China’s ‘Contentious’ Path to War?
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 32.3 Jul-Sep 2017 | Date : 24 Sep , 2017

The traditional US foreign policy of ‘preserve and protect’ could instigate some issues between Washington and Beijing but experts argue that Washington would maintain close proximity with Japan and South Korea, the two key regional partners in Asia. In the years to come, Washington would face some major challenges, particularly with respect to its policies in Asia, especially from its relations with Taiwan which, Washington needs to ensure, does not pose a challenge or response to China’s contentions and modernisation of its military.

Is China’s rise ‘contentious’? The  question seems to have instigated a new debate between security experts and foreign policy gurus, making it a key chapter in the history of international relations, particularly in this century. However, without sheer optimism or a contrast to the debate with no absolute clarity, the end remains a mystery. Does the escalation in China ‘packing’ for war, prove its might in the world? Particularly during the post-Cold War, will US-China tensions be dangerous? Or will it be far worse than a Cold War? Especially China armed not just with an economic might prove to be a tough contender to the US, tougher than the former Soviet Union? Will this fight be a geo-political one? Issues at this stage have been deliberated by experts from every kind of domain, be it regional centric experts, conflict historians or economic gurus; all those who share a theory different from one another, angled not only on the ‘might have been’ but ending inconclusively. Although, China’s past behaviour and economic growth may just be a few factors to predict its contentions since the key elements that depicts the nation’s superpower in the context of war with other nations not just rely on its ability to survive the end of the battle, but also on regional strength to embrace the impact of post-war scenario. Such deliberations, in the context of a nation right from its military might to survival a post-war scenario have encouraged the contribution of international theories, which too are inherently contradictory.

Today, the rise of China and its contentions to an all-out-war has drawn a line between the arguments of international theorists, some optimistic, realistic and some pessimistic. The liberals, on the other hand, support their arguments by citing the foundations of international relations – economic and political growth. They cite the peaceful and resilient rise of China while limiting the deliberations of their counterparts to mere exaggeration. According to them, the United States and other power nations, particularly in the EU, will go ‘all-well’ with China and she would ‘prosper’ within the ranks of these nations instead of launching an expensive war which even a country such as China would find ‘costly’ in an effort to establish order and control in Asia.

The realists however, base their arguments on the contrary of liberal arguments, while citing possibilities for an intense competition. China’s rapidly growing economy and military might, they argue, will put her in an aggressive position, especially when it comes to achieving her own interests, which will force Uncle Sam and other nations of the West to take appropriate measures. This will initiate a chain of events, which would be quite intensive, similar to those of early US-USSR relations in the initial days of Cold War, which would escalate into a war of hegemony. In light of China’s pressing and repetitive claims over East and South China Seas along with the proximity in relations between India and the United States, the time for checks and balances has begun.

Moreover, an evolved version by realists opens the door for much-awaited optimism in an intense conflict such as this. The rise of China’s economic and military might may not be as great as the neo-liberals predict, as the acting forces, which are directly involved in play, if a conflict happens, are quite structurally weak. The eminent threat is not just related to a nation’s military might and economic strength, it is the global roles of actors in international relations which will force China to play defence rather than instigate conflict. This would further assist nations such as US and those with the EU, to maintain a balance of power. Moreover, at a later stage, it will be primary role on the actors in international relations to mediate a scenario which the top leadership in China could effectively and peacefully manage.

It would be too naïve to declare the conflict as pre-determined – however, with the United States along with its international partners in geo-politics could be forced to make some uncomfortable decisions without posing a direct threat, to prevent a major clash.

In-security Dilemma?

Many realists have opined on the nature and behaviour of actions previously taken by the state. It is important for an individual to keep in mind national/local/regional factors to better understand international relations, considering the aforementioned statement, certain actions carried out by a state, irrespective to its routine or not, may result in ‘In-security’ situations, and if the state runs under absolute anarchy, it might result in an all-out-war. However, scenario such as this is not regular, and security concentrated nations sometimes end up in war, is quite surprising, as they could have opted for a peace and cooperation instead of war. The solution to this complex situation lies in the ‘In-security’ of a nation, which experts define as a situation where a nation increases its own security or reduces the security of others.

The ‘In-security’ situation remains fluid for a state, as it increases or decreases depending upon the actions taken by other states. When there is a window of opportunity for an attack, nonetheless how small the target be, the state’s ‘In-security’ decreases the security of the rival state, creating horror and instigating fear. Moreover, defending a state’s security is easy, whereas, a neutral approach will never pose a threat to any state, not even to itself, opening a window of opportunity to strengthen ties and relations with multiple actors in the system.

