Future of Asia, Global HotSpots

Avoiding War with China

In recent years, many American leaders have grown cavalier about nuclear war, especially with Russia, but there is also risk of a devastating conflict with China.

Credit: Nicolas Raymond www.flickr.com


  • The US seeks to sustain the military dominance of the Western Pacific that it has enjoyed since 1945.
  • Washington is again exploring tactical uses for nuclear weapons and funding programs to develop them.
  • Senior US military officers understand Chinese politico-military doctrine poorly or not at all.
  • We Americans are not omnipotent. Nor are we invulnerable.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The armed forces of the United States and China are now very far along in planning and practicing how to go to war with each other.

Neither has any idea when or why it might have to engage the other on the battlefield, but both agree on the list of contingencies that could spark conflict.These range from naval scuffles in the Spratly or Senkaku Islands to full-spectrum combat over Taiwan independence or Chinese reunification.

The context in which these contingencies might occur reflects an imbalance of power left over from history. U.S. forces are forward-deployed along China’s frontiers in a pattern that originated with the Cold War policy of “containment.”

Chinese forces, in contrast, are deployed to defend China’s borders as China defines them. China regards the United States as the country most able and likely to violate those borders and attack it.

The United States seeks to sustain the military dominance of the Western Pacific that it has enjoyed since its 1945 overthrow of Japanese imperial power. Washington is determined to preclude the contraction of the sphere of influence it established during the Cold War.

China, for its part, is striving to establish defensible maritime borders, to prevent Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam from prevailing in their counterclaims to islands and rocks in its near seas. It also wants to reintegrate Taiwan, which the United States separated from the rest of China and placed in its sphere of influence 67 years ago, in 1950.

In China’s backyard

Elements of the U.S. military aggressively patrol the air and seas that abut China. Their purpose is to be ready to cripple the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by striking bases in its homeland if conflict with U.S. forces or U.S. allies occurs.

Not surprisingly, China objects to these missions. It is steadily strengthening its capacity not just to fend off U.S. attempts to scout or penetrate its defenses, but to recover Taiwan by coercive means.

The U.S. armed forces and the PLA have met on the battlefield before, but never on Chinese soil. Sino-American wars have taken place only in third countries like Korea or by proxy and covert action, as in Indochina. But any war between the United States and China under the contingencies both now contemplate would begin in places China considers part of its territory.

Risk of spiraling conflict

It might be possible to limit a conflict in the South China Sea to the islands and waters there. But a Sino-Japanese clash over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands or a Sino-American war over Taiwan would almost certainly entail U.S. strikes on the Chinese mainland.

Chinese doctrine calls for such attacks to be answered with reprisals against U.S. bases and the American homeland.

China’s no-first-use doctrine is a significant barrier to China’s use of nuclear weapons for such reprisal, but one that it is easy to imagine being breached under the pressures of wartime crisis conditions. Beijing is likely to see U.S. attacks on Chinese bases where nuclear and non-nuclear weapons are commingled as the equivalent of a strategic first strike designed to knock out China’s nuclear deterrent.

Any threat that China’s Communist Party leadership perceives as existential would stimulate some to argue for nuclear as well as cyber reprisal against comparable facilities in the United States.

Nuclear amnesia

In the U.S. political elite and officer corps, alarm about the damage a nuclear strike can wreak on its targets and the retaliation it invites has succumbed to “nuclear amnesia.” The national “allergy” to the use of nuclear weapons has weakened concomitantly.

Washington is again exploring tactical uses for nuclear weapons and funding programs to develop them. Americans have ceased to consider what a nuclear exchange with Russia, China or another foreign foe would do to the United States.

The current hysteria over North Korea may in time correct this. But, for now, Americans remain in denial, imagining that despite all the evidence to the contrary the U.S. missile defense program will work. No one is preparing for scenarios in which it does not.

Little to no trust

Meanwhile, communication between the U.S. and Chinese national security establishments is far less robust than it was between the United States and USSR during the Cold War. There is very little, if any, mutual trust between Beijing and Washington.

Senior U.S. military officers understand Chinese politico-military doctrine poorly or not at all. There are no Sino-American understandings or mechanisms for escalation control. It is past time, but not too late to begin creating these.

This is not a reassuring situation. But there are many factors that inhibit rash Chinese actions in response to a crisis. And there are some on the U.S. side as well. Neither China nor America wants war with the other.

Risks of war

So what’s the problem then? Why are we concerned about how to avoid war with China? There are two reasons, one short-term and one long-term.

The first relates to Taiwan, which the United States has pledged to help defend. The island is now ruled by an anti-reunification, pro-independence government.

Trump administration statements have raised doubts about whether Washington might upgrade relations with Taipei, relitigate the U.S. commitment to a “one-China” policy, or otherwise change direction on this most neuralgic of all issues for Chinese nationalism.

China now has the military means to bring Taiwan to heel despite U.S. opposition. The uncertainties injected by Mr. Trump’s tweets seem to have moved Beijing to consider whether to act before the issue goes off track.

It is entirely possible that once this fall’s 19th Party Congress has passed, arguments for resolving the question of Taiwan’s relationship to the rest of China by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021 will gain force.

If so, the long-deferred bloody rendezvous of the United States with Chinese nationalism could be upon us as Beijing makes Taipei “an offer it cannot refuse.” Americans will have to decide how invested we are in our Cold War commitment to keep China divided.

Declining American power

In the longer term, while Washington persists in proceeding on the assumption that the United States can forever dominate China’s periphery, this notion has steadily diminishing credibility in Asia.

America’s power is visibly declining, not just in relation to China but also to the increasingly self-reliant allies and friends of the United States in the region. These trends give every sign of accelerating. They reflect underlying realities that increased U.S. defense spending cannot alter or reverse.

Sino-American rivalry — political, economic and military — seems destined to intensify. China can and will easily match defense budget plus-ups by the United States. Despite much shadowboxing by the U.S. armed forces, American military primacy in the Western Pacific will gradually waste away.

Rising cost and risk

Both the costs of U.S. trans-Pacific engagement and the risks of armed conflict will rise. The states of the region will hedge. They will either draw closer to Beijing, cleave to Washington or — more likely — try to get out of the middle between Chinese and Americans.

For the most part, they will not repudiate their alliances with the United States of America. Why give up something for nothing? But they will rely less on the United States and act more independently of it.

So the central question in whether the United States can avoid war with China comes down to this: How much damage to our homeland are we Americans prepared to risk to pursue specific foreign policy objectives that antagonize China?

In the 21st Century, when Americans kill faraway foreigners, we must expect that they will retaliate and that, one way or another, we will pay a price in civilian deaths here at home.

It is time to get serious. We Americans are not omnipotent. Nor are we invulnerable. But we are a people who value honor. In the case of China and its neighbors, how do we balance our interests with our honor?

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About Chas W. Freeman

Chas Freeman was the main interpreter for U.S. President Richard Nixon in his 1972 visit to China and was the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992. He is currently Senior Fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

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