Blunder Into A War With China?
By Conn Hallinan
- In his Jan. 13 testimony before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, Secretary of State nominee Rex
Tillerson made an extraordinary
comment concerning China’s activities in the South
China Sea. The U.S., he said, must “send a clear signal
that, first, the island-building stops,” adding that
Beijing’s “access to those islands is not going to be
Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated the
threat on Jan. 24.
Sometimes it is
hard to sift the real from the magical in the Trump
administration, and bombast appears to be the default
strategy of the day. But people should be clear about
what would happen if the U.S. actually tries to blockade
China from supplying its forces constructing airfields
and radar facilities on the Spratly and Paracel islands.
It would be an
act of war.
Foreign Ministry initially reacted cautiously to the
comment, Chinese newspapers have been far less
diplomatic. The nationalist Global Times warned
of a “large-scale war” if the U.S. followed through on
its threat, and the China Daily cautioned that
a blockade could lead to a “devastating confrontation
between China and the U.S.”
observers agree. “It is very difficult to imagine the
means by which the United States could prevent China
from accessing these artificial islands without
provoking some kind of confrontation,” says Rory
Medcalf, head of Australia’s National Security
College. And such a confrontation, says Carlyle Thayer
of the University of New South Wales, “could quickly
develop into an armed conflict.”
China’s commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Wu
Shengli, told U.S. Admiral John Richardson that “we
will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands
halfway.” Nansha is China’s name for the Spratlys. Two
weeks later, Chang
Wanquan, China’s Defense Minister, said Beijing is
preparing for a “people’s war at sea.”
amount of this is posturing by two powerful countries in
competition for markets and influence, but Tillerson’s
statement did not come out of the blue. In fact, the
U.S. is in the middle of a major military buildup, the
Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” in the Pacific.
American bases in Okinawa, Japan, and Guam have been
beefed up, and for the first time since World War II,
U.S. Marines have been deployed in Australia. Last
March, the U.S. sent B-2 nuclear-capable
strategic stealth bombers to join them.
There is no
question that China has been aggressive about claiming
sovereignty over small islands and reefs in the South
China Sea, even after the Permanent Court of Arbitration
at The Hague rejected Beijing’s claims. But if a
military confrontation is to be avoided, it is important
to try to understand what is behind China’s behavior.
of current tensions
crisis has its roots in a tense standoff between Beijing
and Taiwan in late 1996. The People’s Republic of China
(PRC) was angered that Washington had granted a visa to
Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, calling it a violation
of the 1979 U.S. “One China” policy that recognized the
PRC and downgraded relations with Taiwan to
responded to the visa uproar by firing missiles near a
small Taiwan-controlled island and moving some military
forces up to the mainland coast facing the island.
However, there was never any danger that China would
actually attack Taiwan. Even if it wanted to, it didn’t
have the means to do so.
letting things cool off, however, the Clinton
administration escalated the conflict and sent two
aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, the USS
Nimitz and USS Independence. The Nimitz and its escorts
sailed through the Taiwan Straits between the island and
the mainland, and there was nothing that China could do
deeply alarmed Beijing, because the regions just north
of Taiwan in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea were
the jumping off points for 19th and 20th
century invasions by western colonialists and the
crisis led to a radical remaking of China’s military,
which had long relied on massive land forces. Instead,
China adopted a strategy called “Area Denial” that would
allow Beijing to control the waters surrounding its
coast, in particular the East and South China seas. That
not only required retooling of its armed forces – from
land armies to naval and air power – it required a ring
of bases that would keep potential enemies at arm’s
length and also allow Chinese submarines to enter the
Pacific and Indian oceans undetected.
Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in the north to the Malay
Peninsula in the south, this so-called “first island
chain” is Beijing’s primary defense line.
particularly vulnerable to a naval blockade. Some 80
percent of its energy supplies traverse the Indian Ocean
and South China Sea, moving through narrow choke points
like the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia,
the Bab al Mandab Straits controlling the Red Sea, and
the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. All of
those passages are controlled by the U.S. or countries
like India and Indonesia with close
ties to Washington.
In 2013, China
claimed it had historic rights to the region and issued
its now famous “nine-dash line” map that embraced the
Paracels and Spratly island chains and 85 percent of the
South China Sea. It was this nine-dash line that the
Hague tribunal rejected, because it found no historical
basis for China’s claim, and because there were
overlapping assertions by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia,
Brunei, and the Philippines.
There are, of
course, economic considerations. The region is rich in
oil, gas, and fish, but the primary concern for China is
security. The Chinese have not interfered with
commercial ship traffic, although they have applied
on-again, off-again restrictions on fishing and energy
explorations. China initially prevented Filipino
fishermen from exploiting some reefs, and then allowed
it. It has been more aggressive with Vietnam in the
trying to assuage China’s paranoia, the U.S. made things
worse by adopting a military strategy to checkmate “Area
Denial.” Called “Air/Sea
Battle” (renamed “Joint Concept for Access and
Maneuver in the Global Commons”), Air/Sea Battle
envisions attacking China’s navy, air force, radar
facilities, and command centers with air and naval
power. Missiles would be used to take out targets deep
into Chinese territory.
seizure of a U.S. underwater drone off the Philippines
is part of an ongoing chess game in the region. The
drone was almost certainly mapping sea floor bottoms and
collecting data that would allow the U.S. to track Chinese
submarines, including those armed with nuclear
missiles. While the heist was a provocative thing to do
– it was seized right under the nose of an unarmed U.S.
