In recent years, many American leaders have grown cavalier about nuclear war, especially with Russia, but there is also risk of a devastating conflict with China, as former U.S. Ambassador Chas W. Freeman Jr. observes.
By Chas W. Freeman Jr. (in a May 1 speech at Brown University)
Let’s not kid ourselves. The armed forces of the United States and China are now very far along in planning and practicing how to go to war with each other. Neither has any idea when or why it might have to engage the other on the battlefield but both agree on the list of contingencies that could spark conflict. These range from naval scuffles in the Spratly or Senkaku Islands to full-spectrum combat over Taiwan independence or reunification.
The context in which these contingencies might occur reflects an imbalance of power left over from history. U.S. forces are forward-deployed along China’s frontiers in a pattern that originated with the Cold War policy of “containment.” Chinese forces are deployed to defend China’s borders as China defines them. China regards the United States as the country most able and likely to violate those borders and attack it.
The United States seeks to sustain the military dominance of the Western Pacific that it has enjoyed since its 1945 overthrow of Japanese imperial power. Washington is determined to preclude the contraction of the sphere of influence it established during the Cold War. China is striving to establish defensible maritime borders, to prevent Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam from prevailing in their counterclaims to islands and rocks in its near seas, and to reintegrate Taiwan, which the United States separated from the rest of China and placed in its sphere of influence 67 years ago, in 1950.
Elements of the U.S. military aggressively patrol the air and seas that abut China. Their purpose is to be ready to cripple the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by striking bases in its homeland if conflict with U.S. forces or U.S. allies occurs. Not surprisingly, China objects to these missions. It is steadily strengthening its capacity not just to fend off American attempts to scout or penetrate its defenses, but to recover Taiwan by coercive means.
The U.S. armed forces and the PLA have met on the battlefield before, but never on Chinese soil. Sino-American wars have taken place only in third countries like Korea or by proxy and covert action, as in Indochina. But any war between the United States and China under the contingencies both now contemplate would begin in places China considers part of its territory.
It might be possible to limit a conflict in the South China Sea to the islands and waters there. But a Sino-Japanese clash over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands or a Sino-American war over Taiwan would almost certainly entail U.S. strikes on the Chinese mainland. Chinese doctrine calls for such attacks to be answered with reprisals against U.S. bases and the American homeland.
China’s no-first-use doctrine is a significant barrier to China’s use of nuclear weapons for such reprisal, but one that it is easy to imagine being breached under the pressures of wartime crisis conditions. Beijing is likely to see U.S. attacks on Chinese bases where nuclear and non-nuclear weapons are commingled as the equivalent of a strategic first strike designed to knock out China’s nuclear deterrent. Any threat that China’s Communist Party leadership perceives as existential would stimulate some to argue for nuclear as well as cyber reprisal against comparable facilities in the United States.
In the U.S. political elite and officer corps, alarm about the damage a nuclear strike can wreak on its targets and the retaliation it invites has succumbed to “nuclear amnesia.” The national “allergy” to the use of nuclear weapons has weakened concomitantly. Washington is again exploring tactical uses for nuclear weapons and funding programs to develop them. Americans have ceased to consider what a nuclear exchange with Russia, China, or another foreign foe would do to the United States.
The current hysteria over North Korea may in time correct this. But, for now, Americans remain in denial, imagining that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the U.S. missile defense program will work. No one is preparing for scenarios in which it does not.
Meanwhile, communication between the American and Chinese national security establishments is far less robust than it was between the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War. There is very little, if any, mutual trust between Beijing and Washington. Senior U.S. military officers understand Chinese politico-military doctrine poorly or not at all. There are no Sino-American understandings or mechanisms for escalation control. It is past time, but not too late to begin creating these.
This is not a reassuring situation. But there are many factors that inhibit rash Chinese actions in response to a crisis. And there are some on the U.S. side as well. Neither China nor America wants war with the other.
Under the People’s Republic, China has established a seven-decade-long record of strategic caution and a preference for diplomatic and paramilitary rather than military solutions to national security problems. China clearly prefers to use measures short of war to protect itself but has shown that it is fully prepared to go to war to defend its borders and strategic interests Chinese uses of force have been notably purposive, determined, disciplined, and focused on limited objectives, with no moving of the goalposts.
