The Day After: China Edition


The U.S. is involved in a slow, Cuban-like missile crisis in dealing with North Korea, according to Harvard’s Graham Allison. The U.S. and North Korea are threatening each other with military strikes, including nuclear ones. Such a war is likely to draw in China. True, Allison stresses, no one seeks war; however, history shows that when we face the kinds of heated rhetoric and mutual threats we see now, war may well ensue. Remember how we got into WWI; note how close the U.S. and Soviet Union came to nuclear blows during the missile crisis.

This possibility led me to review the various strategies American planners have laid out for how such a war might be fought. Some argue that the U.S. should build up its military forces to such a point that China would be so discouraged, it would seek to avoid even the risk of conflict with the U.S. Military strategist Andrew Krepinevich describes this as deterrence through denial, “designed to convince a would-be aggressor that he cannot achieve his objective, so there is no point in trying.” The problem with such an approach is that whatever level of armaments a nation builds up, one can always find ways to show that it still insufficient. What if the other side uses cyber warfare? What if they knock out our satellites? And so on. In effect, this position amounts to an open invitation to the military services and defense contractors to seek funds for all their dream projects and to think up new ones. And war may still follow.

Looming over any discussion of possible conflict between the U.S. and China must necessarily be the specter of nuclear war. The Union of Concerned Scientists warned in May 2016 that “The possibility that the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could become involved in a nuclear war is increasing.” The factors contributing to the increased risk of nuclear war between the two states include mutual mistrust, the continuing preparations for war on both sides (including Washington’s trillion dollar investment in upgrades to its nuclear forces), inadequacy of strategic dialogue between the two sides, and differing perceptions of risk and understanding of the role of nuclear weapons. Regarding the final point, China has a No-First-Use policy with regard to its nuclear weapons, while the U.S. has until now refused to adopt such a policy, signaling that it is willing to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. This refusal, combined with the continuing American interest in ballistic missile defense systems, just positioned in South Korea, has prompted Chinese leadership to discuss putting the country’s nuclear missiles on high alert – a particular risky situation for both sides.

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Thomas J. Christensen notes that China’s No-First-Use nuclear doctrine is already much more elastic than its name suggests, citing a book written for officers in the PLA’s Second Artillery which discusses the conditions under which the nuclear deterrence threshold might be lowered. In times when a nuclear power that also possesses superior high-tech conventional weapons conducts high-level air strikes which China has no other way to ward off, the nuclear missile corps is instructed to “adjust our nuclear deterrence policy without delay.” Hugh White warns ominously that “Those who assume that those costs [of conflict with China] must be worth paying might not have thought carefully enough about just how high the price could go.”

Many often cited American plans for how to defeat China simply assume that nuclear war can be avoided. The most often cited of these is the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle (ASB) plan. A report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) gives a detailed account of how an ASB-style war with China would unfold. In the opening “blinding campaign,” the U.S. attacks China’s reconnaissance and command-and-control networks to degrade the PLA’s ability to target U.S. and allied forces. Next, the military takes the fight to the Chinese mainland, striking long-range anti-ship missile launchers. Given that this is where the anti-ship missiles are located, it is only logical that the U.S. would target land-based platforms. And to go after them, one needs to take out China’s air defense systems, command control centers, and other anti-access weapons. In short, ASB requires a total war with China. This often cited and influential document does not speak to the question about what is to follow victory.

A study by RAND Corporation, sponsored by the U.S. Army, examined four possible scenarios for a U.S.-China War. The two variables which generate the four scenarios are length of conflict (brief vs. long) and intensity (mild vs. severe). The authors of the study predict that, in any of the four scenarios, the war would be much less damaging to the U.S. than to China in military, political, and economic terms.

