Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes up, the world will tremble.” Like a herd of killer Orcas after a mammoth whale shark, seven foreign powers united to try an ambitious colonization of the Bear during the Boxer Rebellion and ultimately failed.
The likely powder-keg places are the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and the Straits of Hormuz. In the WPS, it is Chinese missile bases and warships versus patrolling United States warships and warplanes.
Let’s talk of mindsets before we talk of hardware. The US and China are avoiding a naval confrontation which may easily escalate into a full-blown nuclear war. Accidental wars can be caused by a trigger-happy admiral or a software glitch. Recession and the pandemic are also reasons. But recent Chinese movements in the WPS suggest it is taking advantage of the pandemic and a looming global recession to strengthen its position.
The US’ primary concern is the restriction of trade sea lanes. If this is compromised, it may easily go to war. China’s brinkmanship is due to a mindset that the US is not in a position to and will not dare start a war. This is why China has built without US interference many naval and missile bases through the years in the WPS. This has made it bolder and bolder. The US has resorted to its own brand of brinkmanship with verbal threats and sea-air patrols close the Chinese bases, which China has pooh-poohed. China continues to strengthen the militarization of its WPS bases without stop.
Now, let us talk of hardware. There are two critical weapons which both sides have — the EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) bomb, and the hypersonic missile. A nuclear blast causes an EMP, which can neutralize all electronic devices from command centers to on-board missile computers. It virtually paralyzes the entire war machinery of the enemy within a vast radius.a China and the US both have EMP bombs without having a nuclear blast. It is a soft explosion, almost silent. A college student can make such a bomb minus the delivery system. The danger with the EMP bomb is it can easily induce a preemptive first strike to paralyze the enemy, which can trigger rapid escalation from both sides.
Both sides have hypersonic missiles, five to 10 times the speed of sound (Mach 5 to Mach 10). Theoretically, a Chinese hypersonic from a WPS silo can take out the most advanced US carrier before it can react. The Russians and Iranians also have this missile. A US admiral said his carrier fleet would not be caught like a sitting duck in the Strait of Hormuz. The era of naval wars using carrier fleets are half-obsolete with the advent of hypersonics.
This has made China over-confident. It has the edge with its Mach-5 to Mach-10 DF-ZF, officially operational in October 2019, after being flight-tested seven times. It can theoretically “penetrate ‘the layered air defenses of a US carrier strike group’ (Wikipedia).” The US and Russia are just in their testing phases. The Pentagon says it will take ‘a vast sensor layer’ involving hundreds of low-orbit satellites to defeat a hypersonic. This will take billions of dollars and many years to develop. Russia has similar claims. (AFP, 21 March 2020, South China Morning Post, Forbes.com). It must be clarified that both sides have “secret” weapons that may neutralize EMP and hypersonics, so we will really never know until there is a war.
In an unlikely nuclear missile-naval digital remote-control war in the WPS, there will be very few China and US casualties. The Philippines, as well as Vietnam, will bear the brunt of collateral casualties, hopefully not in the millions. A policy of neutrality is the best in a war of giants, but many observers say that is almost impossible. You are forced to side with one or the other. It’s a tug of war, and the Philippines is the rope.