There is a lot of talk lately about the growing likelihood of a war between China and the United States. A recent op-ed in the Washington Post spoke darkly of the two countries heading toward a “dangerous showdown” in Asia. Professor Hugh White at the Australian National University has even written an article with the title, “It’s Time We Talked about War with China.”
Of course, such talk is nothing new. Back in the 1990s, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro co-wrote a best-selling book, The Coming Conflict with China. In it, the authors warned that China and the United States were on an almost unavoidable glide-path toward war, given Beijing’s obsession with overturning the American-based hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.
Not your daddy’s PLA
The difference between then and now, of course, is that China increasingly has the means by which to make this ambition a reality. The People’s Liberation Army of today is a much more capable and formidable force than even a few years ago. It is not “your daddy’s PLA.” The US military may still be a superior force, but it is hobbled by a number of strategic disadvantages, not the least of which is the centuries-old “tyranny of distance”: It can take up to three weeks for US naval forces to steam from ports on the West Coast to the South China Sea. Forces based in Hawaii could still take up to 16 days to reach this area.
Given such strategic limitations, China and the United States could be more or less equal in terms of deployable force, particularly in the South China Sea and surrounding environs. Even if one threw in America’s regional allies, US options for countering China so close to the latter’s coast are quite limited, and becoming ever more restricted.
Take China’s artificial island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Over the past two or three years, Beijing has spent millions, if not billions, on creating, out of practically nothing, over 800 hectares of new land, over which it claims sovereignty. At least two, and possibly three of these islands contain runways. This is being matched by a major expansion of Woody Island, China’s chief island outpost in the South China Sea. Finally, despite Beijing’s denials, these islands are being increasingly militarized with radar emplacements, missile sites, and even fighter jets.
At the same time, however, the US response has been remarkably restrained. Washington has mainly used classic “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPS, by the US Navy to throw down important markers in the South China Sea, basically telegraphing Beijing as to how far it should go in its aggressive behavior around the region. FONOPS are entirely legal and are widely employed, not just by the United States and not just in South China Sea.
Fingers off trigger
Moreover, the US Navy has been extraordinarily careful, for the most part, to stay outside the 12-nautical mile limit of these artificial islands, even though they legally do not deserve such consideration. In general, the United States has demonstrated remarkable self-restraint, given Beijing’s increasingly bombastic rhetoric about sovereignty.
To give China its due, it has avoided some ratcheting up of tensions in the South China Sea. It uses its coast guard for most of its “sovereignty-enforcement” operations in the region, for example, and it highly unlikely that it would ever shoot down a foreign military aircraft or sink a foreign warship in order to “prove a point.”
Nevertheless, the United States has to remain careful to ensure that its approach toward handling China remains measured and limited. Until quite recently, political strategists in Washington were strongly promoting a new counter-Chinese doctrine called Air-Sea Battle (ASB). ASB was explicitly intended to deal with China’s supposed “anti-access/area denial” capabilities that could keep US forces out of places like the South China Sea.
In response, ASB envisioned pre-emptive standoff strikes on enemy homelands – in this case, China itself. The idea of deliberately escalating to an attack of Chinese territory – which could result in a reciprocal attack on the United States, up to and including nuclear weapons – was simply too frightening and too incredible to be an effective strategy.
ASB has apparently been replaced by the “third offset strategy,” a more ambiguous but no less ambitious effort by the US military retain its edge over adversaries like China by exploiting America’s technological superiority in state-of-the-art areas such as robotics, big data, directed-energy weapons, extra-long precision-strike, and additive manufacturing, such as 3-D printing.
Much of the purpose of the third offset strategy is, essentially, to help preserve US military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. The concern is that this might push both countries closer to a skirmish in the South or East China Seas, which could escalate into something far bigger and far worse.
War not inevitable
None of this is to argue that the United States or its allies should cede the far Western Pacific to China, to give it a sphere of influence in these areas. However, there are ways to manage this competition between these two great powers. To return to Hugh White’s article, he doubts whether “the costs and risks” of war are “justified to defend every element of the so-called ‘rules based global order,’” and he argues that the West might have to “accept some changes in the regional order” in order to accommodate China, as an alternative to war.
With all due respect to Professor White, it is possible that we have not gotten that far yet. Perhaps we have been lucky so far, or perhaps there is more self-restraint being exercised in the region than we might care to admit. Nevertheless, war is hardly inevitable at this point. With proper handling and mutual respect – for example, China’s artificial islands are here to stay, and there is little the West can do about it – we may avoid turning any talk of war into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own.