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We Asked a Military Expert What Would Happen if the US Went to War with China

Will there ever be another land war in Asia?

by Peter Rugh
09 February 2015, 6:00am

Illustration by Sam Taylor

The first rule of military strategy, as any historian or Risk enthusiast will tell you, is never get involved in a land war in Asia. It is "one of the classic blunders" Vizzini warns Westley about in the Princess Bride, along with "never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line," before plopping over dead, poisoned by his own cup, in a scene that is actually a pretty apt characterization of the current relationship between the US and China: two adversaries sitting at the same table, each concerned that the other has poisoned the drink.

Mutual suspicions between the two countries abound, particularly as China flexes its military muscles toward its Asian neighbors. To counter these shenanigans, in recent years the US has been making a lot of noise about its so-called pivot toward Asia: a military, political, and economic shift that includes deploying 2,500 Marines to bases in Australia and pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that would include a massive range of countries—from Japan to Chile to the US—while conspicuously excluding China.

The possibility that tensions between the US and China will erupt into anything resembling war remains remote. For one thing, the US spends three times more on its defense budget than China, its nearest rival in military spending.But China has been making moves, ramping up its air and naval capabilities, and the possibility that the buildup could lead to armed conflict between the two countries is not totally inconceivable. With that in mind, we asked Abraham Denmark, senior vice president for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research, what would happen if shit really hit the fan.

VICE: What would happen if the US and China went to war?
Abraham Denmark: A conflict between China and the US of any significance would be disastrous for both sides—politically, economically, and militarily. It's something both sides have a profound interest in avoiding.

The Chinese would have to take very seriously the implications of entering into a conflict with the US military. The US military is by far the most capable military that has ever been seen in human civilization. A war is not something to be taken on lightly. From an American point of view, our objectives are always to reduce tension, avoid conflict, and reduce the potential for miscalculation.

But suppose the US invaded China?
Nobody on the US side is envisioning a ground invasion of China. It wouldn't really serve a strategic objective. There is much more potential for conflict in the air and at sea and in cyber domains. That kind of conflict is very different from what we saw in Korea and Vietnam, and what we experienced more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon is investing in air and sea capabilities. That is not just because of China, but it is one of our considerations driving us to maintain our pretty significant advantages in the air and sea.

What are some of the contingencies the US is bulking up and preparing for?
The focus of the two militaries is really different. The US military has global responsibilities. Our forces need to cope with potential adversaries across all domains of conflict—from the high end to the low end, on land and sea, in space, dealing with everything from loose-knit forces like the Taliban to the highest-level militaries and every force in between. That means the US military has to be fairly flexible.

The Chinese military is able to focus on a few, fairly narrow sets of objectives. They don't have any allies to defend. They don't have global responsibilities. They've been able to tailor their military modernization to a limited set of scenarios, many of them involving the US. They are able to focus a lot of their military modernization on capabilities designed to undercut, undermine, and counter specific US military advantages. They have the benefit of staying in their home court.

In terms of specific, hypothetical scenarios, Taiwan is a perennial concern, but [there is also the potential for conflict] in the East and South China Sea. China could also enter into conflict with a US ally like Japan or the Philippines, and the US would be obligated to defend [those countries]. Other things to think about are what we can't plan for. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet rammed an American propeller plane over international waters and forced it to land on Hainan Island. That caused a pretty significant crisis between the US and China. If that sort of thing were to happen again, or between ships in international waters, that would be a crisis. I'm not saying it would lead to conflict, but it would be a challenge to manage.

Since America has a broader international presence and China has focused its military capabilities locally, would you say we'd be evenly matched if we went to battle by sea or air?
The US has tremendous advantages, but those advantages are diminishing over time because China is becoming more technologically advanced. It is closing the gap a bit. I'd also say the quantity has an advantage that is all its own. China is just able to build more ships, to build a lot of planes. That has a military effect.

[The US is] not standing still, either. We're making the investments we need to defend our allies and our interests, but it requires eternal vigilance and constant evaluation.

The US and China compete both economically and militarily, but they're also working together in some respects. Is this a keep-your-enemies-close approach on the part of both countries?
I think it is more that both sides have deeply ingrained uncertainties about the intentions of the other. They're looking for ways to ensure the relationship moves in a positive direction. From the American point of view, there is deep concern that China will supplant the US as the dominant power in Asia. The Chinese are concerned that America is fundamentally opposed to China's rise and that America will act to contain and restrain it.

What do you make of the rising anti-Americanism in the official Chinese press?
It's definitely something to be concerned about. Chinese anti-Americanism has never really gone away. Mao referred to us as an imperialist power but engaged with us to counter the Soviets, so our relationship has always been complicated. But both sides are trying to work together without sacrificing what they see as nonnegotiable interests. I would cast [China's] anti-Americanism as an intensifying nationalism. A lot of the anti-American rhetoric we are hearing is coming through the filter of nationalism.

What we are seeing in the media from both sides is reflective of where the relationship is. There's suspicion and mistrust on both sides, but both sides are trying to figure out a way to work together. Looking at China, this view of the United States as trying to contain China and this resurgent nationalism, it all grows out of how the Communist Party talks about Chinese history, talks about the Century of Humiliation [1839–1949], and its need to buttress itself in the face of abandoning communism in all but name and deal with intensifying tension within China. It is using nationalism to enhance the legitimacy of the party.

What's the relationship between Chinese economic ambition and the flexing of its military might?
They are using all aspects of national power to try to establish China—they would say reestablish China—as the central power in Asia. The name for China in Chinese means "Central Kingdom." They are trying to establish China as this Central Kingdom.

In the last year we've seen the Chinese President Xi Jinping announcing programs like the New Maritime Silk Road that are designed to insert China into Asia's economic and financial mechanisms and to draw the region in more closely with China. The military is being used in the East China Sea and the South China Sea as a way to flex China's muscles and assert its claims over disputer waters and islands, but also as a diplomatic tool to put pressure on the region and demonstrate that China is rising and that the region needs to grant it a greater degree of power.

These disputes go back centuries. China has a dispute with Vietnam over the Spratly Islands. It has been going back and forth with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. These feuds are nothing new. What is new is China has a greater ability to assert its claims, and increased economic power. America views these ongoing disputes as bellwethers over whether [China] will follow a revisionist path or plug in with the existing international system and contribute to its health and success.

Do you see China becoming more aggressive in the next few years?
Absolutely. China has been conducting a multi-decade effort of military modernization that has been geared toward asserting its power along its periphery. It has primarily been focused on contingencies related to Taiwan, but increasingly it is incorporating scenarios related to the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea. They've been developing aircraft carriers, which will have limited capabilities in a conflict with Taiwan, but have significant implications for the South China Sea, especially as a tool for coercion and military intelligence.

Whether or not China acts more assertively has to do with Beijing's calculations as to how their military capabilities relate to those of the US and the willingness of other countries in the region—Japan, Vietnam—to push back.

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Illustration by Sam Taylor

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