A Coming War With China?

In 1898, the U.S. "acquired" (as it is typically put) the Philippines as an unintended and unforeseen byproduct of its defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American war largely fought over Cuba. As a consequence, the U.S. came to think of itself (Nixon in Vietnam and Obama today) as a "Pacific" or even an "Asian" power whose national interests required the existence of a "balance of power" in Asia. What followed was that we must be prepared to go war to prevent a powerful and expansionist state from gaining control of the population, land masses, and resources of Asia. Such a powerful state, it was feared, would then be in a position to -- at the least -- threaten our new colony in the Philippines, and -- at worst -- even threaten the United States in its homeland.

As a consequence of the balance-of-power strategy, the U.S. went to war against Japan in WWII; sought to prevent the communists from winning the post-WWII civil war in China; intervened in another civil war in Korea in 1950-53, and then fought an unnecessary war with China after refusing to settle for saving South Korea from the North Korean attack. Then the US went to war in Vietnam to prevent the Vietnamese communists from winning a revolutionary civil war -- and in the process may have come perilously close to a full-scale war with China in the late 1960s, a war that even then might have become a nuclear one.

Though it called its policies, blandly, merely a "pivot" toward Asia, the Obama administration, in essence, returned to the cold war policy of "containment" of presumed Chinese expansionism that could threaten the "balance of power" in Asia. As a consequence of this policy -- one that is likely to be even more aggressively pursued by the incoming Trump administration -- we are once again stumbling toward an unnecessary war with China, which could become our worst and most dangerous Asian war yet.

In the last five years, Obama has steadily expanded the U.S. military presence in Asia: deploying aircraft carriers, submarines, and even ground forces (2500 marines in Australia); increasing military assistance and cooperation and joint military exercises with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam; announcing that we would spend an additional $250 million dollars to build up the naval capabilities of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam; publicly considering the reestablishment of the huge U.S. military based in the Philippines that had been closed down in 1992.

Not surprisingly, China sees itself as a defensive state and, alarmed by these U.S. actions, has taken a series of steps, including what we see as military "provocations," but which China--and not only China--considers a response to provocative U.S. actions. Because of these two recent developments--the expanding U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea and the growing assertion by China of what it considers to be its national rights in the region--there have been an increasing number of alarming incidents between the military forces of the two countries. It would seem to be only a matter of time before shots are fired. And outright military clashes, no matter how limited they initially may seem to be, contain the wholly unacceptable risk of escalating into a major war--and even a nuclear war.

This situation raises three issues. First, is China truly an expansionist state that seeks to establish hegemony over the entire region? Second, even if China has such intentions--or later develops them as its military and economic power continue to expand--will it have the capability of destroying the Asian balance of power? The third issue, and by the far most important one in terms of U.S. national security, is why should the United States be prepared to go to war with China, even if that were the only way to prevent its domination of Asia.

To begin with, most China and regional specialists are skeptical of pessimistic or alarmist assessments of the Chinese threat in Asia. Rather, they argue that despite the admittedly worrying Chinese military buildup in general and in the South China Sea in particular, together with its assertive claims to small islands also claimed by other Asian states, Chinese behavior is best understood as motivated not by the grandiose policy of seeking "hegemony" over the region, but by more limited goals.

In this view, then, China's policies have been essentially defensive and reactive, driven by fears of the intentions of the U.S. and its Asian allies as well as by its historically understandable sense of vulnerability to perceived threats on its borders or neighboring oceans. To be sure, it seems apparent that China is also pursuing more assertive policies because of its economic interests in the disputed South China islands as well as because of largely symbolic issues, such as nationalist claims to "sovereignty" over the contested areas, particularly including its insistence that Taiwan must still be regarded as part of China and eventually must be "reunited" with it. It is important to note that many knowledgeable historians have said that these symbolic sovereignty claims have some historical validity, and heretofore they have not been challenged by U.S. presidents and governments.

The real issue, then, is why these relatively limited Chinese goals should be seen as threatening to U.S. national security. Even if China develops expansionist intentions, it is hard to see why U.S. military power is necessary to maintain a "balance of power" in Asia--even assuming such a balance is essential to U.S. national security. In the absence of a U.S military role, states like Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam--especially if they act collectively--would hardly be helpless to defend themselves and their vital interests against any Chinese expansionism.

In any event, even a worst-case scenario would not justify a U.S. preventive war to preserve a "balance of power" in Asia. That is, suppose a radically expansionist China succeeded in destroying the balance of power in Asia and, somehow, gained control of all the land masses, population, and resources of Asia? Even in that radically implausible case, U.S. national security would not be at stake.

There are only two ways in which our security could be threatened: by conventional invasion or by a nuclear attack. No defense expert takes seriously the notion that China -- even one far more powerful than today's -- would be interested in, or capable of, crossing thousands of miles of ocean and invading a nuclear-armed United States. As for the nuclear danger, it already exists, for China is capable of a massive nuclear attack against the U.S. from the weapons within its homeland, a threat that is already (or very soon will be) unpreventable and essentially absolute. That being the case, any subsequent Chinese expansionism would be irrelevant.

Put differently, the most likely "threats" -- Chinese border conflicts with neighboring states or military clashes over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea -- have the least relevance to U.S. national security, while the most theoretically dangerous ones -- Chinese military expansionism throughout Asia -- are the least likely to occur.

In sum, the best way for the U.S. to protect its national security from potential Asian threats is to jettison its balance of power policies and never again go to war there.