China is not our friend. Since the Clinton Administration, and through the Bush and Obama years, American policy proceeded as if trade and cultural ties would work automatically to liberalize the Chinese. Instead, these ties have enriched and strengthened China, allowing it to build first-class infrastructure, a robust economy, and a substantially more capable military in a mere 30 years’ time.
Simultaneously, these policies have hollowed out our own industrial base, rendering most of our industries, including the tech sector, dependent on Chinese inputs. In the name of efficiency, we have lost resilience, jobs, and independence.
The prospect of a military confrontation with China is now closer than it was at the beginning of this process. Along with its rising confidence and capability, China has advanced a self-serving and novel view of its authority, asserting sovereignty and rights of exclusion deep into the South China Sea.
The United States, for over 100 years, has viewed itself as a maritime power, enforcing freedom of navigation so that the world may benefit from trade and secure sea lanes. China’s expansive view of its rights threatens these expectations and sows the seeds of a potential military conflict.
Dimensions of Competition
Trump’s most enduring foreign policy legacy will likely be his reappraisal of policy towards China. In effecting this change, he chiefly focused on tariffs and trade. Adjusting tariff and trade policy is less threatening and less risky than military posturing. These policies also yield dividends—such as jobs and more diverse supply chains—that strengthen the United States against other competitors.
Using trade policy for strategic purposes is not without risk. The Japanese Empire, for example, bombed Pearl Harbor in the wake of the United States cutting off vital petroleum supplies. But trade policy is one of the least contested elements of sovereignty, analogous to the unrestricted choice individuals have to do business (or not) with whom they choose.
Tension with China has a growing military dimension. America’s national security strategy documents and discussions within America’s national security establishment signal an increasing focus on tactics and procurement geared towards war with China.
While focusing on China makes sense, many of these discussions appear to have an air of magical thinking. The American military is small by historical standards. The U.S. Navy only has 300 or so warships. China’s navy is now bigger. If we were to stumble into a conventional war with China, it would consist mostly of naval and airpower engagement.
China also has some distinct advantages. Most obviously, it has a home-field advantage. There, it benefits from existing logistics, land-based anti-ship missiles, airfields capable of mutual support, and easy access for its extensive submarine fleet. Plus, China has weapons—such as anti-ship ballistic missiles—against which the United States once admitted it does not have effective countermeasures. If a few multibillion-dollar American aircraft carriers and thousands of crew members ended up on the bottom of the ocean, it is hard to imagine the American people remaining committed to a conventional conflict, nor is it obvious with what resources it could continue.
The Risk of Inadvertent Escalation
If somehow things went well for us—destruction of critical Chinese command and control infrastructure, naval bases, and air defense assets—it is possible (and frightening) to consider that the conflict might not remain conventional. This is one of the paradoxes of conflict between nuclear powers: tactical and operational victories can lead to perceptions that it is time to “use it or lose it” for nuclear weapons.
In other words, as with the Cold War-era “AirLand Battle” doctrine, planning and strategy with China seem to be built around deep strikes against enemy logistics and disruption of command and control infrastructure, while ignoring the inconvenient fact that China is a nuclear power concerned with maintaining a viable nuclear strike capability.
Just as trade wars can become real ones, conventional military victories threaten to escalate into nuclear wars, not out of ruthlessness, but out of fear and confusion about an adversary’s intent. As Barry Posen argued in his Cold War-era work Inadvertent Escalation, “confusion about the relationship between conventional and nuclear war can lead to a situation in which Western conventional and nuclear forces work at cross purposes.”
Needless to say, a nuclear war with China would be an unmitigated disaster. While we have a significant advantage over China in our nuclear arsenal, China has an intercontinental nuclear weapons capability and is engaged in significant nuclear modernization. Even a small number of such weapons penetrating to the United States mainland would far exceed the costs of all of America’s previous wars.
Current national defense policy appears to assume that we can win an advantageous position through a conventional war with China. From there, the parties conceivably would meet at the negotiating table and the United States would be in a position of strength.
But this optimistic account sets aside the risk of inadvertent nuclear escalation. Where the United States would perceive itself engaged in suppression of air defenses or force protection, China may perceive this as an attempt to destroy its capability of mounting a credible second strike. In other words, our conventional playbook easily could be interpreted as the prelude to a first strike, inviting a preemptive first strike in return.
During the Cold War, defense policy took seriously the prospect of nuclear war. Even as conventional forces grew, both sides avoided direct confrontation, vying for supremacy through proxy wars such as Vietnam and Afghanistan. Even then, conventional doctrine, such as AirLand Battle, sometimes set aside these risks with relatively little explanation.
In dealing with China, America would do well to ensure no conflict with China goes nuclear. There seems no reliable way to guarantee this under the conditions of conventional war. Under these circumstances, the United States should reconceive its regional objectives to avoid such conflict altogether.
One way of avoiding such conflict is to continue the focus on economic matters. Ideally, this would mean continuing the Trump-era policy of disconnecting our fortunes from China as much as possible. Unfortunately, the Biden Administration’s watchword appears to be reversing every Trump policy reflexively. But perhaps the human rights talk and climate change concerns of the Left could be repurposed to reevaluate China as the abusive and polluting regime that it is.
At the same time, and more plausibly, the United States should reevaluate its overly ambitious goals and commitments in the region. Maintaining the “rules-based international order” in the South China Sea or the territorial integrity of Taiwan enhances the possibility of conflict with China. The United States can regain the advantage by playing the spoiler, redirecting its military power to maintaining its own national sovereignty and disrupting Chinese efforts to impose power beyond its near-abroad.
Instead of trying to maintain primacy on the seas, the United States could more easily deny such primacy to others. Such an approach increases the effectiveness of our scarce and limited defense resources while taxing those of the Chinese if they should try to recreate current American policy in reverse.
Rejecting maximalist objectives in the region would secure the same or nearly the same economic and strategic advantages, while lessening tension and avoiding the risks of a conventional war, which, in turn, avoids the inherent risk of escalation to nuclear war.
Real Strategy Requires Priorities
American strategy in the wake of the Cold War has been sloppy and imprecise, consisting often of long, unachievable “to do” lists that fail to distinguish relative degrees of priority or the connection of these intermediate objectives to tangible benefits to the American people. The importance of these national strategy documents takes on increasing urgency under President Biden, as he appears unable and unwilling to refine the policies built by decades of bureaucratic accretion.
Following the Cold War, America’s outward focus has led to high expenses and a steady erosion of American power, along with an increasing gap between American commitments and capabilities. It is vital for decision-makers, as well as the American people, to face up to the risks of stumbling into a nuclear war with China due to some comparatively trivial issues such as fishing rights or the status of man-made islands.
Sadly, the events of the last year give little reason to have confidence in the judgment or broad views of the permanent bureaucracy. Republicans also tend not to be the best check on the foreign policy overreach of Democratic presidents due to their knee-jerk tendency to support foreign adventures.
For the latter group, who believe instinctively in a strong defense, consider this a warning on how tough talk and tough actions can backfire in the most miserable way conceivable.