On August 19, an American P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft, on routine patrol in international airspace off the east coast of China, was intercepted and harassed by a Chinese J-11 jet fighter. The Chinese plane’s combative pilot even made an extremely risky barrel roll just 50 feet above the American aircraft. No one can say what might have happened had the two collided and hit the sea in a fireball.
Washington protested only in a routine manner, but it is well known that our military and civilian leaders were shaken by the incident.
The Chinese response to the incident was belligerent: We must cease our patrols (which are legal according to international law). If we do not, they will engage in more and steadily riskier harassment.
Their leaders are confident that we will blink first, as we have sometimes done. This time, however, their assurance may be dangerously misplaced.
Coming as the latest installment in a continuing, dangerous pattern, this recent, chilling encounter has precipitated some thoughts hitherto out of bounds. The long-unthinkable question has been forced upon us: Is China trying to start a war?
Official Washington will hear nothing of the possibility. Friendship is on track, with the long chain of incidents doing no more than to “slow” what is described as a “warming trend” in relations. Top Navy commanders insistently attribute the harassment to unspecified “rogue elements” in the Chinese military.
Our low-key official reaction has not changed either. It has been consistently optimistic even in the three years that have passed since China surprised the world by claiming sovereignty over the entire South China Sea — which is a third again as big as the Mediterranean — –while attempting to regulate maritime and air traffic and continuing to claim and occupy minor features (reefs, rocks, and so forth) in the sea that are in fact much closer to other countries, which also claim them.
Washington nevertheless attempts to carry on business as usual, or better than usual, with China. Thus we warmly welcomed her navy to participate in the annual Rim of the Pacific naval exercises this past July — while excluding, for “human rights” reasons, our long-time ally Thailand, which has processed quantities of American diplomatic and military dirty laundry over the decades. Thailand is currently administered by a relatively benign military government, as happens from time to time — but even so remains incomparably freer than China.
What is going on? An objective observer might say that no amount of contrary evidence can dissuade Washington from its absolute conviction that, one way or another, China will ultimately emerge as a friend to the United States and her allies — “a responsible stakeholder” in regional security, as then–deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick so optimistically put it in 2005.
Suppose, however, that this belief in eventual friendship, the bedrock assumption of our perennial China policy, turns out to be completely wrong? Suppose China is in fact a “revisionist power” intent on changing the political configuration of Asia by a combination of military and diplomatic means?
China watchers debate whether, in our pursuit of China as a friend and partner, the United States has ever actually responded with a flat “No” to any Chinese request or demand. Secrecy prevents a definitive answer, but a loose consensus is that in fact we never have. Our consistent approach has been to find out what China wants and then ask how much we can safely yield.
If true, this means that we have been teaching Beijing precisely the wrong lesson since diplomatic relations began some 40 years ago. Seeking to be friendly and attractive in every way, we signal dissatisfaction in subtle words, couched in a broader rhetoric of friendship. This the Chinese interpret not as intended, but as demonstrating that we are gullible, willing to overlook the obvious, and regularly able to tell ourselves a story that gets Beijing off the hook for almost anything — while sparing ourselves the need to reach a firm conclusion about what is really happening, not to mention how to respond.
To be sure, President Obama and other officials have paid important visits to our major ally Japan, and to other countries in the region. Obama’s partly Indonesian upbringing furthermore seems to have inoculated him against the single-minded China focus from which so many of our leaders have suffered. We have also begun “pivoting” some of our dwindling military assets to the Pacific. Late in August, we sent a second carrier battle group.
So we have taken actions, careful and tentative, that seek to discourage China from aggression and assist our allies — but with the discouragement not overly loud, and the assistance just enough to keep allies onboard.
This strategy may well prove to be all wrong. History has taught us over and over that states often start wars grievously miscalculating how their adversary will react. The Japanese believed that their attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 would drive the United States to the negotiating table and a compromise peace. After his time as Germany’s ambassador in London, Ribbentrop told Hitler that the British were worms who would certainly never fight.
#page#As Beijing harasses the United States, talks tough in meetings, and ridicules us as a has-been power, one may ask whether the Chinese leaders fully grasp the meaning of the phrase “war with the United States of America and her allies.”
Let us be clear: The phrase denotes utter destruction. In a real war with the United States, China’s shiny new fleet would quickly be sunk. Her advanced new air force would be driven from the skies. Her envy-of-the-world economy would be crippled and largely destroyed. The Chinese government that had, intentionally or unintentionally, brought on the catastrophe would be humiliated and probably fall.
For these reasons, might it not be prudent for President Obama and his administration to spell these facts out now, in black letters, for once clearly and unmistakably, to make certain China does not delude herself and make a fatal mistake?
The United States has been a great power in Asia for well over a century. She has fought and won a major war in the Pacific, against Japan. Under no circumstances is she going to be shooed away by Chinese challenges. Quite the opposite: She will stiffen her position.
Nor will Washington be induced by such means or worse to break her key alliances — with Japan, which is already becoming a superpower, or with South Korea, which controls all maritime access to the northern region of China, or with the Philippines, now hopelessly outclassed militarily but proving an unexpected headache for Beijing by mounting determined challenges to China in the international legal system. Nor will Washington walk away from her regularly reiterated “unofficial” relations with Taiwan.
The Chinese leaders do not understand the tightness of our alliance system, or the fact that countries, such as India, that are not U.S. allies are embarking on major military buildups to counter Chinese threats. To the contrary, the Chinese leaders imagine that they have already successfully broken Washington’s connection with Taiwan by frightening us with some missile firings in 1996. They identify the next American alliance they will cut as the one with Japan, and they are now applying themselves to this task. (“Break his alliances” is counseled by the ancient strategist Sun Tzu.)
They seem not to understand that even without the United States, these countries — Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — are all well armed, and threshold nuclear powers.
Twenty years ago this author had a wide-ranging discussion with the educated and cosmopolitan former Chinese foreign minister Huang Hua, who died four years ago. Congenial as the minister was, he proved absolutely immovable with respect to China’s extraterritorial claims to the South China Sea and distant territories.
Furthermore, one does not build in a matter of weeks an almost state-of-the-art military such as China now possesses. Her first production facilities were no doubt begun more than 30 years ago, at which time the outlines of a plan were also formulated.
In the interval, China has “played” the United States, helping us convince ourselves that no cause existed for concern, indeed inducing us to enable her military rise in many ways. As Sun Tzu observes, “all warfare is based on deception.”
The time has now come for the United States to demonstrate beyond any doubt that we have not been deceived. To say clearly: Yes, we will fight if attacked and not slink away as China’s leaders envision. Yes, we will support our allies wholeheartedly — some now formidable powers themselves. No, we will not give in to nuclear blackmail, should it be attempted — though the actual use of nuclear weapons would be madness. No, China will not win easily or painlessly, as she seems to imagine. Rather, our coalition will render her powerless.
These propositions are nothing but the simple truth — they are what will likely follow if one of Beijing’s aggressive military initiatives goes badly wrong. But we have never made them clear in writing. The velvety language of diplomacy has, so far, ruled. The time is more than ripe, however, for clear, deadly serious, and straight talking, to China and to the world. The words of a single solemn declaration without loopholes would themselves constitute a powerful deterrent.
Deterrence, of course, is the most reliable way to prevent war. Deterrence is indispensable now: not next week, or next year, or next incident. Otherwise, as history teaches repeatedly, the situation will become worse and worse, until it cannot be saved except by bloodshed.
– Mr. Waldron is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the department of history at the University of Pennsylvania.