War With China?

I regard a war with China — hot or cold — as perhaps the greatest strategic blunder the United States could make, beyond those it has already made. The end result would be the same as that from the 20th century wars between Britain and Germany: it reduced both to second-rate powers. In the 21st century, the real victors would be the non-state forces of the Fourth Generation, who would fill the gap created by the reduction of both Chinese and American power.

Given my foreboding — in George W. Bush’s Washington, it seems the rule is that any blunder we can make, we will make — I was struck by the title of Robert D. Kaplan’s article in the June Atlantic Monthly, "How We Would Fight China." Kaplan has written some excellent material on the breakdown of the state and the rise of non-state elements.

Here, however, I think he gets it wrong. Kaplan sees the 21st century being defined by a new Cold War between China and the United States, rather than the clash between states and non-state forces. I believe this phenomenon will be far more century-shaping than any conflict between states.

While Kaplan writes about how the U.S. could use naval power — subtly — to contain a rising China, within the framework of a Bismarckian Realpolitik that accommodates everyone’s interests, he recognizes the danger to all of a Cold War turning hot. He writes, "Only a similarly pragmatic approach (similar to Bismarck’s) will allow us to accommodate China’s inevitable re-emergence as a great power. The alternative will be to turn the earth of the twenty-first century into a battleground."

Regrettably, there are influential voices in Washington that want a war with China, the sooner the better. The most likely cause is Taiwan. Few in Washington understand why China is so adamant about Taiwan remaining officially part of China. The reason is China’s history, throughout which her greatest threat has not been foreign invasion but internal division. China has often fractured, sometimes into many parts. Today, Beijing fears that if one province, Taiwan, achieves independence, others will follow. China will go to war, including with the United States, to prevent that from happening.

Correctly, Kaplan observes that China is not able to successfully fight a sea and air war with America:

China has committed itself to significant military spending, but its navy and air force will not be able to match ours for some decades. The Chinese are therefore not going to do us the favor of engaging in conventional air and naval battles, like those fought in the Pacific during World War II.

So how would China fight us? If we send some carrier battle groups to intervene in a war between China and Taiwan, I think China will do something Kaplan does not mention. She will go nuclear at sea from the outset.

When the Cold War ended, we found out that the Soviet Union planned to do exactly that (so much for Reagan Administration plans to send our carriers charging up to the Kola Peninsula). The Chinese might employ nuclear-armed anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, fired from submarines or surface ships, but I think her little surprise for us may be nastier. Kaplan briefly mentions that China "may eventually be able to lob missiles accurately at moving ships in the Pacific" from deep in Chinese territory. I think those missiles, ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, may be ready now — perhaps with a bit of clandestine targeting assistance from a Russia whose sphere of influence the United States is aggressively invading.

The Chinese way of war is indirect. In most cases, that means China will engage us with "soft power," as she is already doing on multiple fronts. But in the case of American intervention in a Taiwan crisis, what if a Chinese ballistic missile popped a nuke say, 100 miles from an advancing American carrier battle group? No one gets hurt, but the message would be loud and clear: keep coming and you’re toast.

If we kept coming anyway and the Chinese did nuke a carrier, we would immediately face an asymmetrical situation. How would we respond? By nuking a Chinese carrier? China doesn’t have any. If we drop a nuke on Chinese territory, we have initiated a strategic nuclear exchange. Is Taiwan worth Seattle or L.A.?

The right answer, as Kaplan recognizes, is don’t go to war with China. Perhaps if someone could talk to Karl Rove about the importance of the Chinese vote . . .

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