Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a professor at China’s National Defense University, said recently that “the Americans are making very, very important strategic mistakes right now” in their approach to China. His comments followed a strong statement by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who stated that “China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.”
However, it is quite likely that this time it is China that is making a grave strategic mistake. The way China is proceeding may well allow it to win several more bouts – of the rather small kind it did when it positioned one oil rig in contested waters next to Vietnam; grabbing one more shoal like it did in the Philippines, or even having more fishing and coast guard boats dance around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Moreover, China is likely to be correct in assuming that the United States, tired from two long and costly wars, will not go to war over these piles of rocks (and the rights to the areas that surround them). And China may even be right in assuming that Japan is on its way to becoming more nationalistic and building up its military anyhow. Finally, China may well have noted that several of the small nations involved feel that they are better off accommodating China than confronting it. However, China should realize that one can win one bout after another—and still lose the match.
Before I explain how this loss is likely to come about, I should note that few have written more scholarly articles and op-eds than I, in recent years, that urge both the U.S. and China to get off a collision course, that point to ways that both powers can resolve their differences in peaceful and just ways, and stress that they have many more shared interests than those that are in conflict. These publications were not written as an advocate of China, but as a friend of peace, by someone who has known war first hand.
In this spirit, it is incumbent upon me to now point out that China seems to misunderstand the nature of the American people. Although Americans can be slow to mobilize support for major interventions overseas – especially after debacles like those that took place in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – when they do rise, their commitment carries them a long way. Americans were very reluctant to become involved in World War II, but once they engaged they (working with the U.S.S.R.) made very major sacrifices thousands of miles away from their shores, leading to the victory of the United States and its allies. It took only two years, between 1945 and 1947, to line up Americans to support the Cold War, following again events that took place largely in Europe, which led to a decades-long drive that ended with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. It took much less time, following one attack by 19 men armed with no more than box cutters in 2001, to mobilize America for a major drive against terrorism. The final outcome of this drive is not at hand yet, but so far it is not the Americans who hide in caves and jungles, avoiding drones and cellphones and daylight. True, America is economically somewhat weaker now than it was at its prime, but it is a hell of a lot richer than it was in 1941 or 1947. And the notion that China will continue to grow rapidly and be able to defect a large amount of resources from domestic needs to military expenditures should not be taken for granted.
China, the U.S., and the world would all greatly benefit if both powers would step away from a collision course. What starts as small steps can readily escalate, not necessarily by turning small local skirmishes into bigger ones, but also if one power comes to view an accumulation of small challenges by the other as an overarching affront. China has legitimate needs for a secure supply of energy and raw materials and free passage; the United States has strong commitments to its allies in the region and what it views as a sound international order. Both can be accommodated if both sides show more self-restraint and a quest for mutually beneficial solutions rather than leveling charges against each other and testing each other’s limits of tolerance. China had best keep in mind that no one has a monopoly on making strategic mistakes.