In Korea, where ragtag Chinese forces fought the United States to a standstill from 1950 to 1953, China settled for the de facto restoration of the status quo ante bellum — strategic denial of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula to hostile forces. In 1958, it ended its military presence in Korea. When border skirmishes escalated into war between China and India in 1962, China first showed India that, if provoked, the PLA could overrun it. Then, having made that point, China withdrew its troops to their original positions. In the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, China accepted huge losses on the battlefield to teach Vietnam that the costs of continued empire building in association with the Soviet Union would be unacceptably high. Once Vietnam seemed convinced of this, China disengaged its forces.
China waited a decade to respond to multiple seizures of disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea by other claimants. The Philippines began the process of creating facts in the sea in 1978, Vietnam followed in 1982, and Malaysia did the same in 1983. In 1988, China intervened to halt the further expansion of Vietnamese holdings.
Since then China has established an unejectable presence of its own on seven artificially enlarged land features in the South China Sea. It has not attempted to dislodge other claimants from any of the four dozen outposts they have planted in Chinese-claimed territories. China has been careful not to provoke military confrontations with them or with the U.S. Navy, despite the latter’s swaggering assertiveness.
Pattern of Restraint
A similar pattern of restraint has been evident in the Senkaku Islands, which China considers to be part of Taiwan and Japan asserts are part of Okinawa. There, China seeks to present an active challenge to Japanese efforts to foreclose discussion of the two sides’ dispute over sovereignty. It has done so with lightly armed Coast Guard vessels rather than with the PLA’s naval warfare arm. Japan has been equally cautious.
China negotiated the reunification of both Hong Kong and Macau, although it could have used force, as India did in Goa, to achieve reintegration.
China has negotiated generous settlements and demarcations of its land borders with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. China’s borders with the former British empire in Bhutan, India, and Myanmar remain formally unsettled but for the most part peaceful.
These interactions between China and its neighbors demonstrate a high degree of Chinese competence at managing differences without armed conflict. They provide grounds for optimism. War, including accidental war, between China and its neighbors – or China and the United States as the ally of some of those neighbors – is far from inevitable.
China has been cautious even with respect to Taiwan – that most chauvinist of issues. There has been no exchange of fire between the civil-war rivals on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait since 1979. On Jan. 1 of that year, the United States accepted Beijing as China’s capital and ended its formal championship of Taipei in that role. Beijing responded by discontinuing its advocacy of the forceful “liberation” of Taiwan and announcing a policy aimed at peaceful reunification.
So far, despite occasional provocations from pro-independence forces in Taiwan, China has stuck with this policy, placing equal emphasis on enticement and intimidation. Beijing’s “united front” outreach to Taiwanese complements the military pressure its growing capacity to devastate the island imparts to the imperative of cross-Strait accommodation.
The bottom line is that, while Chinese warnings must be taken seriously, Chinese aggressiveness should not be overestimated. China tends to act militarily with prudence, upon warning, not rashly. Its wealth and power are growing, giving it an incentive to defer confrontations to the future, when its relative strength will be greater and new opportunities to win without fighting may arise.
The record shows that China adheres to limited objectives, limited means, and limited time scales. On the other hand, it is characteristically determined, once the die is cast, to invest whatever level of effort is required to achieve its objectives. China has been notably careful to avoid “mission creep” in the wake of success. There is no evidence that its ambitions are open-ended or unbridled. If given an inch, it is unlikely to seek to take a mile.
Risks of War
So, what’s the problem? Why are we concerned about how to avoid war with China? There are two reasons, one short-term and one long-term.
The first relates to Taiwan, which the United States has pledged to help defend. The island is now ruled by an anti-reunification, pro-independence government. Trump administration statements have raised doubts about whether Washington might upgrade relations with Taipei, relitigate the U.S. commitment to a “one-China” policy, or otherwise change direction on this most neuralgic of all issues for Chinese nationalism.
China now has the military means to bring Taiwan to heel despite U.S. opposition. The uncertainties injected by Mr. Trump’s tweets seem to have moved Beijing to consider whether to act before the issue goes off track.
