Sabers are rattling again in the ongoing joust between China and the United States. The latest thrust arrived this week, with five officers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army indicted by a US federal grand jury for computer hacking, economic espionage, and other charges.
The indictment continues the ongoing war of words over just who will be Big Willy in Asia and the rest of the world. Such issues as rocky islands in Japan, human rights, the Vietnamese, our agreements to defend other allies, and don’t forget Taiwan, all set up a major question: could things deteriorate to the point that the US/China Cold War erupts into an actual armed conflict?
The US seems to be preparing for it, if not spoiling for it. Obama’s "pivot to Asia" pronouncement three years ago, and the decision to move more armed forces to the region, seem to provide ample provocation. On the other side, China’s unilateral declarations of sovereignty, flybys over disputed territory with Japan and Vietnam, ongoing support of North Korea, and growing economic might suggest that it has put on its own version of big boy pants.
Let’s be clear: neither side has an absolute stranglehold on the moral high ground in any instance. And while sabers are rattled, the two economies are so intertwined that an actual war would be the equivalent of aiming a pistol at your own head.
China: Threat or Menace?
The Cato Institute, in a study titled “Is Chinese Military Modernization a Threat to the United States?,” says there’s little to worry about. “The ongoing modernization of the Chinese military poses less of a threat to the United States than recent studies by the Pentagon and a congressionally mandated commission have posited,” says the report. It also claims that China’s military might is exaggerated by downplaying the “still-antiquated overall state of Chinese forces.”
The US spends ten times the amount that China does on defense, the report adds, coughing up $400 billion against $40 billion by the Chinese. But it’s not a sheer numbers game in the age of atomic weaponry; and it’s worth remembering that the Chinese have advanced beyond Mao’s dream of “human wave attacks,” clearly not a great idea in an age of modern weaponry.
The subject of a hot war has fascinated armchair generals since China’s economy grew beyond the rudimentary roots planted in the Deng Xiaoping era, when the decision was made to focus on butter rather than guns in the 1980s and early 1990s. A 2005 article in The Atlantic called “How We Would Fight China” discussed the growing possibilities of conflict. And Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary, said in 2009 that China would threaten our military bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them.”
The Chinese have denied that they’re doing anything other than cruising around within their own territory and defending what’s theirs. Quietly, it has been said the Gulf War was their military wake-up call, the “shock and awe” tactics of precision-guided missiles indicating how a modern army can roll over the unprepared.
That’s why the Chinese have developed things like “carrier-killer” missiles, which have an estimated range of 2,700 km and armor-piercing capability, and an advanced cyber-hacking methodology. Their goal is said to be aimed not at winning an overall war, but being able to bully the US in small conflicts that send a message to the rest of the region.
That strategy works both ways, though. Taiwan, although increasingly cozy with its mainland brothers, knows that it just has to make conquest of the island too costly to keep the wolves away from its door.
Experts in the field of warfare keep coming back to the realization that it’s unlikely, in a vastly interconnected world, that major nuclear powers will get too mad at anyone (at least anyone capable of fighting back). Sure, there will be disputes and disagreements, and instances of the pot calling the kettle black (as with the indictment of the computer hacking gang of five, in the wake of our little NSA problems).
But there are trip wires aplenty, and given the right set of circumstances, it’s not possible to totally rule out a major military conflict. After all, who can predict when passions overcome common sense? As Confucius said, “A superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.”
It remains to be seen how excessive things might get between the US and China.