Others call for the U.S. to plan for a conflict that stops short of the full-scale conventional war envisaged by ASB. Jeffrey Kline and Wayne Hughes of the Naval Postgraduate School have proposed a war-at-sea strategy that would consist of submarine attacks, mining inside the first island chain (a conceptual line stretching from Japan and Taiwan to the Philippines), and patrol boats to intercept Chinese shipping, “with no intention of putting ground forces on China’s mainland.” They argue that avoiding a mainland attack would increase the possibilities for negotiation and carry a lower risk of escalation. They also argue that a war-at-sea strategy would be a more credible deterrent than ASB, as Chinese leadership might perceive the U.S. as being more willing to employ strictly maritime options than the more drastic capabilities of ASB.

In a similar vein, T.X. Hammes of the National Defense University has proposed “Offshore Control,” a strategy that would enforce a “distant blockade on China” to cripple trade and thus, China’s export-dependent economy. Hammes argues that the assets needed to enact Offshore Control would be much less expensive to maintain during peacetime, and that, by avoiding passion-inducing attacks, an Offshore Control strategy would allow Chinese leadership to end the conflict while saving face.

By far the most carefully laid out and scholarly treatment of these issues is found in Beyond Air-Sea Battle, by Professor Aaron Friedberg of Princeton. Friedberg sees two approaches to implementing ASB: One is a linear approach that scales up existing resources and technology and the second is a discontinuous approach that would rely more heavily on new technologies and as yet untested weapons systems. Friedberg compares ASB with two alternatives: a distant blockade and “maritime denial,” which is essentially ASB minus any strikes on the Chinese mainland. Friedberg suggests that the US needs to assemble the forces and military assets needed for all these strategies because different circumstances may call for applying one or the other, or for moving from one to the other.

All these war plans share one major defect: There is no discussion, none, of what happens after the U.S. wins. Will the U.S. leave, the way it left Germany after WWI? How does the U.S. expect the billion surviving Chinese to respond? Will they rebuild a nation focused on revenge, the same way the humiliated Germans did, leading to a regime like that of North Korea only 400 times larger? Or does the U.S. plan to follow Colin Powell’s rule that “if you broke you own it,” and return to the neocon agenda? That is, would the U.S. occupy China and seek to turn it into a liberal democracy – the way it tried in Iraq and Afghanistan? Given America’s record in nation building over the last 15 years – in much smaller territories – nation building in China is a difficult idea to entertain. However, if both postwar options are dismal – to put it mildly – what is the exit strategy? It is a question the war planners ignore, making one worry that even if the U.S. won the war handily, it would again lose the peace.

One reason planning for peace was avoided in the past was that it was assumed that once oppressed people were liberated by the U.S., they would take to building a liberal democracy like ducks to water, like sunflowers to the sun. “What else would a free people want?” The neocons assumed, on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that U.S. troops would be met with cheering crowds that would strew rose petals in front of them and set a model of democracy not just for Iraq but for the entire Middle East. Firing all the Baath party civil servants and sending the army home (two major reasons Iraq is still engaged in a ruinous civil war and very far from a liberal democracy) were based on the assumption that it is enough to abolish the old regime; building the new one was going to be easy street. No one can seriously believe this anymore.

One may argue that there is a division of labor; military planners will plan wars, someone else – maybe the State Department – will plan for the day after. However, I am hard put to find that someone else. Above all, one cannot separate the way one fights from the plans for the period that follows victory (assuming it is ours). One fights differently according to what end state one seeks. To give but one example, though a rather telling one: if the attacker seeks to punish a nation for great abuses, one may not hesitate to devastate its infrastructure. However, if one plans to rebuild it, one may limit strikes on the infrastructure as much as possible.

In the case of China, I suggest an examination of the postwar options will reveal that they are all highly unattractive. This will urge the policymakers to whom the military planners report to redouble their efforts to seek ways to resolve differences with China, especially regarding North Korea, in ways that do not risk a war with China.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at George Washington University. His latest book, Avoiding War With China, was just published by the University of Virginia Press.

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