Would China Strike the US Preemptively?

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Would China Strike the US Preemptively?

A lot has been made of China’s history of preemptive self-defense. But what would lead Beijing to attack the US?

Over the last several days two key articles have drawn important attention to one aspect of the U.S.-China relationship that gets overlooked when pundits discuss the strategic dynamic of the relationship – namely the idea of escalation in a crisis with China and the possibility of a preemptive attack by Beijing.

The first article, from the good folks over at Breaking Defense, discusses the well-worn subject in defense circles revolving around China striking U.S. forces first in a possible conflict—namely a massive conventional strike (most scholars argue by missiles of various types). The scary part according to the piece: “Because China believes it is much weaker than the United States, they are more likely to launch a massive preemptive strike in a crisis.” Yikes.

The second article is brought to us by distinguished University of Pennsylvania Professor Avery Goldstein courtesy of Foreign Affairs. Goldstein explains that “For at least the next decade, while China remains relatively weak compared to the United States, there is a real danger that Beijing and Washington will find themselves in a crisis that could quickly escalate to military conflict.”

Some heavy stuff for sure. To be fair to both pieces, I would encourage Flashpoints readers to look at the finer points of both articles—there is a lot to absorb beyond these few points I bring to your attention.  

Indeed, the idea of escalation and preemptive strikes by China has been discussed in various circles for several years now. For numerous reasons that scholars consider, such as history, the current nature of military technology or the various arguments made by Chinese academics advocating such a military posture, many feel that it would be very much in Beijing's interests to strike hard and decisively. In an interview I conducted with noted scholar Roger Cliff last year, he explained that many U.S. air bases that are close to China have few hardened facilities to protect themselves from a missile strike. This makes them sitting ducks in a conflict. 

But what conditions would compel China to strike? Not any easy question to answer for sure.

It seems very few are asking the question of motivation for such an attack—or the repercussions that would follow.

It’s one thing to speculate about such ideas, but it’s not so easy to develop an actual model that has Beijing dreaming up a cost-benefit analysis concluding that a strike on American forces is in its national interest. With two-way trade between China and America at over half a trillion dollars per year, robust cultural ties, and most of China’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs) open to strike by the American navy (such that transporting much needed natural resources by sea is a tricky enterprise), there seems to be plenty of incentive to think twice. Yet, because of what many argue are growing tensions in the U.S.-China relationship, people like myself are forced to consider such nightmare scenarios.

So let us broadly consider for a moment that China does decide to strike: how would America respond? In a word: robustly.

Americans might not be able to do things like draw up budgets on time, or not come perilously close to defaulting on the national debt, but one thing China can count on is that Americans will rally around the good old red, white and blue in times of national emergency, especially when attacked by a foreign power.

We must also consider that if a crisis did break out between the U.S. and China, both sides would have a new domain to strike in, one with the possibility of doing tremendous damage with some measure of deniability: cyber. One could imagine a scenario where if a crisis began to brew, Beijing would launch a preemptive cyber-strike on an important U.S. target or attack something of marginal value to send a message or demonstrate resolve. In the 21st century, there is no need to fire a shot across your enemy's bow or a missile to send your message – a well-placed piece of malware could carry your message with an even more sobering effect.

There is also this question of Chinese self-perceived weakness compared to U.S. forces. It is clear that Beijing rightly understands that in the near-term it can’t match American forces in a direct, symmetrical matchup. No matter, that is why Beijing has embraced an A2/AD strategy. Developing weapons such as anti-ship ballistic missiles gives Beijing an asymmetric advantage; one U.S. forces can’t take lightly anymore.

If history is any guide, it's unforeseen events that will drive events — with equally unforeseen consequences for the parties involved. With that said, both sides have every incentive to work towards win-win approaches that lessen the chances of conflict. One straightforward idea that could be implemented by Beijing would be greater transparency in its defense posture, military strategy and doctrine. China has every incentive to remove the strategic haze that clouds American scholars’ vision when it comes to Chinese ideas around escalation. While vague declarations of “core interests” for domestic audiences might serve an important purpose, it leaves American scholars guessing over what Beijing would do if such interests were ever challenged. The devil is in the details it would seem.

While even greater transparency might not solve the challenge of understanding Chinese motivations for escalation, it’s as good a place to start as any.