Why does “China-US War” become a hot search in America” published in People’s Liberation Army Daily on June 8, 2017, provides some insights into PLA”s judgement on the potential of a war between China and the US.

Translation REN Zegang,   Adam Shi Chen

Why does “China-US War” become a hot search in America

April 2017, the US National Interest published an article called “How America and China Could Stumble to War” written by Harvard University Scholar Graham Allison. The article is speculating that a small spark in south China sea, Taiwan strait and east China sea can lead to a major war between the US and China, even the two sides are reluctant to face military conflicts.

This argument is not merely presented by Allison. Harry Harris, Admiral US Navy, vowed to be ready to open fire with China “tonight” on May 2016. July 2016, RAND corporate produced a report “U.S., China and an Unthinkable War”, which delivered 4 hypothesised scenarios of a war between the US and China with variables of intensity (mild or severe) and duration (from a few days to a year more).

December 2016, award winning journalist and film maker John Pilger brought his latest documentary “The Coming War on China” to the world, this eye-opening documentary reveals that the US run a strategic military plan aimed at encircling China by 2020. The film concluded that the US will not waste its military strength, logically the war with China is coming.

The literatures mentioned above are only a tip of iceberg as speculations on US-China war in the US are flourish. Why is this topic so hot? What secretes of it could be hiding under the surface?

Theory of a declining US”

There is a saying in US military that “the more we decline, the more we want to seek for war”. Therefore, it is a tradition for American strategists to exaggerate the decline of the US which are currently represented in three aspects.

Firstly, decline of the US military power in near future. It is no doubt that the US military power is still on top of the world, especially in terms of strategic projection of its military power through aircraft carriers, satellites, fifth generation of aircrafts and aerial tankers. However, the US military dominance is being threatened due to massive cut in the defence spending, which has reduced from 691 billion dollar in 2010 to 574 billion dollar in 2017 by 17%.

Meanwhile, the ratio of the US defence spending to the government budget decreased from its peak of 20.7% in 2008 to 14.3% in 2016; the share of the defence spending to the US GDP dropped from 4.7% in 2008 to 3.1% in 2016. Military analyst Kathleen Black revealed that the reduction of the US defence spending has averaged 5.5% annually in this period, the highest since the finish of Korea war. The significant reduction of military spending might put the US military to a situation similar to the aftermath of Vietnam war:  on the surface the US military was still the strongest in the world but hollowing within.

John Richardson, US navy Admiral commented in his testimony at the congress that due to lack of money, the US military had suspended the modernisation at a few pivotal fields which are essential for the US military to stay at the top.

Frank Kendall, deputy secretary of Defence also mentioned that though the US military was satisfied with the Third Offset Strategy and the result of initial implementation of this strategy has been positive, its future would be doomed due to lack of money. If this trend continues, the US nuclear and conventional power would encounter a significant decline by the end of 2020.

Currently the US is facing with unprecedented challenges at three fronts: East Asia, East Europe and Middle East. The US think tank,  Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment published a report “Avoiding a Strategy of Bluff: The Crisis of American Military Primacy” in March 2017. It stated that in east Asia, by taking advantage of rapid economic growth and geographical position China’s military has become capable of challenging the dominance of the US in the west Pacific, specifically the First island Chain which begins at the Kuril Islands, in Russia’s Sakhalin Oblast region , through Japan, Taiwan and finishes towards the northern portion of the Philippines. An expert of Rand corporation pointed out that the relative strength of China and the US in East Asia is soon approaching a tipping point at which the US position will be pushed back.

The situation is even more serious in eastern Europe, the U.S. military officials and some independent military analysts agree that the Russian army in eastern Europe has outplayed their NATO counterparts both in number and equipment. In the Middle East, the US still hold military supremacy, but Iran’s ballistic missile has posed a great threat to the US military. Russian involvement to the region has also hampered the US military capability. A report of the US Defense Department pointed out that war with Iran would not be “easy”. Once the war would break out, Iran could launch ballistic and guided missiles attacking the US bases, fleets and its allies in the Gulf region. The US military analysts stated that although the Iranian tactics would not make Iran a winner, it would be enough to inflict a high cost on the US and make outcome of the war uncertain.

All the scenarios mentioned above have the effect of eroding the cooperation between the US and its allies.  Once the allies lost their confidence in America’s capability to fulfil its obligation of protection, the foundation of the US global dominance will be shaken.

Philippine President Du Teer’s assertion that because of the failure of the US in Asia Pacific, the Philippines must be allying with China and Russia has been widely interpreted as a symbol that the US is losing its international authority. This has aroused alarmist response from some American military analysts who claim that use of force has become an attractive option in response to China’s challenge.

In summary, the asymmetry between the US global dominance and its military strength is increasing obvious and expanding. This has created a sense of crisis in the US which can be seen frequently in politicians’ speeches, documents, news reports and literatures.

