Many American leaders have grown cavalier about nuclear war, but there is risk of a devastating conflict with China
Let’s not kid ourselves. The armed forces of the United States and China are now very far along in planning and practicing how to go to war with each other.
Neither has any idea when or why it might have to engage the other on the battlefield, but both agree on the list of contingencies that could spark conflict.These range from naval scuffles in the Spratly or Senkaku Islands to full-spectrum combat over Taiwan independence or reunification.
The context in which these contingencies might occur reflects an imbalance of power left over from history. U.S. forces are forward-deployed along China’s frontiers in a pattern that originated with the Cold War policy of “containment.”
Chinese forces are deployed to defend China’s borders as China defines them. China regards the United States as the country most able and likely to violate those borders and attack it.
The United States seeks to sustain the military dominance of the Western Pacific that it has enjoyed since its 1945 overthrow of Japanese imperial power. Washington is determined to preclude the contraction of the sphere of influence it established during the Cold War.
China is striving to establish defensible maritime borders, to prevent Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam from prevailing in their counterclaims to islands and rocks in its near seas, and to reintegrate Taiwan, which the United States separated from the rest of China and placed in its sphere of influence 67 years ago, in 1950.
In China’s backyard
Elements of the U.S. military aggressively patrol the air and seas that abut China. Their purpose is to be ready to cripple the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by striking bases in its homeland if conflict with U.S. forces or U.S. allies occurs.
Not surprisingly, China objects to these missions. It is steadily strengthening its capacity not just to fend off American attempts to scout or penetrate its defenses, but to recover Taiwan by coercive means.
The U.S. armed forces and the PLA have met on the battlefield before, but never on Chinese soil. Sino-American wars have taken place only in third countries like Korea or by proxy and covert action, as in Indochina. But any war between the United States and China under the contingencies both now contemplate would begin in places China considers part of its territory.
Risk of spiraling conflict
It might be possible to limit a conflict in the South China Sea to the islands and waters there. But a Sino-Japanese clash over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands or a Sino-American war over Taiwan would almost certainly entail U.S. strikes on the Chinese mainland. Chinese doctrine calls for such attacks to be answered with reprisals against U.S. bases and the American homeland.
China’s no-first-use doctrine is a significant barrier to China’s use of nuclear weapons for such reprisal, but one that it is easy to imagine being breached under the pressures of wartime crisis conditions. Beijing is likely to see U.S. attacks on Chinese bases where nuclear and non-nuclear weapons are commingled as the equivalent of a strategic first strike designed to knock out China’s nuclear deterrent.
Any threat that China’s Communist Party leadership perceives as existential would stimulate some to argue for nuclear as well as cyber reprisal against comparable facilities in the United States.
In the U.S. political elite and officer corps, alarm about the damage a nuclear strike can wreak on its targets and the retaliation it invites has succumbed to “nuclear amnesia.” The national “allergy” to the use of nuclear weapons has weakened concomitantly.
Washington is again exploring tactical uses for nuclear weapons and funding programs to develop them. Americans have ceased to consider what a nuclear exchange with Russia, China, or another foreign foe would do to the United States.
The current hysteria over North Korea may in time correct this. But, for now, Americans remain in denial, imagining that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the U.S. missile defense program will work. No one is preparing for scenarios in which it does not.
Little to no trust
Meanwhile, communication between the American and Chinese national security establishments is far less robust than it was between the United States and USSR during the Cold War. There is very little, if any, mutual trust between Beijing and Washington.
Senior U.S. military officers understand Chinese politico-military doctrine poorly or not at all. There are no Sino-American understandings or mechanisms for escalation control. It is past time, but not too late to begin creating these.
This is not a reassuring situation. But there are many factors that inhibit rash Chinese actions in response to a crisis. And there are some on the U.S. side as well. Neither China nor America wants war with the other.
China’s strategic caution
Under the People’s Republic, China has established a seven-decade-long record of strategic caution and a preference for diplomatic and paramilitary rather than military solutions to national security problems.
China clearly prefers to use measures short of war to protect itself but has shown that it is fully prepared to go to war to defend its borders and strategic interests. Chinese uses of force have been notably purposive, determined, disciplined and focused on limited objectives, with no moving of the goalposts.
In Korea, where ragtag Chinese forces fought the United States to a standstill from 1950 to 1953, China settled for the de facto restoration of the status quo ante bellum — strategic denial of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula to hostile forces. In 1958, it ended its military presence in Korea.
When border skirmishes escalated into war between China and India in 1962, China first showed India that, if provoked, the PLA could overrun it. Then, having made that point, China withdrew its troops to their original positions.
In the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, China accepted huge losses on the battlefield to teach Vietnam that the costs of continued empire building in association with the Soviet Union would be unacceptably high. Once Vietnam seemed convinced of this, China disengaged its forces.
China waited a decade to respond to multiple seizures of disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea by other claimants. The Philippines began the process of creating facts in the sea in 1978, Vietnam followed in 1982, and Malaysia did the same in 1983. In 1988, China intervened to halt the further expansion of Vietnamese holdings.
Since then China has established an unejectable presence of its own on seven artificially enlarged land features in the South China Sea. It has not attempted to dislodge other claimants from any of the four dozen outposts they have planted in Chinese-claimed territories. China has been careful not to provoke military confrontations with them or with the U.S. Navy, despite the latter’s swaggering assertiveness.