Much of the discussion of potential Chinese aggression focuses on their weaponry. New and faster missiles can sound scary and fast fighter jets have captured imaginations for a hundred years. Sometimes this fear might be entirely justified, or sometimes it can just be fanciful imaginings.
But potential war involves more than weapons, it includes the strategy to use those weapons and ability to seize and control specific objectives like disputed territory. Thus it is very important to consider the possible future events surrounding China and this article will briefly examine the possible causes of war and their likely outcome.
China’s Geopolitical Perspective
China has always considered some territories as tributaries or vital for their national security. These territories include areas like the Korean peninsula, Mongolia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and basically a line running south and south east from Japan all the way to the South China Sea. It is no surprise that past wars and incidents have centered on these territories.
When Mao Zedong and the Communists assumed power in 1949, they attacked Korea a short time later, in 1950. In the same decade they seized several islands owned by the Nationalist government in Taiwan. Chinese officials laid the rhetorical groundwork for a campaign and seemed poised to invade Taiwan but for the intervention of American carriers in the Taiwan Strait Crisis (1954-1955). China fought India in their Western border and faced off against the Soviet Union during the Ussuri River skirmish (1969). Finally, they invaded Vietnam and fought their own bloody war there in 1979. Despite often repeated Chinese claims that they are set upon by rapacious and greedy Westerners, China has fought offensive preemptive wars with every one of their neighbors and analysts should plan accordingly in 2020.
What Would Likely Happen in a Confrontation With China?
There are still tensions in many of the locations listed above. In the East China Sea China regularly performs provocative military exercises. These usually include practice finding and destroying ships in combined naval exercises with their advanced fighter jets. Japan has had to scramble their jets almost 1000 times in 2018. The fighters move at a high rate of speed and in a confrontational manner, which increases the risk they may crash into one another and cause an international incident. In a confrontation, both sides would accuse each other of reckless behavior, and the Chinese, just like at the Ussuri River Skirmish with the Soviet Union, could send a small force under the cover of darkness to seize disputed islands as punishment against Japan. After this escalation the US would have to speed a carrier to the region, or another one, to support their allies. They would try to mediate but would be operating during a period of intense interstate relations, and with tension so high it could easily cause one side to escalate into full scale war.
The South China Sea is a key trade artery but is also disputed by at least four Asian countries. All sides have taken atolls and turned them into artificial islands, but China has taken it to another level. They are building up islands and then placing planes, defensive missiles, and carrier carrying missiles there. In response, the US in sends ships through the area on freedom of navigation patrols. With multiple overlapping claims of control among various powers in South Asia for resources like fish and oil, it’s quite amazing there hasn’t been a violent incident yet. The spark could be China forcing a US ship off course that causes damage. It could be a violent incident between Philippine and Chinese fisherman. In this spark a Chinese coast guard vessel detains and even kills Filipino fishermen. In response, the Philippine invokes its mutual defense treaty with the US requiring armed intervention. Since China has a habit of using preemptive force to settle territorial disputes, they might use the ports and landing strips on their artificial islands to forcibly eject rival civilian and naval vessels and essentially force arriving US assets to retake the islands.
If the US did not then they will signal that disputes in the region are settled by force which would naturally favor stronger powers like China. If the US did, they would risk starting a full scale war with China.
Powderkeg: China vs. Taiwan
Finally, there is a danger of a Chinese conflict with Taiwan. Discussed above, China has commenced military operations several times that appeared as though they were preparing to seize Taiwan. In the 1950s the Chinese civil war was recently concluded, and mainland China seized several Taiwan islands nearest to the coast. It was only the threats of nuclear retaliation from the US and massive US force on at least three occasions that prevented invasion. China considers Taiwan a part of Chinese territory and unfinished business from their civil war.
Thus, they find transit through the Taiwan strait especially galling, though the US responds that it operates in open waters under international law. China might want to flex their muscles in what they consider their own territory, and to prove to allies and domestic critics after their disastrous handling of the Corona virus that they are strong. They have sophisticated anti-ship cruise ship missiles that are even nicknamed “carrier killers.” Scenario: on a dark and stormy night in rough waters they strike unexpectedly and score an astounding hit. Before things escalate, they help rescue the survivors and consider the message sent. Similar to other scenarios, America would quickly steam additional forces to the region. With China not showing any indications they want further war, and the American public outraged at how a carrier could be so cavalierly lost in a proactive action, the US would be reluctant to start a war over an incident that is already in past, and with China potentially holding the people they rescued as hostages they would have leverage over the narrative.
China is a Master of Sudden, Surprise Action
As you can see, many of these incidents involve some sort of surprise by China. It is their most common strategic maneuver in the last 70 years and gives them several advantages. Their provocations in the South China Sea and along their borders produces alert fatigue where Western analysts keep predicting doom only to have an uneasy status quo continue. This means that China can pick the time and location of their act. They can quickly gain their objectives before the US responds with overwhelming force. This strategy works as a good counter to US practice that often builds up towards a war over the course of months. So if China can achieve its objectives in a short period, and then enter negotiations for a period of months as the US prepares for war the initial outrage will subside and the promise of results from negotiations would result in strong impediments against war.
Small sparks can quickly flame up into larger conflicts. And sometimes small conflicts meet their objectives before the other side can respond with massive force and coalitions. China has unique incentives for short and often preemptive actions. It behooves the US and their allies to be vigilant and aware of how war can start, but also how incidents can advance Chinese objectives that may not be immediately apparent. The US should be prepared for these incidents and take proactive steps accordingly.