It is entirely possible that once this fall’s 19th Party Congress has passed, arguments for resolving the question of Taiwan’s relationship to the rest of China by the 100th anniversary of the founding Chinese Communist Party in 2021 will gain force. If so, the long-deferred bloody rendezvous of the United States with Chinese nationalism could be upon us as Beijing makes Taipei “an offer it cannot refuse.” Americans will have to decide how invested we are in our Cold War commitment to keep China divided.
In the longer term, while Washington persists in proceeding on the assumption that the United States can forever dominate China’s periphery, this notion has steadily diminishing credibility in Asia. America’s power is visibly declining, not just in relation to China but also to the increasingly self-reliant allies and friends of the United States in the region. These trends give every sign of accelerating. They reflect underlying realities that increased U.S. defense spending cannot alter or reverse.
Sino-American rivalry — political, economic, and military — seems destined to intensify. China can and will easily match defense budget plus-ups by the United States. Despite much shadowboxing by the U.S. armed forces, American military primacy in the Western Pacific will gradually waste away. Both the costs of U.S. trans-Pacific engagement and the risks of armed conflict will rise. The states of the region will hedge. They will either draw closer to Beijing, cleave to Washington, or — more likely — try to get out of the middle between Chinese and Americans. For the most part, they will not repudiate their alliances with America. Why give up something for nothing? But they will rely less on the United States and act more independently of it.
So the central question in whether the United States can avoid war with China comes down to this: How much damage to our homeland are we prepared to risk to pursue specific foreign policy objectives that antagonize China? In the Twenty-first Century, when Americans kill faraway foreigners, we must expect that they will retaliate and that, one way or another, we will pay a price in civilian deaths here at home.
It is time to get serious. We Americans are not omnipotent. Nor are we invulnerable. But we are a people who value honor. In the case of China and its neighbors, how do we balance our interests with our honor?
Ambassador Freeman chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired U.S. defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books.
“to reintegrate Taiwan, which the United States separated from the rest of China and placed in its sphere of influence 67 years ago, in 1950”
Japan separated Taiwan (then called Formosa) from China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. Japan ran the island as part of Japan for 50 years.
There are ethnic Taiwanese who resent being considered Chinese. Their separate history goes back hundreds of years, to wars with the Dutch. There are also ethnic Japanese there who were never Chinese.
The actual Chinese on Taiwan are a minority, and arrived seeking refuge from their loss of China.
Yes, China wants Taiwan and puts a high priority on that. It is not however as much a matter of right for them as they assert. It is more like German pre-war claims on Czechoslovakia, with many qualifications.
When is the American fight war by itself , every time they went to war always bring 18 allies and groups NATO together , otherwise his can’t fight
China and America can work together to make the world a better place.
“In Korea, where ragtag Chinese forces fought the United States to a standstill from 1950 to 1953…”
On the contrary, it was the Americans who suffered from many serious and fundamental problems – the main one being that their army was made up of conscripts who were regularly rotated home, ensuring that no one except officers could build up experience of the very specific war conditions and enemy.
I quote from my Amazon review of General S.L.A. Marshall’s excellent book “Pork Chop Hill”:
In this book S.L.A. Marshall, an experienced journalist who had previously been a military officer during WW2, gives an extremely detailed blow-by-blow account of the fierce fighting around Pork Chop Hill. Marshall pulls no punches, passing on the exact and unexpurgated story of the fighting as he heard it from interviews with scores of soldiers immediately after they had been in action. There is no better way of getting to understand the exact nature of the trench warfare, punctuated by sudden fierce raids and offensives, that characterized the final deadlocked period of the Korean War.
