National Security & Defense

Is War with China Now Inevitable?

USS George Washington in the South China Sea, 2012 (US Navy)
At the very least, Obama’s inaction made it more likely.

China is acting like it wants a war. It probably doesn’t, but it doesn’t want the United States to know that. China’s communist leaders know they must keep growing the economy and improving the lives of their citizens, or risk revolution and the loss of power. They also know that they are on a clock: Within the next ten years, China’s recently amended one-child policy will invert the country’s economy, forcing that one child to pay the medical and retirement costs of his two parents and four grandparents. Under these circumstances, the state will need to begin allocating additional resources toward the care of its citizens and away from its burgeoning national-security apparatus. China has to lock down its sphere of influence soon, becoming great before becoming old. It’s time for Chinese leaders to go big or go home, and they’re slowly growing desperate.

The United States, for its own part, has not helped ward off the regional threat that desperation poses. Its policy of strategic patience and its prioritizing of Chinese cooperation on nuclear issues to the exclusion of local security concerns have created an almost palpable sense of growing confidence in the Chinese among nervous U.S. allies nearby. The lack of credible Freedom of Navigation operations since 2012 and the Obama administration’s failure to offer any significant resistance in the face of China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea have emboldened the Chinese to press ahead with their planned campaign to claim sovereignty over those waters. Such claims threaten the national interests of the United States and directly impinge upon the security of treaty allies and partners in the region.

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China’s actions are representative of a new phenomenon that is increasingly characterizing the foreign policies of authoritarian states around the world. Like states such as North Korea, Iran, and Russia, China has recognized that America is trapped by its doctrinal adherence to “phasing,” the method by which it goes to war as delineated in Joint Publication 3-0, “Joint Operations,” first published in the early 1990s. As its name suggests, the method lays out six major phases of war: phase 0 (shaping the environment), phase I (deterring the enemy), phase II (seizing the initiative), phase III (dominating the enemy), phase IV (stabilizing the environment), and phase V (enabling civil authority). It’s a step-by-step approach that has come to dominate American tactical and strategic thought.

The problem is that when you write the book on modern warfare, someone is going to read it, and those that seek to challenge the United States most certainly have. They know that U.S. war planners are all focused on phase III — the “Dominate the Enemy” phase — and treat the separation between phases as impermeable barriers. America’s concentration on phase III has allowed rising competitors to expand their influence through maneuvers that thwart U.S. interests in the preceding three phases, maneuvers cumulatively grouped in a category known as “Hybrid” warfare. Authoritarian states have mastered the art of walking right up to the border of phase III without penetrating it, slowly eroding American credibility without triggering a kinetic response.

#share#Nations work out their differences through consistent and credible interactions. Exercises and real-world operations allow states to define their interests and then defend them. Competitor nations take these opportunities to test the will of states they are challenging. The consistency of these activities allows tensions between states to be released at a constant rate, so that pressures never rise to dangerous levels. But when a nation vacates the arena of competition for too long or fails to conduct credible exercises, as the United States has done in the Western Pacific over the past five years, strains begin to warp the fabric of the international order. China’s construction of artificial islands as a means of extending its claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea have left the United States with few options.

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The U.S. can continue its policy of sending mixed messages, dispatching individual warships on “innocent-passage” profiles that come within twelve miles of the islands while avoiding normal military operations, but this will only play into China’s plan to slowly boil the frog as it continues arming the islands, establishing a new security status quo in the region. China’s strategy mirrors Russia’s actions in Georgia, the Crimea, and Ukraine. There, Russian forces operated below the U.S.’s radar, conducting phase I and II operations and standing pat in the face of international sanctions, confident that neither the United States nor its NATO allies really wanted to risk war to re-institute the regional order that had just been upended. China clearly feels that time is on its side so long as it only incrementally expands its influence, avoiding direct confrontation with the United States.

Such an approach will, of course, leave the United States no choice but to suddenly and directly confront China at some critical point in the future. America’s adherence to its founding principles of free navigation and free trade, not to mention its belief in a free sea, will not allow it to tolerate a Chinese assertion of sovereignty over such a large swath of heretofore-open water. Perhaps when the time comes the United States could simply land an international force of marines on one of the artificial islands as part of an amphibious exercise. As the islands are not Chinese sovereign territory, there is no reason not to use them as the staging ground for an international exercise. And such an exercise would force China’s hand, making it choose between resisting the assembled international marines with armed force or acknowledging the illegitimacy of its own claims.

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While some might view such American action as too confrontational, it was made necessary by the Obama administration’s failure to nip China’s ambitions in the bud. America will now have to skip a phase, taking strong and abrupt action to reset the status quo. As things stand, should China suddenly move to militarize the Scarborough Shoals just off of the Philippines, it is unclear if the United States would defend its ally, in keeping with its treaty commitments, or simply dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to insist on one thing while his bosses’ actions demonstrate the opposite. Such continuous, systematic acts of accommodation as have been demonstrated with Iran, Syria, and Russia invite conflict and ultimately lead to large-scale major war. Maintenance of a strong military and the upholding of our founding core principles remain the surest guarantee of peace.

— Jerry Hendrix is a retired Navy Captain, a former director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments program at the Center for a New American Security.


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