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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

U.S. vs China


The overwhelming assessment by Asian officials, diplomats and analysts is that the U.S. military simply cannot defeat China. It has been an assessment relayed to U.S. government officials over the past few months by countries such as Australia, Japan and South Korea. This comes as President Bush wraps up a visit to Asia, in which he sought to strengthen U.S. ties with key allies in the region. Most Asian officials have expressed their views privately. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has gone public, warning that the United States would lose any war with China. 'In any case, if tension between the United States and China heightens, if each side pulls the trigger, though it may not be stretched to nuclear weapons, and the wider hostilities expand, I believe America cannot win as it has a civic society that must adhere to the value of respecting lives,' Mr. Ishihara said in an address to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This has been making a bit of a splash (see here and here for examples) today. The question of whether the U.S. could 'win' a war against China depends greatly on what the objectives of this theoretical war is. Clausewitz's famous dictum 'war is merely the continuation of policy by other means' applies here. Before we can ask the question, we need to know what the objectives of each side are, and if one side can prevent the other from accomplishing those objectives, that side is the winner. If we look at the exteme examples. The U.S. wanting to occupy and control China or China wanted to occupy and control the U.S. it is clear that the defender in both cases would win. If one had the more modest goal of simply destroying the other side, it would probably require a significant nuclear exchange and while it would be hard to claim either side as a 'winner' in such a scenario, the U.S. certainly has greater capabilities in such an encounter. It's weakness there would be in a willingness to engage (and a first strike option by the U.S. could probably destroy China and prevent a counter-attack) however, the political aspect is simpler than in other possible conflicts as essentially it would be a decision controlled solely by the President and while there would doubtless be a great deal of political damage to the President afterward, the policy objection could be achieved. I think it is fairly safe to rule that out as being likely however. The real question of course is not the generic could the U.S. defeat China, but could the U.S. prevent a Chinese takeover of Taiwan. I am convinced, that if we were prepared for such an assault, the U.S. would easily defeat China at sea and in the air. This would of course prevent a ground war in Taiwan at all, and leave China essentially with a missile bombardment to force Taiwanese capitulation. That would, in my opinion, fail and fail misserably. If though China could achieve strategic surprise and land significant ground forces in Taiwan before the U.S. could gather it's full strength in the region the situation would be much more difficult. I think that the occupying Chinese forces in Taiwan could still be cut off, and a eventually a ground assault could liberate the island. This level of a campaign would evolve into the political dimensions though where the U.S. is less predictable. It is possible to envision a very gung-ho U.S. populace who would not only support, but demand that we liberate Taiwan. It is also possible to imagine the opposite. Part of the reason we have a bases in Taiwan is to assure that any attempted takeover of Taiwan would involve an attack against U.S. forces, and therefore prompt a greater level of support in any ensuing conflict. It is also wise to remember that Chinese policy is not, and probably never will be, to take Taiwan at any and all cost (just as we doubtless are unwilling to defend Tiawan at any and all cost.) Just as war is a continuation of policy, policy is a continuation of war. Even a best case scenario for China would have to calculate that it would be subject to strict economic sanctions. This would be very damaging to the Chinese economy (it would hurt us too, but not as badly.) The more signifigant the military conflict, the more damaging and lengthy any economic consequences would be. It is quite possible for China to succeed in controlling Taiwan, but still to have lost the 'war' if economic damage to the nation is beyond what its policy demanded. Certainly in the most extreme case where economic damage led to internal revolution (possible but doubtful) China could end up being a substantial loser, even in apparent victory. Lastly, I think it worthy to consider the source of the original comments that the U.S. would lose a lose a war with China. We should remember that this statement is itself a act of policy, and a method of reaching certain objectives. Beyond the unknown scores of anonymous people making this assessment, we have one name, Shintaro Ishihara.
Ishihara is an outspoken nationalist who rails against the United States and China and the central government. It is well known that he claims thatfifty years of subservience to the interest of the United States has deprived the Japanese of a national purpose and engendered a paralyzing identity crisis. And he reminds his countrymen that theirs is the only non-Caucasian society to have created a modern superpower.
It is pretty clear that whether the claim that the U.S. could not defeat China is true or not, it is useful to Ishihara's political goals. Ishihara wants to use this as an excuse to beef up Japanese. Ishihara is also part of the current Japanese revisionist history trend:
More than once he suggested that the Rape of Nanking in December 1937, was a fabrication of the Chinese. When confronted, Ishihara reproached Nathan by saying: "I said that the Chinese have exaggerated the numbers. In the hysteria of war, the Army did massacre people. That happens in war. The United States killed three hundred and fifty thousand people in Hiroshima in a single day."
Japan is not alone in this of course, there is a disturbing rise of nationalism and, often pure racism, across a good portion of Asia. Nonetheless, I think it clear that Ishihara is not an unbiased analyst of military capabilities, and his statements are for political purposes.


Blogger The probligo said...

Just remember as you follow that line of thought that there are more than simple military means to gain control of another country.

Imagine for a moment the impact that China would have on the US when (not if) it reaches the point where GDP per population is, say, half of that of the US. At present it is about 20% I think. Or if the total GDP of China gets to exceed that of the US.

Another thought for you.

Non-military invasion. How would the US react to shipload after shipload of Chinese civilians arriving off Hawaii, Washington and Oregon? Let's say 1 million illegals in ships in Honalulu, Vancouver and SanFran in the space of a year...

11/23/2005 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

I don't know that you are correct in a when rather than an if. If current rates continue, Chinese GDP per capita will be 20% of the U.S. in eight years and it's GDP will be half of the the U.S. in about 10 years. I highly doubt that China will be able to continue it's economic expansion at current rates anywhere near that long though, and given it's rapidly aging population it doesn't have unlimited time to catch up before demographic problems become a severe drain on productivity.

Regardless of that however, I am not sure what the threat of that is. I suppose it would concievably make economic damage equal for both parties, but assuming that China continues to use exports as it's primary engine for growth I would expect that China would still be hurt more by an economic war.

As far as millions of chinese arriving in ships, I am quite sure we would just turn them back. Personally, I would be happy to take them in but nativist sympathy would probably prevent that from happening. I am not sure what the threat is there, unless China was able to ship enough people to create a majority who also wanted pro-China and/or anti-democratic policies I don't see what the threat is.

However, non-military invasion does seem to be in the Chinese repretoire toward a target more suitable to that tactic. There are numerous illegal chinese settlers moving into Siberia, and it seems to me that China is encouraging this policy. I didn't cover a Siberian war in this post, which would occur under the pretext of defending what will become a Chinese majority. China could I believe 'win' such a conflict, barring a Russian decision to go nuclear.

11/23/2005 01:25:00 PM  

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