In his Preface, Marshall explains how he was asked by the military high command to talk to the soldiers and officers who had been involved in fighting the Chinese, in order to establish what was being done right and what was going wrong. His introductory remarks are upbeat, praising the fighting spirit and initiative of the young American soldiers whom he met. However a thorough reading of the book itself reveals that there was immense scope for improvement. Perhaps the worst problem Marshall confirmed was the short time each US soldier spent on the front line, compared to their Chinese enemies. Due to the system of rotation, troops went back to the USA just as they were beginning to get the hang of what they were doing. The Chinese, however, had been fighting for over two years non-stop, and as Marshall points out they got steadily more experienced and cunning. From start to finish we read about incompetent and inconsistent commanders, green troops who panic when (or indeed before) the fighting begins, and a general failure to make the best use of the superior American weapons, equipment, communications, and fire support. In stark contrast, the Chinese are shown to have adapted quickly and made the most of their superior numbers, clever tactics, and – although this is rarely mentioned – great bravery. Time after time, they infiltrated the American lines without being detected, and occasionally they pulled off a set piece such as the cold-blooded execution of an entire US patrol who were all shot at the same moment without warning. One is strongly reminded of the age-old Chinese military tradition of clever strategy, as laid down (for example) in Sun Tzu’s famous “The Art of War”.
Only one UN outfit is depicted as being clearly superior to the Chinese, outclassing them at their own game of stealth and deception – the single Ethiopian battalion in Korea. As Marshall declares, the Ethiopians were alone among the UN forces in never having any of their men taken prisoner, and never even leaving a dead or wounded soldier on the battle field. On several occasions they melted into the Chinese lines and danced around them in the night or fog, out-manoeuvring and decisively defeating the enemy whom they met. Yet most of the Ethiopians were illiterate, and none of them had fought in a war before.
This suggests one of the big problems the Americans had: too much sophisticated equipment, and not nearly enough experience. During one attack, we hear how the sergeant in command of an outpost never had time to tell the soldiers defending the same trench and command post that they were about to be attacked. He was too busy on his field telephone, talking to senior officers and outposts. Often, soldiers milled around in confusion unless given direct, specific orders – and sometimes even then. There seems to have been little outright cowardice, and many men demonstrated remarkable courage and endurance. But one cannot read this book without getting a penetrating insight into the sheer confusion and disorder of modern warfare.
“The U.S. armed forces and the PLA have met on the battlefield before, but never on Chinese soil. Sino-American wars have taken place only in third countries like Korea or by proxy and covert action, as in Indochina”.
That turns out not to be the case. Although Americans have either forgotten or never knew, their army invaded China in 1898 -1901 and captured Beijing, killing at the very least 40,000 Chinese people. Like Africans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Cubans and Filipinos, the Chinese were considered intrinsically inferior to the “White Aryan Race” (not my term – Teddy Roosevelt’s). On grounds of expediency, Teddy made one exception: he publicly declared that he considered the Japanese to be “honorary Aryans” – hence their role, along with the Americans and Europeans, in the invasion of China and the cynical murder of its people.
It was an eight-nation alliance, not just Americans, and it was a time of a Boxer Rebellion in China. Not sure if you omitted those facts on purpose…
Art stops war. At least it avoids it.
Fraud promotes it.
“Art is important as the cultural record of society, and in the art industry, high-value objects move around the world frequently.”
Fraud is in the eye of the beholder.
And war stops art.
And the sweet embrace of anti-matter is a big bang!
You’re making me crazy Max.
How to lose friends:
China and EU strengthen commitment to Paris deal with US poised to step away
• Beijing and Brussels to set up new alliance to reduce global carbon emissions
• ‘Now is the time to further strengthen these ties’ – EU climate commissioner
This excellent article helps to explain why China is unlikely to lean on North Korea to reduce its military powers that could align with China in the event of our war department becoming so insane as to attack China. Our military is in two quagmires in Afghanistan and the Middle East. If it goes into China it will be like Napoleon and Hitler going into Russia who – come to think of it – will more than likely become a military ally of China.
The next few years will tell us if the US can show some of the maturity and realism of it’s Chinese and Russian competitors, or if it will get carried away with it’s hubris to be #1 and cause all of us terrible suffering as a result. It doesn’t look good from here, but you never know until the dice are actually rolled.
In the meantime, the continuing problem of how to deal with a madman president of a certifiably crazy nation?
Considerations before screwing with China.
China has a defense and security pact with Russia….has had since 2001.
China has also signed a ‘security’ pact with Iran.
Lets just pray for peace.
