The United States risks getting into another Cold War with China

China is not Sauron.

To paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country for Old Men:” If China isn’t the enemy, it’ll do until the enemy gets here.

When military leaders talk about China, they sound like they are ready to rip off their shirts and challenge the People’s Liberation Army to a Mortal Kombat-style tournament refereed by pit bulls high on meth.

Don’t believe me? Let’s listen to Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, who recently described China as “the greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st Century.”

“In stark contrast to our free and open vision, the communist party of China promotes a closed and an authoritarian system through internal oppression and external aggression,” Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9. “China’s pernicious approach to the region includes a whole of party effort to coerce, corrupt, and co-opt governments, businesses, organizations, and people of the Indo-Pacific.”

Davidson warned that as China increases its military buildup through 2049, the military balance in the Pacific is becoming increasingly unfavorable to the United States and its allies – so much so that he is advocating putting more missile defenses on Guam, an American territory about 2,500 miles from Beijing.

“With this imbalance, we are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response,” Davidson said.

While I am not disputing any of the points that Davidson made, he sounded like he was prepared to end his testimony by breaking a beer bottle and yelling, “Weakness invites aggression!”

If the United States is not already engaged in a new Cold War with China then it’s getting pretty damn close. Just replace the word “China” with “the Soviet Union” in Davidson’s testimony and you’ll magically be transported back to the 1950s.

In the military’s defense: China has been equally bellicose. Last year, the Chinese air force released a video that appeared to show a nuclear-capable H-6 bomber launching a missile at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam. (The video was replete with slow-motion shots and inspirational music that made it almost as cheesy as the old recruiting commercial where a Marine fought a lava monster.)

And no one should underestimate the Chinese military, which has the largest standing ground force and navy in the world, according to the Defense Department’s most recent report on Chinese military power.  

“China’s rapid military modernization and increasing assertiveness makes it the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system,” said Michael Chase, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China. “This is why Secretary Austin has identified China as the Department’s pacing challenge, and the focus of our efforts to develop the right operational concepts, capabilities, and plans to bolster deterrence and maintain our competitive edge.”

James Kitfield recently revealed in Yahoo! News that the U.S. military not only routinely loses against China in classified war games, but China has been winning such conflicts more quickly in simulations over the past decade.

“Whenever we war-gamed a Taiwan scenario over the years, our Blue Team routinely got its ass handed to it, because in that scenario time is a precious commodity and it plays to China’s strength in terms of proximity and capabilities,” David Ochmanek of the RAND Corporation said in the Yahoo! News story.

As it builds more aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, the Chinese military will have the power to intimidate countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines as well as the ability to conduct operations elsewhere in the world, said Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Think about the difference that such carriers and amphibs would have made in the past during episodes like the 1998 riots that targeted ethnic Chinese in Indonesia or the risks to Chinese workers and interests in Africa during 2000s episodes in Sudan or Libya,” said Singer, co-author of Ghost Fleet.

Meanwhile, the United States finds itself in a situation that is reminiscent of Great Britain during both World Wars, when the Royal Navy had so many commitments across the globe that increasing the number of ships in one region meant taking them away from somewhere else, he said.

Even if the United States and China are not yet playing the same global chess game that defined the Cold War, the rivalry between the two countries is dangerous and has the possibility of becoming a hot war.

It is worth noting that when the United States imposed an oil embargo on Imperial Japan in 1940 for occupying French colonies in Indochina, it inadvertently helped Japanese military leaders make the case for war to secure oil fields in the Dutch East Indies.

Unless the U.S. government carefully manages its relationship with China, it is at risk of “sleepwalking” into a conflict, said retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and co-author of the novel 2034, in which the Chinese and Iranians simultaneously attack U.S. forces, sparking a third world war that ultimately also involves Russia and India.

“As China advances in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonic cruise missiles, highly capable warships, we will see our military deterrence deteriorate. I think we approach a moment of maximum danger about 15 years from now, which is why we wrote the book,” Stavridis said.

So we’re all clear: I am not an apologist for China or its ruling communist party. But there is a difference between being clear-eyed and objective about China as a national security threat and treating China as if it were Sauron from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It does not appear that anyone in the Pentagon realizes that a conflict with China would be a total war – which the United States has not waged since 1945. The last time the U.S. military fought a war of that scale in the Pacific, it ended with the world’s first nuclear strikes. 

There are far more nuclear weapons in the world today.

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Featured image: People’s Liberation Army tank regiments are shown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. (Kyodo via AP Images.)

Jeff Schogol

Jeff Schogolis the senior Pentagon reporter for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years. You can email him at schogol@taskandpurpose.com, direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter, or reach him on WhatsApp and Signal at 703-909-6488. Contact the author here.

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