Earlier this week, China’s sole aircraft carrier, accompanied by five additional naval vessels, entered the northern half of the embroiled South China Sea. Tensions have been high in the region over the past months due in large part to China’s expanding claims over what is considered by most other nations to be international waters, as well as President-elect Trump’s recent telephone conversation with Taiwan’s president (China claims ownership of the island nation).

The Soviet-built aircraft carrier, Liaoning, has previously entered the South China Sea as a part of naval exercises. China’s fleet has only one such carrier, but U.S. intelligence reports suggest there is another currently under construction and that the Chinese government could potentially build a number of additional aircraft carriers within the next 15 years. China’s aircraft carrier program is a strictly guarded state secret, however, so little is known about any plans for further construction.

“Our Liaoning should enjoy in accordance with the law freedom of navigation and overflight as set by international law, and we hope all sides can respect this right of China’s,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

However, an influential state-run newspaper in China spoke at length about this move signifying China’s ever-increasing naval combat capabilities, and suggested that the fleet could now sail farther than ever.

“The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China’s aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the U.S. one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules,” the newspaper editorial read. This sentiment is clearly driven by run-ins between Chinese and American warplanes over international waters near China’s border in the past year. The American government filed grievances with China on two separate occasions for their aircraft intercepting American planes in an “unsafe” manner.

The editorial suggesting that China may sail its premier aircraft carrier toward U.S. shores is clearly an exercise in written posturing, but what if China were to attempt to flex its military muscle back toward the United States? The U.S. plays a significant role in the region thanks to mutual defense treaties with a number of Asian nations, and with China’s recent unveiling of the J-20 fifth-generation fighter jet, China has set itself apart as one of the most capable military powers in the world. Without the United States’ F-22, there isn’t an aircraft in all of Asia that could feasibly do battle with the J-20 if ever an armed conflict should arise.

China's second aircraft carrier enters service -- Where do they stand compared to the US?

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On paper, it doesn’t look like China could stand a chance against the military might of the United States, but reality wouldn’t necessarily be so cut and dried. Although China boasts only one aircraft carrier and less than 3,000 total military aircraft, and the U.S. has a whopping 19 carriers and more than 13,000 military aircraft, the U.S. finds itself at a disadvantage in terms of personnel power. China’s military weighs in at an impressive 2.3 million active-duty personnel, dwarfing America’s 1.4 million. In a no-holds-barred battle that required drafting all able-bodied men and women into the ranks, China could potentially throw 750 million people into the fight, which is more than the entire population of the United States.

This manpower superiority is severely hindered by an inability to transport their people. China’s military still relies heavily on trains to transport their current military personnel, and their modest fleet of 800 helicopters would make rapid insertion and evacuation from combat zones impossible for any sizable fighting force.

Where China could do real damage, however, is in space. China has already demonstrated their ability to take out satellites in orbit around our planet, and has devoted considerable resources to space-based equipment with offensive capabilities. The Chinese government sees the American dependence on GPS as a tactical disadvantage, and they’re not wrong. Chinese satellite weapons could target the American GPS system, crippling it and leaving many air and sea assets scrambling to incorporate outdated navigational methods into some of the most advanced technology on the planet.

America would also not be able to quickly allocate all of its military might in one place, as operations the globe over have the defensive blanket of America’s military spread fairly thin. Relocating a significant portion of America’s firepower to the South China Sea, for instance, would prove extremely difficult without the GPS systems many American military transports require for navigation.

While the potential for armed conflict with China may seem high, it is still extremely unlikely, as the economies of the two nations are deeply intertwined.  However, with President-elect Donald Trump promising to play hardball regarding trade between the nations, it’s possible, if unlikely, that we may see a decline in trade between the two economic powerhouses. If this were to occur, the most significant obstacle between us and a war with China would be dramatically diminished.

In that unlikely situation, America and her allies could find themselves fighting a world-altering war that took place in both traditional and brand new battlefields.  The fighting would not only rage in the air, on land, and by sea, but it would undoubtedly reach cyberspace and even actual space, with each nation attempting to cripple the other’s fighting capabilities through satellites and lines of code. America’s superior firepower would likely win the day, but it may be at the cost of the world’s digital infrastructure.

Military leverage has always played a role in international trade, though it seems as though its use may be less “wink and nod” and more “fist on the table” under Trump’s administration than it has been in recent years, which may be exactly what the situation needs. China has consistently bucked against American and other nations’ defenses in the South China Sea, and seems to be growing more aggressive in parallel with their increasing military might. However, with China ramping up defense spending and the incoming American president’s plan to do the same, establishing a military-based upper hand in a potential trade war with China could prove rather expensive.

Hopefully the businessman-turned-president has a keen eye for returns on investment.

Image courtesy of PLA