Can China defeat U.S. forces in the Western Pacific with a surprise attack? According to the Chinese, at least in public statements, they believe they can. Developing this capability has been in the works since the 1990s, as China built up its force of ballistic missiles (with high explosive warheads) on their coast to deal with Taiwan and Japan. There are over a thousand of those missiles now, plus a dozen or so that, in theory, can hit an American carrier at sea. Chinese warplanes have been practicing attacks over water and the Chinese fleet is at sea lot more. Chinese subs are stalking American warships and China triumphantly announces “successes” when these subs sneak up on an American carrier. China is also known to have stolen a lot of American defense secrets via over a decade of Internet based espionage.
The problem here is that, in any major war, both sides do not know everything about what the other side has, nor is able to accurately predict how the known and concealed plans of each side will turn out once the fighting starts. This is an important point for the Chinese as they need to win quick because a protracted war would produce economic collapse in China. That would produce major political problems for China’s leaders. According to the Chinese military this is not a problem because the Chinese generals and admirals seem increasingly confident of a quick victory via surprises.
That’s dangerous thinking, because it rarely works out that way and the Chinese have a long history of overestimating their capabilities in the opening stages of a war. American naval planners believe the Chinese have greatly underestimated the capabilities of the dozens of American nuclear attack subs stationed in the Pacific and what this force could do to the Chinese fleet and foreign trade. If the Chinese have a secret weapon to deal with the American subs, it is one of the best kept secrets in military history.
It’s not just the United States that is nervous about Chinese military plans. Taiwan has been increasing its military capability because its arrangement with the United States requires that Taiwan be strong enough to hold off a Chinese attack long enough for American forces to arrive. This means keeping control of air bases on the island for up to a week. China is apparently building up its land, air and naval forces to the point where a surprise attack could conquer Taiwan in a few days, if the defending Taiwanese were not ready. China believes that Taiwan is vulnerable, but the Chinese have never pulled off an amphibious operation like this before and, again, a few American nuclear subs could make a mess of the Chinese attack.
Chinese plans are no secret in part because of the years of Chinese intense interest in American naval exercises and military infrastructure. China has openly discussed this situation, which is a common way for them to try and generate some original thinking from their officers. Eventually these new ideas become highly secret war plans and weapons development projects. Thus in 2006 it was obvious that Chinese anti-satellite systems tests demonstrated an ability to knock down U.S. spy satellites. China was also known to be working on micro (under half a ton) satellites for this sort of attack. If they can build an anti-satellite satellite weighing less than half a ton, they can launch several with one booster. That would give them a chance to knock down enough American satellites to temporarily "blind" the U.S. Navy in the western Pacific. At that point, Chinese anti-ship missiles and submarines would be more potent against American carriers. This is the sort of thinking China is encouraging in its military. It's also ancient Chinese strategic thinking. That is, don't go after superior enemy head on, but, rather, come at him sideways. Then again, ancient Chinese military thinkers preached winning without fighting. That worked better when it was Chinese versus Chinese. Foreigners tend to be more inscrutable and full of surprises.
The U.S. has also been demonstrating very visible activity on how to deal with a Chinese attack. Back in 2004 the U.S. concluded that the Chinese were very concerned about American aircraft carriers and were seeking to muster sufficient air and naval forces to deal with two American carriers operating off their coasts. So the U.S. made plans to quickly get as many as seven American carriers off the Chinese coast. This not only upset Chinese military planning, but rubs the Chinese the wrong way by pointing out Chinese military weakness.
It’s possible that all the Chinese boasting of capabilities and unbeatable war plans is really propaganda and morale building for their population and troops. There’s an element of that involved, but as American military and diplomatic officials meet more Chinese leaders it becomes clear that many Chinese generals and admirals believe the boasts and optimistic predictions. That is not a good sign for anyone.