be reassuringly comprehensive.

So what for the UK? Well, we will feature in the plan. Somewhere in the chapter marked ‘assets’ will be what we could offer in a ‘fight tonight’. That’s zero right now, with apologies to HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, the almost unarmed patrol vessels which are all we have in the Indo-Pacific area at the moment. Then there’s what ‘best effort’ would look like if we sent everything we have across Defence, and a reasonable middle ground with associated deployment timelines.

We Brits will be a footnote in terms of overall combat power with two exceptions. Our aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (with a full outfit of US/allied jets) would be a noticeable piece on the game board if she was out there.

Secondly our nuclear powered attack submarines, armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, are a threat to worry any Chinese admiral. There will be other areas where we can contribute such as intelligence, cyber, special forces etc, but the carrier and the submarines will be front and centre of the conventional plan.

In QE and the Astute class submarines, we have cutting-edge capabilities. The carrier herself has redundancy (which has proven useful recently with HMS Prince of Wales in drydock to replace a broken shaft) but everything beneath that is wafer thin: we have very few F-35 jets to put aboard her, very few escort ships to send with her and not enough ammunition (including Tomahawks), support helicopters or supporting logistic ships.

Much of this will be ameliorated by operating in the sort of allied task group that would be assembled for a fight like this but every time you have to put a star by your asset (*needs US support) you degrade your usefulness until eventually they look at you across the room and ask ‘are you in this or not?’ This is happening.

And, of course, neither of those assets are there right now. HMS Queen Elizabeth made a significant impression during her 2021 deployment there but isn’t due back until 2025. Similarly, our attack subs are already fully assigned elsewhere. Someone will have worked out how quickly both these things could get there but it isn’t ‘soon’.

The Aukus alliance between us, the US and Australia is an outstanding political and military collaboration but is going to take an age to come online and a lot could happen in that time. There has however been talk of sending one of our submarines to the Indo-Pacific early.

If this happens, and is coordinated with US attack submarine deployments to the region, and we buy more Tomahawks, then that would be a significant UK contribution to both deterrence and the fight. There are a lot of unfunded assumptions in there though.

More broadly, the Integrated Review Refresh is complete and still suitably ambiguous as to whether Continental Europe, the North Atlantic or the Indo-Pacific should constitute ‘main effort’. All eyes are therefore on the imminent Defence Command and Balance of Investment Papers to allocate resources to these areas and thus provide some answers.

While this turn of the handle won’t have the slash-and-burn effect of the 2010 process there also won’t be any more money: probably less in real terms. We remain almost the only country in Europe steadfastly opposed to increasing Defence expenditure just now.

Meanwhile, the situation in Taiwan feels like a ‘circling press aircraft’. Let me explain.

I was in a naval exercise off the north of Scotland some time ago when a light aircraft claiming that it was neutral and full of press approached the ship. We spoke to it and then ‘warned’ it ranging from ‘hello who are you?’ to ‘turn away now or you will be fired on’.

Then at the range where the Rules of Engagement would have allowed me to start shooting, five miles, it turned 90 degrees and started circling the ship. We carried on talking to it and reading ‘warnings’ but they protested, stated their peaceful intentions and continued to circle. But now they were at four miles. My bluff had been called. We had intelligence to suggest a light aircraft threat but they weren’t closing us directly and so we were not allowed to engage. Now they were at three.

It was a brilliant scenario, because when do you pull the trigger?

This is what is happening with China and Taiwan. China continues to circle, getting ever closer but never pointing directly at the target. Aggressive exercises, encircling, drone overflights and encroachments will continue until they become ‘normal’, then they will tighten a little more.

My working theory is that they will keep closing in and wait for a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami to provide cover for a final move under cover of Humanitarian and Disaster Relief. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to assistance and before you know it Chinese presence on Taiwan has also become ‘normal’. I could be wrong. I hope I’m not because many of the alternatives are far, far worse.

In the meantime, the diplomatic, information and deterrent efforts from both sides will continue apace. Xi will carry on building equipment and posturing aggressively and the West will continue to try and decide where to sit between appeasement, essential cooperation and aggression.

The UK will continue to contribute where it can, whilst hoping that no one notices the smallness of the stick with which we are walking softly.

To finish the story, I was out of ideas with the ‘press aircraft’ until I heard our American exchange officer in the Operations Room. He was a little bemused when I put my headset on him and told him to say, ‘turn away or we will fire on you’ but did as we was asked.

There was then a five-second pause before a new voice appeared on the radio, “British warship, this is the aircraft pilot. Can I just check this is still an exercise?”

They had turned away before I could say ‘yes’.

Tells you something.

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