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Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., speaks to reporters in this Associated Press file photo.

American forces deployed to the Pacific are "highly vulnerable" to attacks from China, according to Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who fears that Beijing could instigate and win a conflict with the United States.

“The first thing that you'd have to do with certain pieces of our equipment is leave the area if China were to escalate this way,” said Gardner, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations subcommittee for East Asia and the Pacific. “That’s not exactly a position of strength,” he said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

What equipment does he have in mind? “The Navy,” he replied. “You would basically end up in a situation where all of our planning, all of our equipment, all of our systems basically vacate.”

That dynamic has been brought about in large part by the ballistic missiles that the People’s Liberation Army have designed to target surface warships such as American craft carriers as well as U.S. military bases throughout the Indo-Pacific. China’s tactical advantages in the region are “alarming,” he acknowledged, especially when considered in light of Beijing’s increasing belligerence.

Some allies remain confident in the U.S. military’s strength with respect to China, in part due to the lethality of American bombers and the advantages provided by American submarines.

“If there was a wartime scenario, I'm sure there would be a U.S. response that would blow anything else that the Chinese have in the region out of the water as well,” an Asian official said.

Yet Gardner suggested that Pentagon strategists are reduced to ensuring that the U.S. could make any conflict with China very painful for Beijing — a far cry from the sure defeat that awaited any national military that struck American troops in recent decades.

“They obviously don’t want to challenge the United States at this point because they know our capabilities would be exacting as well — although our concern would be how long we could stand with it” and continue the fight, Gardner said.

Gardner is far from a lone voice in airing these misgivings. He is one of four GOP senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch of Idaho, who have coauthored the Strategic Act — a bill that, among other things, warns that China’s military now “presents a substantial and imminent risk to the security of the United States” because American forces throughout the Indo-Pacific “are highly vulnerable” to China’s missile forces.

“What if China were to decide to make a move on Taiwan today? What if they were to decide to make a move on the Philippines today?” Gardner asked. “What would the U.S. response be? And I'll be — I don't know that there is a good answer that would satisfy the leadership of the United States.”

A prospective Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the last refuge of the government overthrown during the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949, is the most troubling scenario for U.S. strategists. The location of that island — off the east coast of China, south of Japan and the Korean Peninsula but north of the Philippines — means that a mainland Chinese victory there would allow Beijing “to project power ... to United States territory, such as Guam and Hawaii” while threatening the neighboring U.S. allies, the senators wrote in the new legislation.

"This shift in the regional military balance and erosion of conventional deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region ... could embolden the PRC to take actions to change the status quo before the United States can mount an effective response," the bill says, using the customary acronym for the People's Republic of China.

The legislation proposes to remedy that situation by coordinating with allies and “adopting a more dispersed force posture throughout the region,” with an emphasis on “mobile and relocatable launchers for long-range cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic weapons.” Such an arsenal would make it harder for China to win a conflict by blanketing a few large bases with missiles.

“If we're serious about it, we can do that now,” Gardner said when asked how long it would take to strengthen the U.S. military presence. "If we're serious about it, that is not a lengthy period of time.”

Until that shift takes place, however, China will retain the option of imposing its will on U.S. allies — for a price, but a smaller price than any American adversary would have had to pay in decades.

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