The Future of War (no. 10): Let’s figure out how not to get into one with China

The Future of War (no. 10): Let’s figure out how not to get into one with China

By Sean Kelleher
Best Defense future of war entry

Several recent commentaries on the emerging Air-Sea Battle doctrine have emphasized the escalatory risks of launching massive conventional attacks against an adversary’s home territory when the adversary has a range of retaliatory means at its disposal, including nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles (see the DiplomatUSNWC). These risks deserve close consideration, but they are not uniquely characteristic of Air-Sea Battle, rather they are endemic to any strategy aimed at achieving decisive victory.

The American military puts on its best performances when it goes for the jugular: Grant’s multi-pronged invasion of the Confederacy, Winfield Scott’s march to Mexico City, and the initial phases of the 2003 invasion of Iraq are all model operations. This record is consistent with the historical experiences of other armies; Alexander marched into the heart of the Persian Empire, Genghis Khan had no patience for borders, and Napoleon won most of his victories in other peoples’ countries. The attack component of Air-Sea Battle fits nicely into this pattern; massive cyber, electronic, air, and missile strikes paralyze an opponent’s capacity to coordinate its forces, followed by attacks on now isolated targets. It aims for decisive victory in multiple domains of warfare and, assuming appropriate intellectual and material investments, the Pentagon has a good chance of converting the nascent idea into an operational reality (useful documents: DOD-JOACCSBA 1CSBA 2Danger Room).

One may reasonably ask whether the probability of total war with China is high enough to justify a massive investment in the war-fighting tools that would be needed to win it. However, if we assume that the investment is justified, Air-Sea Battle is a sound idea. Yes, there are escalatory risks, but as long as the military infrastructure in China’s coastal provinces is central to the PLA’s operations, Washington will have to be prepared to destroy it. There is no polite way to bomb another country, and, in my decidedly non-expert opinion, much of the criticism of Air-Sea Battle is not about the doctrine itself, but about the wisdom of fighting China. 

The most salient criticism of the doctrine is not its expansive scope, but its limited purview. Basing our fortunes on an aggressive naval/air/cyber strategy assumes that a U.S.-China conflict will not involve land battles in Asia, or attacks in the Eastern Pacific. But what if we have to help Russia protect Siberia’s resources from a Chinese invasion, or if we need to evict PLA soldiers from Taiwan and Okinawa? Also, what if Chinese submarines launch cruise missiles against the West Coast, while ballistic missiles reign down on Pearl Harbor? Faced with a conflict akin to the World Wars, Air-Sea Battle would have to be combined with other operational concepts to create an effective strategy.

At bottom, if current economic and military trends persist for several decades, and Washington and Beijing go to war in the grand style, there will be a dramatic risk of escalation. But the origin of the risk will be the conflict itself, not the strategies used to fight it (for economic projections, and U.S.-Soviet Union comparisons, see these posts: 12).

This author, adverse to expending vast intellectual and material resources on a perpetual arms race, let alone living through World War III, favors radical diplomatic initiatives to develop a deeply cooperative relationship between America and China. I have proposed some ideas on this matter in earlier posts (here and here), but on further reflection I suspect that to break out of the security dilemma, the United States will need to make some big, unilateral concessions to assure China that it is not interested in military conflict. 

For example, it could permanently withdraw several carrier battle groups from the region, perhaps retiring one or two of them. Such actions would cause howls of protest at home and among our allies in the region, and they would leave our allies vulnerable for a period of time. Indeed, for these maneuvers to be credible, Washington might have to stomach a fair amount of aggressive Chinese bullying in the region; it should only reverse course if China seriously threatens the political integrity of other countries. In other words, part of this strategy involves an admission by America that China is the leading power in the Asia-Pacific, and that other states in the region need to adapt to that reality. Hopefully, after a few years, Beijing would begin to trust that Washington’s priorities have changed and to believe that it can devote more energy to collaborating with America, and less to military preparations.

Another possibility is that other Asian states would form a balancing coalition against China; this development would not improve matters, since such a coalition could pose a major threat to Chinese security. Perhaps an even worse eventuality would be if these states aligned themselves with Beijing, instead of making the military investments required for a credible balancing strategy. In light of these possibilities, an integral part of the U.S. strategy would be getting its allies to accept a fair amount of political indignity for a few years, in the hope of creating a better regional order in the long term.

Risks and challenges abound, but if I am correct that such concessions will be necessary to put the U.S.-China relationship on a new, more cooperative footing, then much better to make them now, while Washington has a major power advantage over Beijing, than in a couple of decades, when the capability gap may have significantly narrowed.

In many ways, this strategy runs counter to the liberal internationalist project, which is founded on the global, stabilizing presence of America’s armed forces. But if we want China to be a full member of a liberal order, rather than an outsider like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, we and our allies will have to risk a substantial measure of security now in the hope of building a lasting and productive peace.

Sean Kelleher is an attorney in Washington D.C. who has an M.A. in international politics. He works on document review projects, blogs at A Vegan View of World Politics, and is writing a book on U.S. foreign policy.