Most of the bluster about North Korea is a pretext for the Washington imperialists to beef up the military machine off China’s coastal waters and install ABMs in South Korea that are actually directed toward China.
Utter insanity to put a major nuclear power on the defensive but this is what our greedy bloodthirsty militarist leaders in Washington have in store for us.
I do NOT think that the US and China will go to war against each other for several reasons:
– The US is a cowardly nation that never attacks countries that can hit back.
– China is very smart and is actually “buying” America via economic means. The Pacific Ocean will become part of the “China Sea” in the coming decades. See how many companies and real estate in the US are now owned by China.
– The “International Bankers” who actually run America and the West are very happy with China being the “production shop” of the planet and America does not start wars WITHOUT the blessing of those BANKERS.
– Russia and the Rest of the “BRICS” are now economically tied together and a war with China will get the rest involved.
Yes, there appears to be little motive for actual war.
The US should be a leader in negotiation of an international framework for resource distribution, rather than a thief accusing others of theft. A UN that controlled global resource extraction would permit shares therein to benefit everyone. Until then, the sea territorial claims of a nation should be proportional to inland areas and population; yet smaller nation dependent upon the sea must not be injured by any distribution formula.
The US can “balance our interests with our honor” by simply recognizing that China is not a threat and has no history of expansionism, and that our Cold War “containment” wars in Korea and Vietnam were a foolish effort to fight the spread of an idea of economic development and justice as though it was a vast conspiracy against us, just as our “war on terror” is in our imagination, fighting a military technique rather than working with the ideologies it serves. These enormous errors of US groupthink have served exactly no one but its oligarchy, who know very well that these wars made no sense for the people of the US.
The US right wing tyrants seek to build up a right wing in China by mutual provocations, so that they can create a foreign enemy to pose falsely as protectors and accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty, as Aristotle warned. The “Chinese competence at managing differences without armed conflict” is indeed the only grounds for optimism.
The tyranny of the US oligarchy depends upon blinding the public to the fact that communism had one half of the answer to good government (economic rights) and free enterprise under democracy had the other half (political or direct power rights). China is working out a very efficient combination while the US languishes under the tyranny of economic aristocracy, with nothing left but a failed excuse for its former democracy.
Excellent post Sam. I like your UN controlled resource distribution idea. Might be a problem getting the fat cats on board with that one. Come to think of it, the fat cats don’t play well with others – they always want everything their own way….. It looks like nothing will ever really work for our world unless these fat wealthy dudes can be removed from their position of dominance over the rest of us. Simple idea, but hard to execute, especially by a spoiled, indoctrinated, lazy, selfish public – the mirror image of the fat cats as Plato wisely observed. We have met the enemy, and we are them, and they are us.
“China is very smart and is actually “buying” America via economic means.” Just like Japan did.
“The ‘International Bankers’ who actually run America and the West are very happy with China being the ‘production shop’ of the planet…” Yes, they’re the ones who set it up. No way China could have done this on her own, not in this short of time. China was U.S.-made.
Hmmm if international bankers are the the ones who set up China how come they cannot set up the West? Why is the West so backward while China is surging ahead on all fronts. No i think you are wrong. I think China with it´´s strong form of government, centered on communist principles with the parts of capitalism that are useful to the state is a thoroughly Chinese way of doing things. The Western way of every man for himself is losing big time on the world stage. perhaps China could be the one country that could help the West out of it´s mess. After all lifting more that 600,000,000 (yes thats millions) of people out of poverty in just the last 20 years says a lot about their way of doing things especially when compared to the West which has driven the same number of people into poverty over the same time period would´nt you say?
Dr. Soudy – Economists I’ve read have said that China must bring the U.S. dollars it gets from exports back home to the U.S. I can’t remember whether it was because it would cause inflation in their country (if spent in China) or whether it would cause their currency to decline (if spent in China). These manufacturing countries with large trade surpluses (like Japan in the 70’s and 80’s) are what Trump is upset about. He wants the U.S. to manufacture more of its own stuff, and he wants fair trade, not one-sided trade deals where one country gets the service jobs (the U.S.) while the others get the manufacturing jobs.