It is also important to understand that, due to the fluid movement, the intensity of the ‘In-security’ also depends upon the perception of one state towards another. To begin with, if one state, presumes the actions of the other state to not just be intimidating or violent but, on a quest or desire to dominate, then it would remain alarmed and restructure/re-configure the security mechanism of its own country while keeping a tight vigil on the actions of the rival nation. This scenario would not only haunt the former of any possible strike, which the former would have to be prepared while preparing a response. There would be fear in the aura along with a sense of ‘In-security’ created by the latter, thus initiating a whirlwind of political and military stresses.

Due to its fluidity, the possibility of mixed or multiple response in an ‘In-security’ scenario is quite high, further complicating the situation with presumptions, assumptions and dilemma. When the ‘In-security’ situation is high, contentions will surely be high and so will be the possibility of war. The scenarios aforementioned are rightly cited by pessimistic realists, but they draw a line by arguing on the fact that a state will always live in security as the probable contentions are mild and fades away in time. Moreover, when the ‘In-security’ scenario is, let us say, for the sake of argument, is mild, the window of opportunity for an international system to interfere opens, which then enables the international system to mediate peace and security. However, traditional concepts of security states that, a state would be secure only when its rival state is secure, as ‘In-security’ would force the former to adopt competitive and effective security mechanism. This further compromises the chance for any open communication or cooperation even during mitigation. If the latter, during mitigation is persuaded to hold off an offensive, the former may get an opportunity to ease.

Why are the discussions above relevant to China? On the whole, the scenario is quite clear. Today, with the presence of international systems and their active and resilient mitigation processes, China and the US both can secure their vital assets without posing a threat to each other. In light of heavy nuclear arsenal and a race to develop new ones, both the countries have established forces and mechanism to prevent any nuclear use. Although, at some point, if China is on any level able to exceed the US, the latter would still be able to retaliate with nuclear arsenal, if engaged in a scenario, let us say, like a nuclear war and massively compromise China’s ability with one major blow. A large scale attack by China on US is practically impossible, because of the vast distances between them, plus the vast Pacific waters which act as a natural barrier. There is absolutely no possibility of the PLA overpowering the US military. However, the same factors that protect the US from a Chinese invasion also assist China in preventing a probable first response. Although speaking of military units, China is vulnerable, but it would sooner or later realise this clause and build an active nuclear force or a digital army and challenge US on other fronts. Although for China, conventional warfare with US would not pose a strain, as the majority of US forces have their logistics stationed across the Pacific.

The objective of these aforementioned scenarios would force both nations to keep vigil on each other’s security mechanisms. Both the nations will be on high alert now and Uncle Sam would prevent China’s contentions by remaining at least a step ahead. This would force Beijing and Washington to open communication lines, which would further de-escalate the stress while opening doors for international systems to mitigate a peace, probably through a treaty or a joint-cooperation summit. The United States would then restrain from using pre-emptive strikes against China’s nuclear establishments. This would further promote China to de-escalate military preparation, as promised by US, it would not pose a threat to its security and hence, de-thrusting the escalated nuclear politico-military fuelled nuclear war.

Where are the Allies?

The arguments made in the aforementioned paragraphs miss an element that has been a part of American foreign policy – the allies. Uncle Sam maintains close relations with Japan and South Korea, particularly with agreements ranging from maintenance of military bases to the deployment of nuclear-capable warships along with some major military and strategic commitments in South and East Asia. However, in such a complex scenario, it would not be incorrect to include the US allies extending their support to Uncle Sam. However, after careful analysis it still does not make China, the underdog. Rather, it enhances the importance of alliances in regional security along with its appropriateness in a scenario such as this.

The allies share a remarkably stable relationship ever since the Cold War began but with a new player in this scenario forces foreign policy gurus to re-align the benefits of partnerships. One argument can be made along the same lines stated above. Uncle Sam will not have any difficulty in securing borders solely using its power, natural geographical barriers and nuclear capabilities. Neo-liberalists arguing on the same lines, take a little extra leap by arguing that there is absolutely no need for allies and Uncle Sam is already equipped and ready for this scenario. If Uncle Sam already is prepared, then why go to lengths and join alliances that are across the Pacific?

Defending strategic positions and key allies would not only encourage China into politico-skirmishes but also instigate a conflict that would seem to occur on distant lands. Skirmishes such as these would not only encourage China but also strain relations with them. According to them, China’s rise does not pose any threat to the US, but maintaining and strengthening allies in Asia does pose a grave danger to China.

Those realists who support selective engagement, similar on the lines of the US foreign policy – their approach is on the lines with neo-liberalists. However, neo-liberalists support their arguments by stating an immediate withdrawal from its policies in Asia, in an effort to getting caught in a whirlwind of regional conflicts, whereas those in favour of selective engagement support the neo-liberalists by arguing that there is absolutely no need for the US to protect the commitments of their allies as it is the only way to maintain peace in the area.