Navy ship – it is a reflection of how nervous the
Chinese are about their vulnerability to Air/Sea Battle.
“have good reason to worry about this emerging U.S.
naval strategy [use of undersea drones] against China in
East Asia,” Li Mingjiang, a China expert at S.
Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore,
told the Financial Times. “If this strategy
becomes reality, it could be quite detrimental to
China’s national security.”
charges that the Chinese are playing the bully with
small countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, and
there is some truth to that charge. China has been
throwing its weight around with several nations in
Southeast Asia. But it also true that the Chinese have a
lot of evidence that the Americans are gunning for them.
The U.S. has
military bases surrounding China and is deploying
anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea and Japan,
ostensibly to guard against North Korean nuclear
weapons. But the interceptors could also down Chinese
missiles, posing a threat to Beijing’s nuclear
Battle does not envision using nuclear weapons, it could
still lead to a nuclear war. It would be very difficult
to figure out whether missiles were targeting command
centers or China’s nukes. Under the stricture “use them,
or lose them” the Chinese might fear their missiles were
endangered and launch them.
The last thing
one wants to do with a nuclear-armed power is make it
administration has opened a broad front on China,
questioning the “One China” policy, accusing Beijing of
being in cahoots with Islamic terrorists, and
threatening a trade war. The first would upend more than
30 years of diplomacy, the second is bizarre
– if anything, China is overly aggressive in suppressing
terrorism in its western Xinjiang Province – and the
third makes no sense.
China is the
U.S.’s major trading partner and holds $1.24 trillion in
U.S. Treasury Bonds. While Trump charges that the
Chinese have hollowed out the American economy by
undermining its industrial base with cheap labor and
goods, China did not force Apple or General Motors to
pull up stakes and decamp elsewhere. Capital goes where
wages are low and unions are weak.
A trade war
would hurt China, but it would also hurt
the U.S. and the global economy as well.
Trump says he wants to Make America Great Again, what he
really means is that he wants to go back to that
post-World War II period when the U.S. dominated much of
the globe with a combination of economic strength and
military power. But that era is gone, and dreams of a
unipolar world run by Washington are a hallucination.
According to the
CIA, “by 2030 Asia will have surpassed North America
and Europe combined in terms of global power based on
GDP, population size, military spending and
technological investments.” By 2025, two-thirds of the
world will live in Asia, 7 percent in Europe and 5
percent in the U.S. Those are the demographics of
If Trump starts
a trade war, he will find little support among America’s
allies. China is the number one trading partner for
Japan, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, and India, and
the third largest for Indonesia and the Philippines.
Over the past year, a number of countries like
Thailand, Malaysia, and
the Philippines have
also distanced themselves from Washington and moved
closer to China. When President Obama tried to get U.S.
allies not to sign on to China’s new Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank, they ignored
But the decline
of U.S. influence has a dangerous side. Washington may
not be able to dictate the world’s economy, but it has
immense military power. Chinese military expert Yang
Chengjun says “China does not stir up troubles, but
we are not afraid of them when they come.”
They should be.
For all its modernization, China is no match for the
U.S. However, defeating China is far beyond Washington’s
capacity. The only wars the U.S. has “won” since 1945
are Grenada and Panama.
such a clash would be catastrophic. It would torpedo
global trade, inflict trillions of dollars in damage on
each side, and the odds are distressingly high that the
war could go nuclear.
U.S. allies in
the region should demand that the Trump administration
back off any consideration of a blockade. Australia has
already told Washington it will not take part in any
such action. The U.S. should also do more than rename
Air/Sea Battle, it should junk the entire strategy. The
East and South China seas are not national
security issues for the U.S., but they are for
should realize that, while it has the right to security,
trotting out ancient dynastic maps to lay claim to vast
areas bordering scores of countries does nothing but
alienate its neighbors and give the U.S. an excuse to
interfere in affairs thousands of miles from its own
article originally appeared at the author’s blog,
Dispatches From the Edge.
expressed in this article are solely those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
Information Clearing House.
US-China war increasingly a
'reality,' Chinese army official says:
China is preparing for a potential military clash with
the United States, according to an article on the
Chinese army's website.
Donald Trump's closest advisor
thinks there will be war with China in the next few
years; “We’re going
to war in the South China Sea” Mr Bannon said on his
radio show in March 2016.
China ‘getting ready for war’
over Donald Trump hostility, warns state media;
China’s state media has announced it will “step up
preparedness for possible military conflict with US”