Tensions between the West and China show no sign of easing. Interdependence and mistrust continue to mix uneasily. Triggers are many and varied, including human rights, relations with Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine, microchip manufacturing, and the big one, Taiwan. As the situation escalates, questions arise about the possibility of a war between China and the United States. The title begs the question: Would the U.S. lose in such a conflict? Let’s delve deeper into this complex issue.
The Posturing and the Rhetoric:
“It’s ironic, but not unprecedented, that at the exact same time, President Xi is telling the troops of the Eastern Theatre Command – the one that faces Taiwan – that they need to step up their combat readiness,” states a recent article. This posturing by President Xi Jinping, coupled with his rhetoric urging the troops to “persist in thinking and handling military issues from a political perspective, dare to fight, be good at fighting, and resolutely defend our national sovereignty, security, and development interests,” adds to the tension.
Xi is not the first Chinese President to use such tactics. Hu Jintao also made similar statements in 2011, urging the military to “make extended preparations for warfare.” This constant need to posture may mask a lack of confidence, as military parades and impressive numbers do not necessarily equate to battle-hardened competence, as demonstrated by Russia’s experiences in Ukraine.
Views on the Inevitability of War:
In terms of the inevitability of war with China, General Mike Minihan of the US Air Force takes a hawkish stance, stating that war is inevitable. This sentiment is shared by quite a few in the US military. However, there are many who believe that ongoing diplomatic efforts, combined with the deterrent effect of the combined militaries of the US and its allies, can effectively manage the situation.
In the face of escalating tensions, conventional and nuclear deterrence play crucial roles. The US Pacific Command is actively planning for various fighting scenarios with great detail. It is important to demonstrate the potential consequences if diplomatic efforts fail. General John Hyten, former Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs, highlights the significance of deterrence, stating, “They knew exactly what we were going to do before we did it.”
The Challenges Faced by the US Defense Industrial Base:
The recent conflict in Ukraine has shed light on vulnerabilities within the US defense industrial base. The reliance on overseas manufacturers, including China, for critical components and materials is a concerning factor. Moreover, the decline of the US manufacturing sector and a shortage of skilled labor further complicate the challenges faced by the defense industry.
“We lack that today… America no longer has the skilled manufacturing base to spin up and support wartime production,” warns Heather Penney, a former Air National Guard pilot. The post-Cold War era’s focus on efficiency has left the defense industrial base with limited room for stockpiles or critical spare parts, further undermining the US’s ability to rapidly respond to a conflict.
While the Biden administration acknowledges the challenges, critics argue that the sense of urgency is insufficient. The lengthy lead time for planning, development, and manufacture, combined with the outdated acquisition process, hinders timely responses. The Pentagon’s budget and debt negotiations have also delayed the administration’s response to the critical issues surrounding the defense industrial base.
To bolster the conventional deterrent against China, a radical shift in defense thinking is necessary. Emphasizing non-traditional capabilities, such as autonomous systems, and harnessing emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can enhance the effectiveness of drones and ships. Collaboration with allies, including co-production, can help pool resources and strengthen industrial bases.
If conventional deterrence proves inadequate, the US may have to rely on its nuclear deterrent as a last resort. However, the prospect of a conflict between major nuclear powers raises concerns about brinkmanship and the need for de-escalation efforts.
While tensions between China and the United States continue to escalate, the outcome of a potential war remains uncertain. Diplomatic efforts, military preparedness, addressing vulnerabilities in the defense industrial base, and leveraging emerging technologies are all crucial. Preventing a conflict in the Indo-Pacific region should be the primary goal for all parties involved. As the world watches these geopolitical developments unfold, the hope is that peaceful resolutions prevail over the specter of war.