Today, the need for the US to protect commitments made by them and their allies in Asia is an issue which will be crucial in understanding effects of China’s response, as it is going to determine the impacts of regional strategic policy. If Uncle Sam goes with the natural regional policy and defends its strategic allies such as Japan and South Korea, then they could be challenged by the large conventional forces of the PLA. Nonetheless, with its prior experiences of the Cold War, China’s contentions will not come to the US as a surprise and it would be incorrect to say that, the US will be unprepared for it. During the beginning of the Cold War, both the nations were armed with nuclear capability, whereas experts advised the then POTUS, of the Soviet Union’s conventional weaponry which was advanced enough to occupy Europe.

In the wake of an early Soviet invasion in Europe, experts in the State Department regularly calibrated US capabilities in an effort to identify an appropriate response against what seemed at that time, the high probability of massive Soviet conventional armies entering Europe. The officials of the State Department and security experts at Langley unanimously disagreed on NATO’s responsiveness in such a scenario, particularly when the Soviet conventional forces are backed by nuclear arsenals forcing the US to counter Soviet Union only on nuclear terms. Experts, at that time, were quite optimistic. They were confident about the Soviet Union complying. However, strongly arguing on the Soviet’s compliance, US strategy did keep the Soviet Union at bay, as the large arsenal of nuclear weapons did prove to be overwhelming even for the Soviets. Interestingly, the same logic can be replicated in case of Chinese contentions. Armed with commitments with international systems, followed by, along with readily deployable conventional armies, reinforced by arsenals of long-range ballistic nuclear war heads, the US could prevent China from infiltrating a first attack on South Korea or Japan.

However, keeping the conflict at bay would be factors such as long-standing trade relations between China and the US. Many experts, however, feared that, the Soviet Union, which created a situation of complexity in light of frequent, rampant and unpredictable decisions Moscow took in the early days of Cold War, Beijing would be careful. The argument can be supported by a fact that, Beijing has no such expansionist goals, so for Uncle Sam, it would be quite an ease. Moreover, even if China does show signs of expansionism, the US is prepared to counter that.

Many pessimistic-realists argue that, in an effort to remain ‘In-security’, Beijing will look towards regionalism, while creating a scenario of hegemony and fanning an already infuriating situation. Although, considering the geographic location, power along with nuclear warheads, would pose a serious challenge to itself. China then would not be in a position to directly engage conventional forces of US stationed at forward operating bases in South Korea and Japan, as they would naturally be prepared to respond to a nation’s conventional force of that size. Under no condition would US conventional forces undermine Chinese PLA. More importantly, a retreat from a key strategic position by US conventional forces would definitely not be a result of Chinese hegemony, because by that time, Japan and South Korea would be well armed with conventional forces of their own along with an arsenal of nuclear warheads, inflicting heavy damage to China’s ambitions of hegemony. Hence, Beijing’s plan for regional hegemony would no longer be feasible.

The presence of US conventional forces stationed at forward operating bases does give an edge to US military capabilities, which would directly challenge China’s security at the seas along with its frequent coercion of Taiwan. Moreover, US advance would hinder Japan’s ability to keep a high military budget. Looking at the combined military capability, the US is more powerful than Japan, which China would consider as a position of strength, since it fears more than from Japan than the US. While achieving greater power, China would rapidly diminish Uncle Sam’s influence in Asia. However, China would not act in a hurry and until and unless China and the US have strained relations, China will not poke the American bear.

What about Taiwan?

Realists argue that Uncle Sam’s policy in Asia should not invite China for a power play, as the latter’s phenomenal growth over the years and its typical habit of keeping a country hostage would force the State Department to reform US foreign policy especially when it comes to Taiwan. However, losing Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War over eight decades ago, China continues to consider Taiwan as an integral part of it, as for Beijing, unification continues to be top on the agenda. China, on numerous occasions, dares nations to sever ties with Taiwan while warning others to follow a strict ‘One-China’ policy, which also explains the rush in the PLA’s massive budget, which China not only uses to coerce Taiwan but portrays strength in an effort to keep the US at bay. With Taiwan, always a priority on the list for China, it continues to play a key role in US-China foreign relations.

With clouds of uncertainty over Taiwan, experts point to this as a ‘principle of uncertainty’ for nations’ foreign relations, especially when it becomes a probable epicentre of a conflict. Today, the US foreign policy routes out the possibility of a Taiwanese independence any time soon while stating clear that, even if Taiwan does become independent, Uncle Sam will play no role. Nonetheless, the US would not want to jeopardise its relations with Taiwan, and will defend it, from any attack, foreign or domestic. With unpredictable circumstances and Taipei’s history of erratic decisions, the US could have a conflict on its hand, especially when it finds itself leading one.

