“War between the United States and China could be so ruinous for both countries, for East Asia, and for the world that it might seem unthinkable. Yet it is not: China and the United States are at loggerheads over several regional disputes that could lead to military confrontation or even violence between them. Both countries have large concentrations of military forces operating in close proximity. If an incident occurred or a crisis overheated, both have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them.”
— War with China, a RAND report sponsored by the US Undersecretary of the Army http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1140.html
This column has repeatedly warned that increased American military deployment and access to bases in the country under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) could subject the Philippines to Chinese attack. And the articles always elicit online comments by readers or propaganda trolls insisting that China would never risk war with the United States through military action against our territory.
The RAND Corporation, a defense research entity sponsored by the US Army, would disagree. In its report out just three weeks ago, “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable,” the think tank warns that in a crisis, Beijing and Washington “both have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them.” (Download the report at < http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1140.html >.)
Under EDCA, American naval and air forces have increased rotations in the archipelago and can use five Philippine bases initially, in Mactan near Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Puerto Princesa, Nueva Ecija and Pampanga. It’s part of Washington’s Pivot To Asia policy, which aims to shift 60 percent of naval assets to the region.
RAND report authors David Gompert, Astrid Cevallos and Cristina Garafola believe US forces and the bases they use could be hit by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ballistic, naval and air assets once or even before a Sino-American conflict begins.
In his recent blog, lead author Gombert adds: “We do not predict a war between the United States and China. Rather, it is plausible that such a war could arise out of a mishandled crisis and, given improvements in the strike capabilities of both countries, could be intense, destructive and protracted.” Read it at < http://www.rand.org/blog/2016/08/qa-an-unthinkable-war-between-the-us-and-china.html >.
The report adds: “We assume that fighting would start and remain in East Asia, where potential Sino-US flashpoints and nearly all Chinese forces are located. Each side’s increasingly far-flung disposition of forces and growing ability to track and attack opposing forces could turn much of the Western Pacific into a ‘war zone,’ with grave economic consequences.”
On first strikes against military assets, including those in the Philippines, the authors argue: “Sensors, weapon guidance, digital networking and other information technologies used to target opposing forces have advanced to the point where both US and Chinese military forces seriously threaten each other. This creates the means, as well as the incentive, to strike enemy forces before they strike one’s own.”
How bad could contending assets and facilities suffer? “[T]he unprecedented ability of US and Chinese forces to target and destroy each other — conventional counterforce — could greatly deplete military capabilities in a matter of months…. War between the two countries could begin with devastating strikes; be hard to control; last months, if not years; have no winner; and inflict huge losses on both sides’ military forces.”
In short, pretty bad.
And what is the PLA likely to target first? Answer: “The Chinese regard aircraft carriers and regional air bases as prime targets.” Among them are the Mactan, Puerto Princesa and Cagayan de Oro military airfields, shared with civilian terminals and available for US use.
Hence, EDCA makes the Philippines a frontline state in such a conflict, well within range of hundreds of medium-range PLA missiles, which can reach beyond Mindanao and all across the South China Sea and most of Southeast Asia.
That has got to be the No. 1 security threat we face, as our August 4 column said < http://www.manilatimes.net/no-1-security-threat-duterte-must-address/277792/ >.
What can trigger war?
Quoting the report, here are flashpoints that could precipitate confrontation and conflict:
• “Sino-Japanese skirmishing over disputed territory in the East China Sea, where the United States has said its defense treaty with Japan applies
• “Chinese harassment to press its territorial claims in (and to) the South China Sea — against the Philippines or Vietnam, for example — in the face of US insistence on peaceful dispute resolution and freedom of the seas
• “Uncoordinated military interventions by Chinese, South Korean, or US forces in the event of a collapse of North Korea
• “Chinese threat or use of force to intimidate or seize Taiwan
• “An incident at sea, such as the downing of an aircraft, owing to forces operating in close proximity, perhaps in EEZ [exclusive economic zone]waters claimed as sovereign by China but as commons by the United States”
With American forces escalating deployment in the Philippines, China has responded with increasing militarization in the South China Sea, including the building of air and naval facilities on reclaimed islands. This response is not only in the event of war, but also to protect vital sea lanes vulnerable to US attack.
After all, one American strategy cited in the RAND report is “cutting off Chinese access to seaborne supplies of oil and liquefied natural gas,” including four-fifths of imported petroleum passing through the South China Sea. Now you know why Beijing has built up facilities at Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, and may do the same to Scarborough Shoal.
So in assessing if EDCA should be implemented, President Rodrigo Duterte and the National Security Council would do well not just to listen to top US and Japanese officials queueing to speak with him, but to read the latest report from the US Army’s own RAND brain trust.
After all, Duterte himself has said that he doesn’t want war — which may well come to the Philippines, targeting the very US forces supposed to deter attack.