America needs “imaginary enemy”

Historically the US has always been active in search of “imaginary enemy”. Americans who grew up with crisis believe that: “civilization can only survive by constantly exposed to foreign challenges.” This may explain, the history of the United States is a process of constantly updating and finding its “imaginary enemy”. The national security strategy is constantly formed by comparing the US strength with “the others”. The implementation of the strategy has enabled the US to defeat its “imaginary enemy” ranging from Britain, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and to others.

After Cold War, a group of American politicians and strategists have gradually set the target at China. From their point of view, China is a perfect “enemy” because of its potential. In 2001, China’s GDP was US$1.3248 trillion, only 12.9% of the U.S.; In 2008, China’s GDP was US$4.5281 trillion, 31.6% of the US; In 2015, China’s GDP reached US$11.0201 trillion, 61.2% of the US. Many Americans worry that based on its economic power China is on the course of challenging the US global dominance.

The Pentagon documents “The National Military Strategy of the United States of America 2015” and “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016” labelled China among the others as a threat to the US. It was highlighted that China’s military budget grew at an average of 9.8% annually from 2006 to 2015. The reports made following comments that China’s military capability has grown beyond the needs for the Taiwan issue and is bound to change the balance in Asia-Pacific. China is building a military capability for the future conflict with the US.

After Trump administration came to office, Daniel R. Coats, the newly appointed director of National Intelligence, in his report to the senate “Worldwide Threat Assessment”, placed China as the country of the highest level of threat to the US. The report particularly emphasized that China is to increase its sphere of influence in Asia through “Belt and Road “initiative and militarize the islands in south China sea.

In accordance with acclaimed international political scholar George Modelski’s  long cycle theory, a dominant world power can hold its position in average for 100 years through the cycle of world war, international dominance, decline in authority, and power decentralization. If this theory is true the US dominance would end by 2045 given its rise after World War II in 1945. Currently the US is struggling with everything from economy to military, it is logical that the US will take ‘last chance’ to formulate and implement strategies preventing the US from declining.

“Pivot to Asia”, “Air-sea Battle Combat Theory”, and “Third Offset Strategy” are the products of the US efforts for holding its global dominance. In the budget outline 2018, Trump administration plead to increase defense spending to US$603 billion, which is US$54 billion higher than the maximum level set by the congress. Senator John McCain and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment made assessments suggesting the U.S. navy to have more than 330 warships and nearly 900 fighters, The US Air Force must have 60 fighter squadrons and 1500 war crafts; the US Army must have 490 thousands troops and Marine Corps should at least have 200 thousands men. This reflects the desire of the US to hold its military primacy in the face of challenges.

War between China and the United States?

It will be hard to imagine the war between China and the US would break out. Even if without the use of nuclear weapon, the casualty will be huge. Further it will inflict terrible economic cost on both sides. According to a RAND report in 2016, the US GDP would drop by 10%, while China’s GDP would drop by 35%. If use of nuclear weapons is considered, the result will be a total destruction to both sides.

However, this should not be interpreted as the war will not happen. Numerous examples in history show that war often breaks out when the leaders of nations are trying to avoid it.

Nowadays,  “Thucydides trap” is often referred for the analysis of the relationship between the US and China. The core of “Thucydides trap” is that a rising power will cause fear in an established power which escalates their conflicts toward war. Graham Allison further argued that while “Thucydides trap” forms the foundation to a confrontational relationship between the US and China, Taiwan issue and territory disputes in east China sea, south China sea could be the match igniting a major clash.

The report “Avoiding a Strategic of Bluff: the Crisis of American Military Primacy” reflects a judgement upon which many American strategies agree with: the sooner of the conflict between the US and China, the better for the US. It is argued that if a China-US war happened at beginning of this century, the US would easily win; if it happens today, it would be difficult for the US to win; if it happens in the future, the winner would be hard to predict.

The report also made bold prediction that the war would start in the Taiwan strait as early as in 2020 or even 2017. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of US Army commented that the war would put the US military in the most difficult position since the second world war.

Basically, the speculation of war between China and the US are mostly exaggerated and alarmist, but it shows a high level of vigilance on the part of the US on China’s rise. Americans are always good at sensing the threats, even subtle ones, and then develop corresponding strategies.

However, extreme level of vigilance will cause unnecessary anxiety and grief. According to George Modelski’s Long Cycle theory, no matter how hard of the efforts, the US can not avoid its decline. If the US persists with massive military expansion in a time that its economy is still sluggish, it will likely end up in a situation described by Paul Kennedy in his well-known book “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers”:  “military overstretch and a concomitant relative decline are the consistent threats facing powers whose ambitions and security requirements are greater than their resource base can provide for.”