“Lacking no chutzpah, the German chancellor Angela Merkel told President Trump last week that the U.S. should not complain about trade deficits with Germany. Why? Simple, she said: Germany is a big investor in the U.S. creating thousands of jobs.
There was no repartee from the U.S. side because our trade experts failed to slip a note to the president to tell him that these investments were financed with the money we gave them to buy German goods.
Running large trade deficits with Germany enables German companies to recycle their dollar earnings in the U.S., killing whatever is left of jobs and incomes in our manufacturing – Detroit automakers being one of the prominent cases in point. Yes, we are giving them the rope … and the German chancellor apparently wanted more of it.
Thanks in large part to these kinds of trade policies we now have the stock of human and physical capital that sets the limits to potential (and noninflationary) growth rate at a miserable 1.5 percent.
Undeterred, our free-traders insist that we should focus on services, leave the manufacturing sector to Germans and the Chinese, keep piling on foreign debt and still think that we can make the country safe and secure, maybe even run the world on the side.
A wonderful picture, isn’t it? Hospitality industries, Silicon Valley and Hollywood will be our big money spinners.”
America has a wonderful opportunity to convert its culture from a “car-based” one with large expensive and environmentally unfriendly “bedroom communities” to a “public transportation-based” one with people living in high-rises. existing Interstate highways should be split to include “light-rail” and/or bus-lanes and take the people out of their private cars. That will open up a whole new manufacturing opportunities to build the Light Rail cars in addition to buses and micro buses to serve in local areas bringing people to major transit centers where they can take the light rail………….If America focused on reshaping its Transportation System, that alone will make America very different…………..That will not happen as long as The Military/Security/Prison Industrial Complex PLUS the Neocons are having their hold on D.C. and the State Governments…………………
You are joking of course. In America? Fat chance of that. It would interfere with their sence of rugged individualism.
Peace is the way. War will destroy our world.
One thing to consider, is that it would be far less cheaper for the Chinese to sink a U.S. Naval Aircraft carrier with a couple of missiles, than it would be for the U.S. to afford to purchase another aircraft carrier.
Hi Joe, I’m somewhat amused by the new military standoff between the forces of the USA and Russia-China alliance. This situation is akin to using a specially designed pistol that discharges two bullets at the same time, one into the target and one into the assassin (gotta be a CIA invention) Well, the Chinese are never going to war with us without slitting their own throats -economically speaking. If a confrontation does happen, every Walmart in America would suffer from immediate import losses (Trump would insist on this) empty shelves, looting, harassment of customers and inevitably, discharging a million and a half employees, this includes financial support for their families as well. Finally, we all are witnesses to the unveiling and actual face of, the Military Industrial Complexes of this world; an ugly, despicable, unusable, nihilistic force(s), expensive, anachronistic and foreboding…As to the comments by Dr. Ibrahim Soudy, I take a special a umbrage to his deeply insulting comment that the whole of the US is cowardly..we have former soldiers lying on their backs without any limbs, they pay for their bravery, each and every day, as the decades go by. For bathing, they need to be flipped over like a pancake by the VA staffers. I have nothing but the strongest support for freedom of speech, Doctor, so and so, but there are limits!! I’d advise you to tour one of our VA hospitals and see for your self. Frankly, Soudy, you make me spit!
And why are those VA Hospitals overflowing with the limbless and brain damaged? Wars of choice. Wars for profit. You use the word bravery a lot. How much bravery does it take to use the most expensive and technologically advanced military in the world to fight unarmed third world populations. Not much in my view. Bravery is something you do out of necessity not choice. If they were fighting because the US was actually attacked that is one thing. But the US was not attacked, so there is, and was, no bravery. 2,million dead mostly civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan , no matter the slaughter in the other 6 countries the US is currenty bombing back to the stone age,are testament to that fact. There was and is no bravery. Only butchery
Oh and I subscribe to a philosophy that the only just war is a nuclear war. You know why? Because then countries like yours that are used to fighting wars and flattening countries and slaughtering the innocent in third world countries around the world would be flattened as well with hundreds of millions dead and dying. Even the bankers and members of your corrupt governments would not escape. There won´t be many heroes in that one either. But finally military justice will be dealt out uniformly around the planet and justice for all will finally prevail.