War With China?

It has been bubbling around out there, but if you haven’t been paying close attention, you might have missed the issue:

THIS is how wars usually start: with a steadily escalating stand-off over something intrinsically worthless. So don’t be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China next year over the uninhabited rocks that Japan calls the Senkakus and China calls the Diaoyu islands. And don’t assume the war would be contained and short.

Of course we should all hope that common sense prevails.

It seems almost laughably unthinkable that the world’s three richest countries – two of them nuclear-armed – would go to war over something so trivial. But that is to confuse what starts a war with what causes it. The Greek historian Thucydides first explained the difference almost 2500 years ago. He wrote that the catastrophic Peloponnesian War started from a spat between Athens and one of Sparta’s allies over a relatively insignificant dispute. But what caused the war was something much graver: the growing wealth and power of Athens, and the fear this caused in Sparta…

China is feeling its oats and, also, with grave economic, political and demographic problems, striking out in a foreign adventure might appeal to a Chinese ruling class which has no legitimate basis for its continued rule but which has so far proven unwilling to set in motion steps to create a legitimate government in China.  Japan, on the other hand, is rich and happy and not wanting to fight, but also fears that if they let China get her way on this then China will forever push Japan around.  The United States, on the other other hand, cannot afford to let China push Japan around because that would undercut our entire position not just in Asia, but the entire western Pacific…no one would rely on us if we left Japan in the lurch and everyone would scramble to make the best deal with could with China.  Certainly, there are the ingredients for war.

But there won’t be one.  At least, not right now.

China is in much the same position as imperial Germany was early in the 20th century – feeling stronger and frustrated that their growing strength has not led to their dominance of the globe.  Back then, Germany felt that Britain – governing one quarter of the earth’s surface but viewed by Germans as increasingly flabby – was the block in the road.  And, so, Germany wanted to challenge Britain – but couldn’t because the German army couldn’t get at Britain while the German navy wasn’t sufficient to beat the British navy (then, by far, the largest navy in the world).  China might want to make some nationalist hay over the Senkakus but when push comes to shove, they are islands and the Chinese navy is simply entirely inferior to the United States navy (and probably couldn’t even beat the Japanese navy, either).  A Sino-American war right now would only have one very swift result – the destruction of China’s navy and a return to the status quo ante (there is zero chance that any American government would sanction sending an American army to mainland China).  Unless the rulers of China are the most monumentally stupid people in the world, they know this and so as long as the US and Japan remain firm (but polite and willing to provide a face-saving solution) then the Chinese will ultimately back down.

This time.

China is, of course, aware of her naval weakness – and so has built one aircraft carrier and looks to build more, while also steadily upgrading their other surface and submarine forces.  As absolutely no one threatens China’s sea communications the only possible use China can have for a first class navy is to challenge the United States.  And as a matter of fact, all of China’s military build up indicates only one thing: at some future point, the government of China envisions war with the United States.  Not a war to the death like the World Wars, but a war to kick America out of east Asia and the western Pacific (China has asserted that their sphere of influence includes the Marianas Islands – a commonwealth of the United States, but also including the US territory of Guam).  We’ll have to see how that comes out and US diplomacy should be geared towards solidifying our alliances in the area while military preparations should work on destroying the Chinese navy and blockading the Chinese coast.  But, meanwhile, not much to worry about.  For the moment.

Dealing With China

James Traub over at Foreign Policy has an interesting article about how the United States should deal with China.  While acknowledging that China is rapidly becoming powerful, Traub downplays any aggressive intent on China’s part, while also discounting any muscular, American response to China.  The only really good thing I can say about the article is that it at least is an acknowledgment that China has to be dealt with in some fashion…for too long we’ve been blinded by an idea that all China wishes to do is make money, or that they were in some manner a strategic partner of the United States.  But I do believe that Traub is not quite understanding what the Chinese government will do.

Tyrants cannot hold still – they must continually advance, or they will fall.  In Churchill’s trenchant phrase, they ride to and fro on the backs of tigers, and the tigers are getting hungry.  The tyrants of China made a de-facto deal with the Chinese people post-1989:  let us be in power, and we’ll let you get rich.  This has, in fact, worked out to only a select few getting rich, mostly by ripping off the broad mass of the Chinese people…but the growing prosperity has kept dissent down in the cities while the army and security forces have proven capable of keeping dissent down in the countryside (though there are plenty of tales of riot and rebellion in the backwaters of China).  The problem for China is that they have advanced about as far as they can under their current system.  They can advance further – but only by bringing rural China in to the economic mainstream, and by freeing up the political system so that corrupt (which eats like a cancer at the Chinese economy) can be fought.  Neither course of action appeals to China’s Ruling Class.

But they can’t stand still – they can’t do what is necessary to make the next step forward economically, but they also can’t just let things stagnate…what is already bound to be a Chinese recession will become a very hard landing unless China changes internally…or finds some external means of deflecting attention.  The recently aggressive behavior of China in foreign affairs is not a reflection of China’s actual might – they don’t have that sort of power as of yet.  Won’t have it, really, for 20-30 years, if ever (China’s coming demographic decline may rob China of the sinews of power just when the infrastructure if finally there).  They are blustering…hoping to grab what they can, and preparing for a foreign confrontation which will (in the Ruling Class’ view, at least) cement the loyalty of the Chinese people and serve as the excuse for the coming bad economic times.

The bottom line for us is to get prepared for this – by forging a rock-solid alliance with India, making a defense arrangement with Vietnam, and re-founding our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.  It is a certainty that China will try something – what it will be remains to be seen.  I suspect a move against Taiwan in conjunction with a Chinese-inspired, North Korean attack on South Korea and/or Japan (ie, draw off American power to northeast Asia while China moves in the South China Sea…we can’t be everywhere at once, and Taiwan for most Americans would be a doubtful proposition for a full scale war…it shouldn’t be, but it would be).  But as we can’t know for certain, better to be prepared for all eventualities…and if this takes some increases in naval and aerial strength, then we’re going to have to bite the bullet and do it (as an aside, the really good thing about alliances and agreements with India and Vietnam is they provide ample land power without the United States having to deploy millions of troops).

The most important first step is to recognize that China is an enemy State…that we must not have close economic and military relationships with the Chinese.  That we must inform them that any attempt to change the status quo in Asia and the Pacific will be met with a forceful American response.