As China rises, its economic, technological, and military strength will increase. There’s fear of an impending clash with American military forces and its allies in the Indo-Pacific area, especially in the South China Sea. Will this lead to a final showdown between a rising aspiring hegemon to displace a waning one? Will Pax Americana give way to Pax Sinica across the world?
Although it’s impossible to predict the future and definitively discern true or eventual intentions, it’s much more likely that the buildup in Chinese military strength is more defensive in nature in order to raise the costs of American intervention in its sphere of influence, rather than of an offensive nature and a Chinese aim to usurp America’s role as the world’s hegemon.
- I will consider here how the “absolute” military strength between China and America is irrelevant, provided that China maintains a “relative” military strength that only needs to be a small fraction of American and Allied power. In this context, the military posturing is superficial but unfortunately necessary, and irrelevant towards much larger military confrontation.
- I will also consider some examples from Chinese history where China was in a much more powerful position than its current position relative to America, and it did not exercise that power to the fullest extent.
What is the Use of Military Force?
“War is the continuation of politics by other means.”
— Carl von Clausewitz
Example from Vietnam
To contextualize how a conflict between America and China would play out, let’s first consider a historical example from the Vietnam War.
At the end of the Vietnam War in Hanoi in April 1975, Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr. was head of the American delegation negotiating the drawdown of hostilities. There's a notable exchange between Colonel Summers and his North Vietnamese counterpart Colonel Tu.
“You know, you never defeated us on the battle field.” Colonel Summers said.
“That may be so, but it’s also irrelevant.” Colonel Tu responded.
The North Vietnamese knew that it could not stand toe-to-toe against America and the US-backed South Vietnam. Indeed, the North Vietnamese suffered much heavier “absolute” losses from more sophisticated American hardware that claimed total Air and Naval superiority, as well as superiority in conventional and non-guerilla ground forces. However, because the North Vietnamese were willing to bear much more pain and loss, it had a distinct “relative” advantage in spheres other beyond pure war and in the political realm.
Indeed, the North Vietnamese were fighting for their very survival in their own homeland, while America was fighting to change political circumstances through a military intervention that came with ticking clock with a short time limit. An observer at that time knew the broader unpopular political nature of the Vietnam War and how it was rending the very fabric of American society, and thus the war was unsustainable.
Time was on the North Vietnamese side, so long as America did not use thermonuclear weapons. The only possibility for America to ever use those nukes would be in a mutually assured destruction exchange with the Soviet Union, or if it were in a losing war as millions of North Vietnamese and Soviet troops were landing and streaming onto the West Coast of America. The thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union was much more likely, and so the outcome of the Vietnam War was a foregone conclusion.
Chinese Strategic Bearing
Absolute vs. Relative Advantage
If the Chinese were to study and learn from the Vietnam conflict and the exchange between American Colonel Summers and Vietnamese Colone Tu, it would see the following:
- Absolute Advantage
Building up its own military power for the strategic aim of defeating the American military is impossible for at least a few decades, and is irrelevant.
- Relative Advantage
Rather, the true winning strategy for strategic interests is to achieve the capability to be strong enough to raise the costs and prolong the period of military conflict with America and its Allies, so that political and economic pressures would start to override the military context.
Time is on China’s Side
The vast superiority of the American military is more suited for a quick and decisive victory, and in that realm, there are not even close competitors. Assuming there is an actual military conflict and one side loses, it would definitely not be the American side. So how would the aftermath look like?
It would be absurd to consider an occupying American force since the sheer scale in numbers of people, even when enhanced by allied or UN manpower, would make any occupation of major population centers of China completely unrealistic.
The administration of a transitional government into a Republican Democracy after a regime change does not enjoy America’s political or popular support since America is already overstrained from a conflict close to two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq trying for just that. And this doesn’t even factor in the roughly two orders of magnitude more people.
Control would be eventually handed back to China and the current posture and conflict would eventually arise again, with perhaps greater Chinese animosity, bellicosity, greater strategic bearing for a renewed conflict in a few decades time.
Blocking Bets and Spoiler Attacks
There’s a concept from poker called a “blocking bet.”
- Non-technical version
It’s similar to a small jab to tag or bloody the nose of a superior opponent, with the aim of making them pause or make a more difficult decision.
- Technical version
When you’re out of position in no-limit hold’em poker on the river with a mediocre hand with deep stacks and you don’t want to face a much larger bet, you make a small bet to add complexity to the opponents decision, hoping that they just call and you can get a cheap showdown of cards.
The analogous concept in geopolitics is that of a “spoiler attack,” that works on the same principle as the blocking bet. Basically, when confronting an equal or more powerful military force, and you want to buy yourself time and/or don’t want to be forced to commit greater resources in a larger and decisive conflict, you may initiate a small “spoiler attack” of smaller scale to halt the larger military offensive.
Thus it would appear that any lead up to a larger hot conflict between China and America would involve spoiler attacks from the Chinese side, to buy time for political and diplomatic maneuvering. Spoiler attacks can be passive and active.
An example of a passive “spoiler attack” might involve building the artificial islands in the South China Sea. An example of an active spoiler attack might involve action in Hong Kong, which has many economic interests, or action in Taiwan to choose the focus. A spoiler attack on American or allied military assets may be inadvisable because they may actually escalate the stakes.
Thus, the build-up in Chinese military capability is not to challenge American military dominance or world hegemony, but rather to achieve the following aims:
- Raise the relative costs intentionally
- Take initiative in defining location, nature, and scope
Historical Chinese Actions
To contextualize the above analysis, it may be useful to consider three examples from Chinese history. Two are more recent, the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 and the Korean War. The third is from the 1400s when China was a world superpower.
Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979
This was also known as the Third Indochina War where China invaded Vietnam to punish the Vietnamese invasion of China’s client state Cambodia. It may be useful to consider Vietnam at the time as playing a role similar to Cuba as a client state of the Soviet Union, where the Soviets could use Vietnam to encircle China. Interestingly, China got along better with the United States than a fellow Communist superpower in the Soviet Union.
Lasting only 4 weeks in 1979 from February 17 to March 16, this little known conflict claimed roughly 60,000 casualties, equally split between 30,000 dead and 30,000 injured, on both the Chinese side and the Vietnamese side according to Western estimates. The Chinese and Vietnamese estimates are more skewed toward their own sides and against the other side, with both sides claiming victory.
Clearly, China had enough power to invade and occupy Vietnam, but then Supreme Leader Deng Xiapeng’s objective was reportedly to have said he wanted to “spank” the enemy to teach it a lesson to behave, rather than to annihilate it and/or to occupy it.
Korean War in Early-1950s
This was a much larger war, but it ended with China entering on the side of the North Koreans to fight the American-lead United Nations Force, and drive it out of the Korean peninsula altogether. Of course, this ended with a stalemate that continues to this day.
In many ways, Chinese entry into the war was for defensive purposes to ensure a buffer area from UN and American encroachment. The same could be seen with its orientation today. It is not to defeat America and its Allies, but simply to have veto power in foreign actions.
Ming Dynasty Treasure Expeditions
Between 1405 to 1433, almost a century before Columbus discovered the New World, the Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He representing the Chinese Ming Dynasty commanded seven expeditions that sailed through Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Africa for trade. These expeditions fielded about 30,000 men over 300 ships, compared to Columbus’ 300 men in 3 much small ships.
Although there is no guarantee that this orientation towards trade and peaceful expansion will exist in present-day Communist China, it provides a historical precedent from when China was a dominant superpower in the world and had the engineering, organization, and power to act more expansively. With that power, it did not seek to invade, conquer, occupy, or invade other much weaker areas.