Asia Defense | Security

What’s Missing in the New Cold War Stories?

Many are warning of how China might win a war with the U.S. But they play down the much more likely way the two could damage each other’s interests.

What’s Missing in the New Cold War Stories?
Credit: Flickr/Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army

In the last few years, Western presses have produced a bumper crop of books and articles laying out what a full-scale conventional war between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America would look like. Magazine articles, academic treatises, and novels have all looked at various scenarios around a China-U.S. war and how it would play out. But the similarities between these war narratives obscure another avenue through which Beijing and Washington might well face each other: proxy wars.

There are a few common threads in the Western visions of war with China. China almost always strikes first, using a combination of subterfuge and surprise to compensate for the U.S. technological and doctrinal head start. The U.S. Navy and People’s Liberation Army Navy are the main antagonists, with air and special forces playing significant supporting roles and conventional land forces a very distant third. China’s theater-range missile arsenal (whether actively employed or not) sets the boundaries of the conflict. Beijing aggressively uses cyber capabilities while the United States mostly does not. And, crucially, nuclear weapons are discussed but infrequently used, and certainly not in the sort of a way that would have done, say, the late futurist and Cold Warrior Herman Kahn proud. Some of these decisions are logical projections based on what is publicly known of Chinese and U.S.military doctrines and capabilities; others are presumably taken in order to keep the narrative within the authors’ desired boundaries. After all, imagining a war between China and the United States that results in a nuclear exchange tends to produce a very different kind of fiction.

None of this is vastly surprising. Conjuring up plausible-seeming future war scenarios in order to draw attention to perceived social or political weaknesses has a long history, extending back through H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. There are, to be sure, issues with the current corpus. Certainly, it would be helpful if more of these narratives were written by experts on China, rather than on the U.S. military. And given that incomplete or incorrect information plays a significant role in decisions to go to war, the recurrence of the trope wherein the war starts as a result of a flawlessly executed first-strike plan is unhelpful.

But the biggest oversight of all is the possibility that the United States and China simply never fight each other directly, but rather do battle via proxies globally. For all the “new Cold War” rhetoric, this possibility is surprisingly rarely rendered in speculative discussions. The fictional China often uses a proxy to tie up the U.S. in a distant part of the world — Iran in 2034, for example — but in those instances the proxy is a means to the end of a direct fight between the superpowers, rather than a conflict in and of itself, as was the case for the entirety of the original Cold War.

There are good reasons for this avoidance. For one thing, it seems — for the moment at least — a more distant prospect than, say, China’s invasion of Taiwan (which itself may not be imminent). Beijing has strengthened its hand overseas through the Belt and Road Initiative, while its arms exports are increasing. But in both cases it has a long way to go to catch up with the USSR’s breadth of influence at the onset of the Cold War. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is not the avatar of a global ideological movement, which eliminates one strong reason why a government or rebel movement might appeal to it for support. And, of course, a plausible scenario requires real geography, and it can be awkward — especially for those in official or semi-official posts — to nominate a currently stable, non-adversarial state as the host of a future proxy war.

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And yet, the gulf between the world order the United States would like to enforce and the one China would like to replace it with is vast and growing. The threat of mutually assured destruction and the innate unpredictability of full-scale war do not obviate the risk of direct conflict, but they substantially limit it. In this gap, waging proxy conflicts is likely to appeal to policymakers in both Beijing and Washington for the same reasons it appealed to their forebears, not only in the Cold War but farther back into history: supplying your enemy’s enemy with cash, intelligence, training, and weapons is cheaper, more deniable, easier, and less likely to result in domestic political blowback than actually fighting that enemy yourself.

It is also, crucially, a far less predictable mechanism. Supporting Afghan mujahideen against the USSR in the 1980s certainly seemed like a geopolitical win for the United States, but the longer-term ramifications of U.S. policy there are hard to describe as an unalloyed benefit. Smaller actors have agency, too, and often resist — in direct and indirect ways — the inclination of superpowers to treat them as straightforward tools of their own agendas.

That may also be why it is more difficult to compose a compelling proxy war fiction. A clear narrative about an increasingly powerful enemy which compels us to take more or different preparatory action is both easier to write and to drive conversation around than a multi-sided narrative that takes a mixture of competing, overlapping, and otherwise complex motivations and constraints. But reality is rarely as simple as we would like it to be.