Tell me how the US-China war ends

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The Pentagon is spending lots of time these days wondering how to defeat China in a possible future war, potentially over Taiwan — an island polity of 23 million people (and much of the world’s semiconductor manufacturing base) that China considers a wayward province but that America considers an important democratic friend. The goal, of course, is to deter China from any attack by denying it a plausible path to victory.

That is all well and good. But one element is often lacking in the many war games and contingency analyses that are done within as well as outside the Pentagon and the Beltway to explore these questions. What is the realistic endgame? We should remember the haunting question of Gen. David Petraeus in a different wartime context in the early days of the Iraq occupation: “Tell me how this ends?” The question is even more germane when facing a country with a $15 trillion GDP, $250 billion military budget, the world’s top manufacturing infrastructure, the world’s second biggest research and development enterprise, the largest navy, by ship count, anyway — also a nation that recently may have decided to triple in size its nuclear force.

Put differently, is there really a chance that a future crisis or contingency with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over Taiwan would be terminated or even resolved with the PRC renouncing its claims to sovereignty over the island? If not, then we should think of most postulated fights over Taiwan as the first battle in a protracted struggle, not the entirety of the whole war.

The late strategist Fred Ikle once wrote a book entitled “Every War Must End.” That is true — except when it’s not. Some wars do not end, at least not on expected timelines. World War I lasted years longer than expected and lay the seeds for World War II; what strategist E.H. Carr called “The Twenty-Years’ Crisis” was arguably just an interregnum in what can be viewed as one giant overall conflict. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia is often celebrated for creating the modern nation-state system, but it hardly ushered in great-power peace. 

In the following decades and centuries, for example, France and Britain fought each other at least a half-dozen times (even if often in other parts of the world besides Europe). Most of their wars did not end. They just went on pause until one side or the other, often the loser in the previous round of combat, figured out and prepared for a new way to get at its nemesis.

What’s more, the tools we had available to us to break out of the World War I/World War II trap — most notably, the pursuit of unconditional surrender and regime change that were achieved in Germany and Japan in 1945 — are unlikely to be available to Beijing or Washington in the future. Neither has, or likely will achieve, the credible capability to attain all-out victory against the other, in light of the nuclear arsenals available to each side. Neither has the capacity or the interest to occupy the other while a new government is somehow installed and legitimated.  

What does all this mean for the kinds of military scenarios often discussed with regard to China? 

If China seeks to conquer Taiwan with an amphibious assault and then fails, it may well have lost tens of thousands of its own troops and billions of dollars of equipment in the process, given the necessary scale of any such attempt. Do we really think that, at such a point, we could simply declare victory (whether the United States was involved in the fight or not), recognize Taiwan as an independent nation-state, and move forward? Humiliated and angered by the outcome, China almost assuredly would look for other ways to bring Taiwan under its fold, with economic as well as military weapons. 

If, by contrast, China succeeds in taking the island, leaders in Beijing would have to know that the United States, and many allies, would be unlikely just to get on with conducting business with a reunified China. Until now a relatively restrained rising power — at least relative to the standards of history — China would have revealed itself as an aggressive and fundamentally hostile actor. It likely would have killed tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of Taiwanese in the military effort. It might well have killed 10,000 or more Americans as well, with preemptive attacks on any aircraft carriers in the region as well as other ships and U.S. facilities on Okinawa. The United States and its allies hardly would be inclined to take such a defeat passively. 

A blockade scenario also could produce major losses on both sides, with the loser in the conflict tempted either to escalate to broader war or to go back to the drawing board and figure out a plan to renew the fight later. 

The main takeaway for policymakers, in Beijing, Washington and Taipei, is this: There almost surely would be no clear winner or verdict in a U.S.-China war over Taiwan, or any other discrete objective in the western Pacific region. Those wondering if there is a good moment to have the great battle, determine a verdict, and settle the issue once and for all — and yes, there are military planners and strategic thinkers in both countries who view the world through such a prism — need to remember history and rethink their assumptions while there is still time. 

This is not a war that credibly could be won by any reasonable or realistic metric of victory.  Rather, it needs to be deterred — in our case, by expanding the range of plausible Western responses to any Chinese aggression, and by mitigating the risks that foreign leaders could perceive any plausible path to easy victory, even as we avoid the temptation to believe we have any such path ourselves. 

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in the foreign policy studies program at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

Tags China aggression China-US tensions Chinese unification Political status of Taiwan

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