15 August 2015

Has China’s War With America Already Begun?

Aug. 7, 2015

One of the hottest reads among Washington national security experts this summer is not the latest White House policy document or a big report from an influential think tank, but a novel by two of the national security community’s own: Peter Singer and August Cole. Their book, “Ghost Fleet,” is a riveting thriller in the Tom Clancy tradition. Much of the attention it is getting is due to its explanation of cutting-edge military technology, but it is also captivating—and important—because its core scenario is one that every policymaker and policy expert fears: a major war between the United States and China.

To anyone closely watching China’s rising power and growing assertiveness, history—in particular, America’s last major war with a rising Asian power—holds ominous warnings. For while Americans believe that their war with Japan began with the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Tokyo laid the groundwork for the outbreak of hostilities years before the surprise raid, establishing a network of bases and expanding its military’s power-projection capability. Pearl Harbor simply made Americans aware of a conflict that, in Japanese eyes, had already begun. Yet Washington and the U.S. military had missed the signs of just how close war was. Could this also be true of China today? Has the war with China already begun?

For decades, Chinese security strategy was aimed at deterring invasion via a huge but relatively low-tech military. When the Chinese economy took off in recent decades, Beijing saw new opportunities to flex its muscles. China’s national security and military strategies shifted toward power projection and contesting U.S. domination of the Asia-Pacific region. One of the most obvious signs of this has been the immense qualitative and technological improvement in the Chinese armed forces.According to a recent Pentagon report, China is pursuing “a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program” and investing in capabilities designed to defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party—including U.S.—intervention during a crisis or conflict.

This growing military prowess allows China to adopt a more assertive policy. Take, for instance, Beijing’s steps to control the South China Sea. The Pentagon report noted that in 2014, China “started reclaiming land and building infrastructure at its outposts in the Spratly Islands” to use as “persistent civil-military bases of operation.” As Bonnie Glaser explained in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, this is fraught with danger and could spark an armed encounter in a number of ways. While Glaser assumed that direct confrontation is not China’s objective, this is not absolutely certain. Beijing clearly is willing to at least risk a clash with the United States more than it was in the past.

Another form of Chinese aggression is expanded cyberattacks on the U.S. government. These recently reached a new level with the massive penetration of the Office of Personnel Management’s database of security clearance applications. While the Obama administration has stated that it is considering retaliation, it has not yet decided what actions it will take. But the fact that the White House has reached this point indicates the extent of the danger.

What causes concern is the accumulation of these actions by Beijing. History again offers signposts. No single Japanese action in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor was, by itself, an intolerable provocation. Only after the fact, when the pattern leading unavoidably to conflict seemed clear, did American policymakers understand that Tokyo had been preparing for war all along. Are Chinese actions today repeating this? More importantly, if Chinese actions are leading toward greater confrontation, what can the United States do to prevent war?

If today’s American policymakers were to make a concerted effort to head off conflict with China, there are three approaches that they could consider. One would be concessions of some type to set up some sort of power-sharing arrangement. The problem is that the United States has no way of knowing whether this would satisfy China. In fact, the Chinese themselves might not know, since there are indications that some government officials and policy experts would accept power-sharing while others would not. And such a power-sharing arrangement, even if desired by both sides, might prove unworkable in practice. It could be, as some Chinese say, that either Beijing or Washington can dominate the region, but not both.

A second approach would stress asymmetric counterpressure. If China continues to expand its military presence in the South China Sea, undertake cyberattacks on the United States and pursue forms of military modernization that increase the chances of conflict with the United States, Washington could do things that Beijing most fears or dislikes. That might include downgrading or ending military cooperation; taking various economic actions, such as sanctions; or augmenting the U.S. military’s capability for irregular warfare, such as helping foreign guerrillas or liberation movements. The risk of this approach is that if there is, in fact, a split in China between hard-liners and moderates on relations with the United States, asymmetric counterpressure might validate the hard-line position that power-sharing is impossible.

A third approach would rely on direct and symmetric counterpressure. This would include expanding America’s cybercapabilities, both defensive and offensive; improving power-projection and naval capabilities; and tightening military relationships with other Asia-Pacific nations. Again, though, this might fuel the hard-line position in China and would cost the United States money. While probably the safest, it would be the most expensive.

Japan felt driven to war in 1941 because it believed it faced a closing window of opportunity to militarily challenge Washington before the United States had recovered from the Great Depression. It is possible that China believes that U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific is receding on its own and thus seeks to fill the ensuing vacuum. If so, the United States simply needs to make China understand that it is not withdrawing, even if the lesson involves some discomfort. But if China believes that conflict with the United States is inevitable and has already begun, the sooner Americans recognize this, the more time they will have to find effective countermeasures short of full-scale war. Failing this, Singer and Cole’s book may turn out to be a premonition rather than a warning.

Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.

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