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China steps up preparation for war — with whom?

China steps up preparation for war — with whom?
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Although tensions continue to rise between the United States and China, most Americans don’t see the rising Asian superpower as a threat — at least for now. A recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found only four in 10 Americans think “the development of China as a world power is a critical threat to U.S. vital interests.” An earlier poll by the group found slightly more Americans saw both nations as “mostly partners,” as opposed to “mostly rivals.”

Unfortunately, China’s leadership doesn’t seem to agree. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping, during an inspection of military forces, was quoted as saying that China must “step up combat-readiness exercises, joint exercises and confrontational exercises to enhance servicemen’s capabilities and preparation for war.”

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Even more disturbing, Xi’s comments were directed to frontline forces responsible for combat operations near Taiwan and the South China Sea — two flashpoints that could spark a crisis between Washington and Beijing.

To make matters worse, China seems to be making various types of threatening comments with increasing frequencyalong with increasingly bold claims backed up by actions that threaten the peace and stability of the region.

History teaches us we should not dismiss such comments or actions as isolated incidents. As Harvard scholar Graham Allison warns, when a rising power such as China demands changes to the international order, nations that seek to maintain their position — such as the United States — naturally push back. In fact, Allison’s research shows that, in 12 of 16 cases where this has occurred over 500 years, war has resulted.

Are we destined to repeat such history? For example, would China ever seek to shake off U.S. dominance in Asia through some sort of preemptive war to guarantee its dominant position in Asia? Experts with whom I spoke have various opinions, but all shockingly concluded: It isn’t impossible — and the chances are growing.

“The likelihood of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) going to war with the United States over the next decade is increasing as the timeline for achieving the ‘China Dream’ of the restoration of China’s perceived sovereign territory compresses,” explained retired U.S. Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former U.S. Pacific Fleet intelligence director.

“While I firmly believe the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) prefers to use non-kinetic means to achieve President Xi’s ‘great rejuvenation’ of the PRC, as was done at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the pressure to use military force to achieve the restoration of all of China’s disputed territories by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic) will reach a critical decision point over the next 10 years.”

Ian Easton, a scholar with the Project 2049 Institute, reached a similar conclusion. “We can only speculate about the future, but the current trend lines are concerning.” Xi, he points out, has “purged senior leaders in the Chinese Communist Party and created a culture of fear in the ranks of the military and across the regime. It is unlikely that anyone is going to tell him anything he does not want to hear. That greatly increases the risk of him making tragic a mistake.”

It might seem inconceivable that China would launch any sort of military action against the United States. But Beijing’s leaders, thinking their national strength has peaked, could decide to make the ultimate gamble. “As Clausewitz teaches, it’s wise to pick a fight with a stronger power today if you see the trendlines running against you,” explained James Holmes, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “You might get part or all of what you want today, but not tomorrow, next year, or a decade from now. If China sees its rise plateauing or starting to decline, it might strike rather than wait.”

In fact, a “plateauing” China might be the best way to describe Beijing today. China’s favorable demographics that allowed it to become the world’s factory and an economic powerhouse are declining. Beijing has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a massive military buildup to deter or defeat Washington in war; now, America is refocusing its national security strategy on great-power military competition — meaning China. Since China’s economy clearly is slowing and heavily in debt, its leaders might see now as the best time to displace U.S. power in the region through war.

And such a war would be unlike anything we have seen. Most experts agree China would try to destroy America’s ability to command and control its armed forces by attacking satellite nodes through advanced missile strikes in outer space and cyber-attacks. Beijing most likely also would use its vast arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles to destroy U.S. forward-deployed assets and military bases around Asia. The goal would be to do so much damage, so fast, that America and its allies would lose the will to fight — a 21st century Pearl Harbor of sorts.

Thankfully, U.S. military planners have prepared for such a scenario. Pentagon planners have been crafting strategies to ensure Navy aircraft carriers, vulnerable to Chinese missiles, can fight from range, as well as developing new long-range strike platforms to attack China’s interior to even scrapping old treaties that Beijing has taken advantage of to negate U.S. military might.

There is, however, one huge dilemma: both sides have nuclear weapons, turning any potential conflict into a war in which billions could perish.

Would China be willing to take such a risk, knowing it could end up in national ruin, especially if it were to lose such a conflict? “It depends on whether Beijing sees the need for such a strike and thought it could get away with one while accomplishing its goals,” explained Holmes. “... I don’t think preemption is a likely choice for Beijing, but neither would I rule it out as unthinkable. Such efforts have happened before and could again.”

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.