From time to time in recent years the clouds of war have gathered over the South China Sea, only to disperse as practical realities overtook rhetoric. Now the threat is back again, but in my view a full-fledged war is almost impossible to contemplate since cool heads on both sides will prevail. Nevertheless, many pundits are seemingly convinced that ultimately there must be a fight between the rising power and the incumbent.
Think about this: Two weeks ago at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue military summit, U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter demanded that the Chinese side make “an immediate and lasting halt” to territorial expansion in the Spratly Islands. But if China simply ignores his call and things go on as usual in the disputed waters, what is Uncle Sam supposed to do? The point I would like to make is that the world will and should get used to this new reality based on China’s ever increasing economic and military might. China is getting more assertive, if not aggressive, and in response the U.S. and Japan are becoming increasingly bellicose.
As such, a series of interesting questions arise here: If war is inevitable – the first direct military conflict between the two major powers since the Korean War more than 60 years ago – what is the likely scenario? Will the scale of the action involve just a fraction of their respective true national strength or would it be a defining showdown? Who will win? Will the U.S. lose its claimed supremacy over the Asia Pacific if the outcome duplicates that of the Korean War or Vietnam War? Or should China be defeated would its mighty economic growth come to a grinding halt? And its hopes of achieving the “China Dream” dashed just as it is on the verge of ‘’realizing the nation’s great rejuvenation”?
Let’s consider various ramifications below.
Sure, the U.S. has the world’s most advanced nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines, allowing it to project power around the globe. Its Seventh Fleet operates in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf – 11,000 miles from the west coast of the American homeland. We can’t talk about China’s mostly inward-looking Nanhai Fleet in the same breath, but that doesn’t mean the Chinese Navy is impotent. Established as late as the 1970s, China’s submarine force has grown at an unprecedented pace and now has more attack submarines than the U.S. possesses. Armed with JL-2 missiles, Chinese nuclear submarines can operate deep under the sea for three months and their range would comfortably extend to targets on America’s mainland coast.
Appalling as the thought might be, let us consider whether nuclear weapons might be used. The U.S. possesses immense stockpiles of nuclear warheads, far more than China has. Some scientists estimate that if the two were to unload their respective nuclear arsenal on the other, the U.S. could potentially destroy China at least 60 times over while China could do the same to U.S. only once. Theoretically, of course, there is no difference in actual effect whether a city and its people are reduced to dust once or a hundred times.
From America’s perspective, for it to back down easily would have a profound bearing on the regional and even the global order of things. Its military umbrella over Asia, especially the ASEAN countries, would fold and the geopolitical landscape would reshape itself accordingly. But if the two global powers were to actually clash, one cannot ignore the inevitable collateral damage. As an African proverb says: “When the elephants fight, the ants get trampled.’’
The PLA is already the world’s biggest military force in terms of sheer numbers, and its defence budget is second only to that of the U.S. Some experts believe if spending trends continue and it cranks up efforts to develop high-tech weaponry, China will achieve military parity with the U.S. in 15-20 years.
In the wake of drumbeats echoing across the South China and East China Seas, President Xi Jinping recently called for increased combat readiness by urging the PLA to “speed up air and space integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities.” Some generals even claimed they have “smelled the war.”
However, an interesting equation arises when assessing the PLA’s fighting capability. First, the majority of PLA’s approximately 2.3 million personnel come from single-child families across the country. If their lives were lost in war, the sorrow those families would have to endure is beyond imagining. And unlike their grandparents and parents, these so-called 80s or 90s generations have no combat experience at all. Psychologically speaking, this is in striking contrast to the mindset of American servicemen and their families.
Second, and far more serious, the PLA’s fighting ability and morale could have been compromised by the greed of many at the top. Shocking details of corruption among generals were revealed only after the arrest of two former vice-chairmen of the Central Military Committee, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, and Gu Jun-shan, a former deputy logistics chief, who sold senior military promotions by the hundreds, raking in some 600 million yuan in bribes.
The true scale of bribing your way up the ranks can only be known among insiders. Anyone buying a position with borrowed funds would then naturally take bribes from subordinates following their dirty footsteps. This scandalous behavior casts doubt over whether such corrupt generals and senior officers are battle-ready and willing to sacrifice their lives for their country, and whether the majority of junior officers would obey orders from their superiors who reached their commanding positions not through proven ability but as a result of bribery.
It is reported that a hawkish retired PLA major general felt “a burning shame” over such rampant trade of power in the army, and likened the current corruption to the rot that caused the Qing dynasty’s downfall and Kuomintang’s defeat.
The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” – first announced by the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2011 – has been universally regarded as a complete failure in restraining a rising China. The South China Sea looks set to be a friction point yet it is the virtual lifeblood of China’s economy, as vital to China as is the Eastern Seaboard or Caribbean to the United States. Surprisingly, China had no permanent and defensible zone there until it dredged and transformed shoals and reefs into an island in the Spratly group.
To understand China’s military mindset, a little history is in order. In 1955, China decided to launch its nuclear weapons program despite the country’s extreme poverty and nationwide starvation at the time. The seemingly irrational decision by China to suddenly go nuclear was actually triggered by America’s threat to use nuclear bombs against China should it take action against Taiwan. In the event, China was desperate to develop its own nuclear weapons to ensure that no country would ever dare to threaten it under any circumstances. Yet, as soon as China became a nuclear power, it also became the first State to pledge never to be the first to use its nuclear weapons
History also tells us that a rising power will inevitably challenge the incumbent, usually through military means. How to deal with China’s rise, and its well-warranted expectations to be treated with deference, will be a critical issue testing the wisdom and statecraft of America’s leaders.
Politics has been described as “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”
Like it or not, the only sensible and viable way forward for the U.S. is to offer China a seat in the boardroom – as once suggested by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s grand master in geopolitics – by bestowing on the awakening dragon a greater role in Asia. It is in America’s best interests to concede gracefully to the inevitable, and strike a deal that acknowledges China’s influence and economic might. Otherwise the U.S. and its Asian allies would find themselves living with a pushy China elbowing its way into the leading role it deserves in its sphere of influence.
The author is head of the editorial department of China Daily Asia Pacific. He has a PhD in political science from the School of Governance, Peking University. This commentary represents his personal views only.