Saturday, December 4, 2010

Is China a threat?

A friend sent me the following email:
In a waiting room yesterday I happened to see a number of military-related magazines, some of which wrote about China and how the US military might have to engage the Chinese military. Interestingly, Taiwan was never mentioned. Apparently the assumption is that Taiwan is indefensible.
Instead, the main worry appeared to be that preemptory Chinese missile attacks (non-nuclear) would neutralize US forward bases in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, etc – after which the US would face a nearly impossible logistics challenge of bringing the war to China. The US response would be basically limited to shooting non-nuclear missiles back and to submarine commerce against Chinese import and export shipping.
In this scenario the US mainland (including Hawaii and Alaska, at least at present) would be unscathed, although the Chinese mainland could receive damage. In exchange for that, however, the Chinese would secure a military sphere of influence in Asia. There are concerns that the range of Chinese non-nuclear missiles will eventually extend to Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska.
Frankly I don’t see how the US can stop any of this. That’s why the strategy must be diplomatic and engagement with China so that the Chinese see war with the US as deadly to their own economic interests. Am I missing something?
In response, I wrote:
I think the assumptions about Taiwan might be two-fold: its indefensible and the U.S. lacks the political will to adopt policies and programs today that would make Taiwan defensible in the future.
Non-nuclear Chinese missile attacks on U.S. bases in the Far East would almost certainly trigger a war that could easily become nuclear.  The U.S. public, I don't think, would accept anything less than war.  Attacks on those military bases seem analogous to the attack on Pearl Harbor, to which the nation expected a declaration of war.  You're right about the logistics of moving the war to China; missiles and subs represent the most likely responses.  Of course, this is one reason that the Navy wants to maintain carrier battle groups, portable landing fields that are difficult to destroy without resorting to nuclear weapons.  I wonder to what extent the articles reflect a commitment to continuing to build a military force for which no enemy exists.
China stands to lose a great deal economically if it attacks the U.S.  First, China owns a great deal of U.S. debt.  Second, China needs continuing rapid economic growth and development to prevent political unrest from increasing, the largest internal threat to the survivability of the Communist Party.  Chinese economic growth and development would reverse without their exports to the U.S.  In other words, China probably loses more than it gains by attacking U.S. military bases in the Far East.
Finally, if the U.S. took the radical step (for it) of adopting a multilateral rather than unilateral view, the U.S. in case of an attack by China on its bases in the Far East would align itself with IndiaIndia, for good reason, fears Chinese dominance in AsiaIndia could provide bases, personnel, and other logistic support in a war against China.  Chinese concerns about such an alliance might well deter the probability of any such missile attack by China, probably more effectively than increased U.S. defense spending.
I wrote those comments after reading this column that appeared in The Guardian, written by former UK Labour government minister Simon Jenkins, which a reader suggested in a comment to my post, Swords into plows.
As Jenkins suggests for the United Kingdom, the United States should conduct a true baseline review of its defense needs.  What are the real threats?  What are potentially viable, affordable responses to those threats?  Honest efforts answering those questions would result in a much smaller military with very different foci than the current US Department of Defense.  Savings would represent a step toward forging swords into plows.


Ted said...

You disregard the defense industry and their never ending goal of producing more expensive items that will never work in battle. In today's world, there is a movement to produce quality and not quantity. Therefore it takes little to make these weapons virtually useless as most will never work in the beginning.
Economics will be the main way of preventing large scale war unless the terrorists figure out how to make each country feel it is the other one instigating war.
I wonder why no one approaches Taiwan like what happened in Hong Kong. As far as I have heard, the transition to China has been peaceful.
If there was any aggression by China, it would take only a few days before we went nuclear.

Michael Turton said...

Aany Chinese attack on Taiwan would almost certainly have to come through Japanese air and sea space. The US is committed by treaty to defend Japan.

Also, China claims both the Senkakus (since oil was discovered there) and covertly, many Chinese claim Okinawa should be Chinese. A move on Taiwan would only be the opening of a much larger offensive, probably extended over a couple of wars. We're not looking at a single blowout war, but a long series of hegemonic wars.

"Losing more than it gains" has never been part of national calculus in starting wars (see Japan's war on the US). Note that the US despite 9 years of failure is on track for 5 more years in Afghanistan, and is still in Iraq despite total failure. Nations are unable to forego starting wars when it would be rational not to, and they pursue them no matter how hopeless and stupid.


George Clifford said...

Looking at maps, I'm not convinced that the Chinee would need to enter Japanese air or sea space to invade Taiwan. An invasion of Taiwan seems unlikely. The Chinese seem much more likely to wait, isolate Taiwan economically, and offer the Chinese and Taiwanese such a good deal that reunification looks attractive. Alternatively, the People's Republic of China may foment rebellion against the Nationalist Chinese who rule Taiwan by the native Taiwanese.

Japanese and Chinese economic interests and hegemonic aspirations in Asia seem to be on a collision course. However, Japan's current economic doldrums may well make those fears moot, especially if the Japanese economy does not return to a growth trajectory.

Michael Turton said...

You should take a closer look at the maps. The good beaches are only in the north and strikes are also necessary at the port of Suao on the east coast. The entire west coast is basically useless because of tidal mud flats that would render heavy equipment impotent.

The Senkakus are Japanese as are the Yonigunis. It would be extremely difficult for air combat to take place in the airspace around northern Taiwan without aircraft flying into Japanese airspace. Given the restricted sea space it is hard to see how an invasion fleet spread over many kilometers of sea would not be operating in Japanese waters. Japan recently extended its air defense warning area too, to cover the back approach to Taiwan.

Plus if the US helps out from its bases in Okinawa, China will may strike them -- or strike them pre-emptively.

Taiwanese are about 90% opposed to becoming part of China, with so many having gone there, and Chinese tourists pouring in here, they are ever being convinced they don't want to be part of a society that manifests itself in arrogant, uncivilized behavior. There is no plum that China could offer Taiwan to come in. People here are Taiwanese and that is what they find out when they encounter the Chinese.

I think you are leaning again on the rationality thesis. There's a large segment of PRC society/gov't that wants war for whatever reason.


DNP said...

I'm wondering how much past behaviour predicts what a state might do in the future. I'm trying to assess China's history in this context. I can't claim a great knowledge in this area but I would not put China into the 'consistent military aggressor with territorial ambitions' category. And I'm not ignoring Tibet and Mongolia.
I would say a significant number of people in the UK lose more sleep over what the USA military might get up to than worrying about the Red Army.

George Clifford said...

Like DNP, I would not number China among historically aggressive nations. I also am not terribly concerned about intrusions on air and sea space - nations (including the US) claim areas beyond internationally defined limits. The US frequently transgresses those boundaries to assert that the area is in fact international. I do not find it credible to think that Japan (or the US) would go to war with China because China utilized Japanese air or sea spaces to invade Taiwan, an invasion that I find a remote possibility at best. China will, I predict, continue to cultivate economic and other ties with Taiwan until resisting reunification would no longer be in the best interests of the Taiwanese. China, I also predict, will continue along a trajectory of increasing economic development and democractic forms of governance that will make reunification more attractive.