‘They can't compete’: US flexes bombers that can strike mainland China
Pentagon strategists used a B-52 Stratofortress to send a sharp reminder to both China and U.S. allies: American forces can hurt the People’s Liberation Army in a hurry.
“They can't compete with us on that, and they know that,” Florida Rep. Ted Yoho, a senior Republican member for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said while discussing major military exercises launched on Saturday.
The bomber joined a high-profile deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups for drills near the Paracel Islands on Saturday, in defiance of China’s claim to sovereignty over the territory and the surrounding ocean. The military exercises had multiple audiences, as a warning to the rising communist government and an effort to assure nervous U.S. allies that their road to security still runs through Washington.
“They might think if they fail to construct good relationship with the U.S., who wants to protect allies in the region from China, it would not good for their national interest,” an Asian official said of potentially wayward allies. “But it does not seem to be simple question [of] whether allies [will be] reassured that the U.S. will protect them or not.”
That uncertainty derives, in part, from China’s improving military. Beijing has devised land-based missile systems designed to threaten American ships, including the aircraft carriers that have symbolized and projected U.S. military strength for decades. The latest American military drills in the South China Sea were designed with that fact in mind, according to Yoho and other U.S. analysts.
“The thing that [sinks carriers] can be blown up by bombers,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Oriana Skylar Mastro said. “The bomber is something that the Chinese are very sensitive about because that’s something they can't defend against.”
The U.S. Navy’s capacity to operate in the South China Sea has major strategic significance for a variety of reasons. That stretch of ocean holds some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. And if the Chinese military were to control those waterways, then Beijing might be able to surround Taiwan — the last bastion of the government overthrown in the Chinese communist revolution — and prevent the U.S. military from moving between the U.S. bases housed on islands in the region.
The B-52, which can carry “both nuclear and conventional precision standoff weapons,” joined the exercises Saturday following a 28-hour direct flight from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The speed of the flight presents a challenge to Chinese military strategists, who have emphasized their ability to conquer “Taiwan within 100 hours with only a few dozen casualties” — a boast predicated on the idea that the United States wouldn’t be able to mobilize on behalf of the beleaguered island in such a short time frame.
“It is a very strong warning [about] how rapidly we can deploy,” Yoho said.
In another sense, the very vulnerability of the aircraft carriers may have delivered another kind of statement to any Chinese officials who think that the U.S. can’t take a punch.
“We sailed them near the Paracels, which is even more risky,” Mastro added. “China said they could have responded with force, but if what we said to China was, 'we're willing to take that risk,' that does demonstrate our willingness to absorb costs, our willingness to fight ... it would be effective.”
With that in mind, the unusual decision to send not just one but two aircraft carriers seems to reject a recent threat from a Chinese admiral, who suggested in late 2018 that Beijing might drive the U.S. Navy from the region by sinking two aircraft carriers, at the cost of approximately 10,000 American lives.
“What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” Chinese Rear Adm. Lou Yuan was quoted as saying. “We’ll see how frightened America is.”
Yoho warned Beijing not to make such assumptions. “We may be divided in this country, but something like that, you're going to see this country pull together like — it'll be stronger than 9/11,” he said. “If China did that, were to take one of those out, I mean — that’s a blatant act of war.”