Conflict builders such as these have been around for decades now but now, armed with nuclear arsenal and advanced conventional forces at its disposal, Beijing is better prepared to handle it should a Taiwan crisis occur. Along with its advanced conventional PLA, China, in an effort to inflict deep wounds in battle, Beijing is preparing its nuclear forces for a long battle against the US, particularly developing and enhancing its weapons in case of a second response. Going by the traditional defence mechanism of Washington, US forces seem to have an edge. However, with China modernising its nuclear arsenal, this equation could become more complex. With Beijing rapidly advancing its nuclear arsenal, it will respond more aggressively in comparison to previous responses.

With the US opening doors for a combat insertion in an effort to defend Taiwan, it could eventually kick off a conventional and a nuclear war. With enhanced nuclear ballistic programme, along with long range reconnaissance capability, China could view it as a threat, which would further sour already deteriorating relations. In light of such misguided assumptions, Washington should steer way from Taiwan. This would then dissolve China’s presumptions towards her ‘In-Security’ principle while making a way for a wide and prosper relations in the near future. Critical-realists argue that, this would not only result in a lost opportunity for Washington or Taipei; but would also affect Beijing’s appetite. China would want more and a meagre steering from traditional US foreign policy will not fill its appetite; rather Beijing would be pleased to see Washington’s inability to defend its allies. However, rationalists critical of such theory consider this a meagre dream which would not come true. It is not necessary for only Mussolini or Hitler or Tojo to have expansionist goals. Neo-liberalists argue that by having limited expansionist goals, allowing them would not necessarily mean hunger for further territories, rather a satisfaction of its appetite.

What should Washington’s policy be on Taiwan or, how to steer way from Taipei, whether to, is a complex issue, demanding a more complex solution. If Washington does, let us stay steer way from its traditional policy, it would not be as simple as a break in relations. Although, Beijing and Taipei have strengthened their relations over the years, it would give plenty of time for Washington to formulate a strategy and recalibrate its policy depending upon the current situation.

A Stressful Environment?

Realists analyse the threat perception on the basis of the nation’s past encounters such as a direct conflict such as a war. Realists particularly optimistic put their arguments are purely on the decree of the nation’s ‘In-security’ concept. If, under any circumstances, the assumptions turn out to be untrue and Washington’s threat perception of China turns out to be over-anxiety, the intensity of the conflict will be unimaginable.

However, there are certain doubts about the theories regarding a possible US-China clash. To begin with, the widely assumed argument that China’s contentions in Asia along with its modernising the PLA, pose a grave threat to US strategic assets. If the State Department and the White House fail to interpret the rise of China opposite to a threat, Washington would enforce over-consciousness over its forward operating bases in Asia, which Beijing may view as preparation for war. If China too, feels insecure, it will further apply extra-precautionary measures which Washington, through Langley, would perceive as a threat. It will then initiate a negative chain of events, which even the international system will find it difficult to prevent.

Experts deny the possibility of any large-scale retaliation, which would compromise the nuclear retaliation by the US. The most workable scenario for China is to destroy the major portion of nuclear capability of the US in order to maintain a large portion of PLA active, thus, making it difficult for US nuclear warheads to pose a threat to the PLA.

It is without a doubt that China’s nuclear and conventional forces will give a tough response to US conventional armies. However, it is important for Washington to understand the aggression of the PLA or the conventional forces as a desire to secure their boundaries. However, in future years, if China is able to maintain a fleet of large aircraft carriers or battle groups and deploy them in the Southern Coast near Washington, the White House would definitely look for options, in an effort to respond. If the PLA attacks first with long range bombers and if those bombers ever make it to the nuclear strategic locations, Washington would like to keep all options open, even using the nuclear warheads to defend its boundaries. These are certain scenarios which both Langley and Washington should carefully evaluate.

The question remains the same, can Chinese contentions be peaceful? Peaceful or not, there is no straight answer and the scenario needs to be evaluated, with multiple simulations and there are numerous responses, some even becoming a victim of over-anxiousness. Nonetheless, the presence of strong international system would prevent the US and China from preparing for a war. Nuclear arsenals, along with the vast Pacific Ocean, followed by a certain level of stable foreign relations would ensure security whereas both White House and Beijing would prevent a military entanglement.

However, the traditional US foreign policy of ‘preserve and protect’ could instigate some issues between Washington and Beijing, but experts argue that Washington would maintain close proximity with Japan and South Korea, the two key regional partners in Asia. In the years to come, Washington would face some major challenges, particularly with respect to its policies in Asia, especially from its relations with Taiwan which, Washington needs to ensure, does not pose a challenge or response to China’s contentions and modernisation of its military.

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra

is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left