There’s nothing military men like more than obsessively training for wars they will never have to fight. The trick is not to stumble into a conflict that no one will win.
Let’s everyone take a breath. Yes, China presents a potential threat to American interests in the economic, cyber, and naval realms. The U.S. must maintain a credible defensive and expeditionary posture and be prepared for a worst case scenario. What we don’t need is to blunder into a regional, or, worse still, all-out war with the Chinese dragon. Not now, probably not ever.
And yet, in Washington today, and within the Trump administration in particular, alarmism seems the name of the game. This is risky, and, ultimately, dangerous. In his 2018 National Defense Strategy, Secretary of Defense Mattis, a known hawk, refers to Russia and China as "revisionist powers," and announces that the US military must now pivot to "great power" competition. Look, I’m all for extricating our overstretched armed forces from the Middle East and de-escalating the never-ending, counterproductive "war on terror." What doesn’t make sense, is the reflexive assumption that (maybe) dialing down one war, must translate into ramping up for other, more perilous, wars with nuclear-armed powerhouses like Russia or China.
The usual laundry list of Chinese threats is well-known: China is (how dare they!) building a sizable blue-water navy and (gasp!) patrolling around sandy islands in the South China Sea. They conduct cyber-attacks (so do we) and steal intellectual property. They are planning a new “Silk Road” to integrate much of Eurasia into a China-centric trade and transportation system. No doubt, some of those items may be cause for measured concern, but none of the listed "infractions" warrants war!
Bottom line: China, like Russia, possesses neither the capacity nor intent for global domination or the subjugation of the United States. Period.
Let’s start with the capacity problem. China has a growing military. That is to be expected of one of the world’s top-two economies and a nation with more than 1 billion people. Don’t act so surprised. Still, China spends only one third as much as the US on defense. It has one leaky, outdated former Russian aircraft carrier and is building a few more. The US has about a dozen and our local Asian partners (India, Japan, Australia, and South Korea) – count another nine between them.
China has 14 foreign powers – some hostile – on its land borders. One of those is Russia, with whom the Chinese have a long history of border disputes. The last thing the US should want to do is drive those two unnatural allies into each other’s arms with overly bellicose rhetoric and military posturing. Another Chinese neighbor is India, which is strengthening its own military and also has 1+ billion citizens (and a much higher birthrate than China).
Then there’s the intent issue. China is not after global domination and no longer possesses a true internationalist communist ideology. It wants regional superiority and a measure of global respect to make up for its perceived (and actual) embarrassment by European and American imperialists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It wants a powerful trade block across Eurasia and a measure of control of its own "lake" – the South China Sea. Is that so unreasonable? The US has outright supremacy in its bordering seas, such as the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific. The US military has even sponsored coups and conducted outright invasions of nearby islands that didn’t sufficiently march to Washington’s tune.
Switch places with Chinese leader Xi Jinping for a moment. How would Trump (or Obama) respond, if the Chinese insisted they had a right to supremacy in the Caribbean? My guess: outright war.
Finally, there are the reasons not to fight, the reasons why a war would be catastrophic for both sides. China is huge, both in landmass and population (of 1.3 billion!). We’ve all heard the (accurate) trope warning against starting a land war in Asia. There’s good reason for that. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is huge and is capable of bogging the relatively small, all-volunteer US military in a nightmarish quagmire.
Nor could the US count on an easy projection of its naval and airpower into, say, the Taiwan Strait. China (and other competitors) have invested heavily in A2AD (Anti-Access, Area-Denial) systems that could thwart such attempts, inflict heavy casualties, or, at the least, maintain standoff. This would force the US military to preemptively escalate with attacks on Chinese homeland defenses. There is very little opportunity, therefore, to wage a limited war. Any fight with China will force the US"all-in" as a matter of course.
Furthermore, China’s booming and growing economy is both its strength and a sort of financial doomsday device. The US, European, and Chinese economies are by now inextricably linked. Hot war means trade war; and that would likely result in a cataclysmic global financial collapse. The US military is the most well-funded and equipped force on earth. Still, the backbone and foundation of that military rests with the power of the US economy. A new crash and potential depression would permanently damage our economy (along with China’s, no doubt).
Most importantly, China maintains an arsenal of at least 250 nuclear warheads. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to America’s 6000+ weapons, but more than enough to deter any serious invasion. Here’s the trick: never to fight a nuclear power, so long as it can be avoided. Anything else is insanity – ever heard of Nuclear Winter? Yea, it’s a real thing! The lesson: tread lightly, be cautious, and avoid unnecessary brinksmanship. That’s called statesmanship, something the US seems to have forgotten about these last 17 years.
Truth is, most of this threat inflation is really about cooking the books to justify gross overspending and a profits bonanza for the military-industrial complex. That’s a concern in itself, because a $700+ billion military budget is unsustainable, requiring either tough cuts to domestic programs, increased taxes, a ballooning national debt – or all of the above.
The real danger, though, is military brinksmanship. And the inescapable fog of war. It’s not impossible to imagine a dispute in the distant South China Sea (7000 miles from California) resulting in combat and casualties between the US and China. This could quickly escalate out of control. And remember, we both have loads of nuclear weapons!
It’s time to realistically weigh US interests, display some humility and craft a sober strategy for the Pacific. The sea coast of China cannot forever remain an "American lake." We would never accept a foreign power in the Caribbean and can’t expect China – with over a billion citizens and a growing economy – to cede their local waters to a distant American Navy in perpetuity.
The US must appeal to local Asian partners based on our (ostensible) shared values of open trade and open society – a challenge to the more authoritarian Chinese value system. After all, soft power goes a long way, especially when all-out war is a non-option! That, of course, will require more consistency from the US We’ll have to walk the walk on our values and quit backing our "partners’" military campaigns – Saudis in Yemen, Israel in Gaza, etc. – when they often add up to veritable war crimes.
Remember, we owe the Chinese a lot of money. That gives them leverage, but it also gives us leverage. They want to be paid back and Beijing knows it needs the American market for its goods. Besides, our economies are actually highly intertwined. XI doesn’t want a major war with the US He is playing the long game, a chess match as compared to our bumbling checkers!
If there is a war in the Pacific with nuclear-armed China it will most likely not be of XI’s doing. Only American hubris can lead to what would inevitably be a disastrous war.
Given our recent track record – an Icarus-syndrome par excellence – that seems frighteningly likely.
Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen