James Holmes

The Nightmare Scenario: A U.S.-China War

The Naval Diplomat explores in a five-part series how events in such a conflict could unfold.

Read Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V

Our great and powerful editor has requested—nay, demanded!—a series of posts exploring how a U.S.-China war might unfold. That sounds like a request for prophecy. But making predictions is a dicey business, as the equally great and powerful sage Yogi Berra reportedly observed—especially when they’re about the future. The Naval Diplomat is no clairvoyant. Undeterred, we nonetheless commence a five-post cycle exploring some of the big ideas likely to shape each phase of a Far Eastern maelstrom.

Aristotle observed that every plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let’s take our cue from classical Athens’ philosopher of common sense and start this drama from the beginning, with the American decision for war. Giving the order might seem like the easy part. But whatever the cause of the conflict—whether it’s Taiwan, the Senkakus/Diaoyus impasse, a quarrel over free passage through the South China Sea, or something unforeseen—Beijing will refuse to make Washington’s choice to intervene easy.

In fact, Chinese leaders will go out of their way to make it hard. They will sow doubt and dissension among U.S. leaders. For instance, they will determinedly withhold the stark casus belli—a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11—necessary to rally a liberal republic like the United States around the battle flag. Ambiguity will reign. U.S. leaders should anticipate it.

Staying beneath the provocation threshold constitutes purest common sense for Beijing. Why not play head games with prospective foes? I would. As Shakespeare memorably showed, it takes time and moral courage for an individual to overcome Hamlet-like indecision. Some never do. That’s doubly true in big institutions, where decisions typically emerge from political wrangling among many individuals and groups.

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Time spent in internal debate would work in China’s favor in any contingency along the Asian seaboard. It would postpone U.S. military movements, perhaps long enough to let the People’s Liberation Army accomplish its goals before the cavalry arrives. The result: a fait accompli. Even better (from Beijing’s standpoint), the United States might simply stand aside, reckoning the goals of such an enterprise too diffuse and abstract, the likely strategic rewards too few, to justify the costs and dangers inherent in combat operations against a fellow great power.