How to Not Go to War with China


The 50-year stand-off between the United States and Soviet Union had a cold logic of deterrence derived from the fact that even if one side launched a nuclear sneak attack, it would still be vulnerable to the other side’s second-strike capabilities. Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, as the calculus was known, did two things. First, it helped prevent direct conflict between the two superpowers, knowing that one of the war’s possible outcomes was—through unchecked escalation—the destruction of human civilization. For this reason, both sides took great pains to disguise the active participation of their combatants in hostilities against one another, such as Russian involvement in the Korean War. Second, if direct violence ever had flared between the two powers, MAD could have acted as a final brake, preventing it from becoming a war of unlimited means—in other words, nuclear.

In many ways a similar check is in place to keep U.S. and Chinese saber-rattling from becoming saber-thrusting. It is a widely shared assumption that neither the U.S. nor China would benefit from a protracted conflict between the two powerhouses because of their intertwined interests. An extended conflict between the U.S. and China would wreak economic devastation with a global blast radius. So, where the Cold War had MAD, the twenty-first century has MEOW, or Mutual Economic Obliteration Worldwide.

Is the threat of this catastrophe enough? Among others, Thomas Friedman argues in his book The World Is Flat, for the “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” in which no two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain “will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.”

Yet, one cleverly coined acronym does not a safe world make, and Friedman caveats his Dell Theory by warning that it should not be taken as a guarantee. An oft-repeated fact is that the unprecedented levels of economic interdependence in Europe prior to World War I did not prevent that war’s outbreak. So it is today. Economics and rational national policies reduce, but by no means bar, the possibility of conflict. It could well be that the United States and China never come to blows based on the strength of these factors alone, but they do not absolve us of a duty to find other means of prevention and ways to manage the risk. A range of scenarios driven by nationalist passions, self-interested actors, or plain old accidents could spark an international crisis.

An Ounce of Prevention

In an environment of fiscal restraint and a time of hard budgeting choices, the United States can’t lose focus on the importance of trying to prevent conflict with China as much as it prepares to win it. Nothing can completely eliminate the possibility of armed conflict, but the United States can focus on proactive, preventative efforts. These fall broadly into two categories: those that sow respect, often involving pointy things useful if prevention fails, and those that enhance familiarity.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta outlines both of these approaches in his speech to the 2012 graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy, calling on the Midshipmen to:

…strengthen defense ties with China. China’s military is growing and modernizing. We must be vigilant. We must be strong. We must be prepared to confront any challenge. But the key to peace in that region is to develop a new era of defense cooperation between our countries—one in which our militaries share security burdens to advance peace in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.

When Secretary Panetta talks of vigilance and strength he is referring to those actions that sow respect. These include maintaining a large naval presence in the region (60% of U.S. Navy surface ships by 2020), robust naval capabilities, and a dedication to naval professionalism. The 2007 work A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower—jointly released by the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard—discusses deterrence in similar terms. It describes the purpose of naval combat power as “deterring and dissuading potential adversaries and peer competitors.” Even when potential economic calamity does not induce someone, from a rogue naval captain to a senior decision-maker, to seek peaceful solutions, they might be swayed by the prospect of more immediate pain in the form of destruction at sea.

In 1996, China attempted to intimidate Taiwanese voters in a presidential election with the threat of war. President Clinton responded by deploying carrier battle groups to waters near the island. The symbolic statement of power forced a climb-down and assured America’s allies in the region of America’s willingness and ability to respond in times of need. This also creates a virtuous cycle as regional powers—provided they don’t view U.S. intentions as threatening—become partners and allies. If given clear responsibilities and able to demonstrate their own capabilities, these allies further bolster respect for America’s potential military response. Because an array of regional U.S. allies and nearby combat power could be viewed by some in China as a new attempt at “containment,” it’s important to pair attempts at sowing respect with a simultaneous drive to enhance familiarity.

Habits of Cooperation

The second prevention line of effort called for in Secretary Panetta’s address is strengthening defense ties and security cooperation with China. A frequent refrain from some foreign policy experts is that bringing China into international institutions will help bind it to international norms by giving it incentives to play by the rules and a chance to shape them. This has to a degree worked in the trade realm as headlined by China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2000, with the hiccups expected from initiating such a large new member. Yet, in the security and defense fields America has made little progress bringing China into an active partnership, beyond the “standard” international treaties on arms and POW regulations. As Andrew Erickson and Andrew Strange note for the Council on Foreign Relations, the counter-piracy task forces that China sends to the waters off Somalia have offered one of the few chances to work together, and even then mostly from a distance.

There are several reasons for this lack of progress. Congress restricts the U.S. military’s ability to build formal ties with China’s, mainly limiting agreements and operations to search–and–rescue (SAR) missions and humanitarian assistance / disaster response (HA/DR) efforts. For China’s part, its leadership has a tendency to hold every exercise and bilateral meeting hostage to other ongoing political issues, such as arms sales to Taiwan and American meetings with the Dalai Lama.

For prevention to truly work, the U.S. needs more normalized, integrated defense ties with China. Building “habits of cooperation” is vital to defuse instances when misunderstanding and accidents lead to stand-offs with few face-saving options. In the Cold War, the U.S. had red phones with Russia and generally understood rules for behaving at sea. Americans can do much more with the Chinese, who are not looking to export a world ideology.

The U.S. and China have many mutual interests that extend beyond economics and piracy to terrorism and North Korea’s instability. As examined in detail by Bruce Bennett at RAND, a regime collapse in North Korea could spawn a host of second-order hazards including a possible blind “encounter” between ROK (and/or U.S.) and Chinese forces as both move into the North to stem refugee flows, secure WMDs, and attempt to stabilize the country. Lyle Goldstein notes that in this contingency and efforts to restrain regional allies “maritime security can be a key enabler of U.S.–China regional security cooperation.”

A Blueprint

Cooperative Seapower advocates “extended deterrence”—working with partners to create security and remove the conditions for conflict. One way to address both engagement with China and prepare for Korean contingencies is through an annual bilateral or multilateral HA/DR exercise. LCDR Jason Grower, USN, calls for a similar approach in USNI’s Proceedings, stating a primary purpose of such HA/DR engagement would be to “heighten understanding between the two militaries,” promoting both stable military-to-military relations and broader U.S.–Chinese ties.

Both nations already run their own HA operations—China aboard its Peace Ark, and the U.S. with the annual Pacific Partnership—performing medical procedures and building health and first-responder partnership capacities. Pacific Partnership was this year co-led by Australia and New Zealand in addition to America, a set-up that demonstrates scalability. This means the event can go on ahead with or without China—important given the risk that China could back out of a planned exercise. Further, it allows both the United States and China to claim equal leadership, and, if conducted with vessels from each nation, should assuage the moral concerns and intelligence-collection fears of partners and participating NGOs who might hesitate to join aboard a Chinese vessel.

For building habits of cooperation, a combined large-scale DR exercise would give the United States and China even more bang for their bucks and Yuan than HA operations. This could be a capstone event at the tail-end of Pacific Partnership that expands involvement for interested nations and focuses on responding to likely disaster contingencies in the region. And if China really wanted to show its impatience with North Korean intransigence, what better way to do so than by participating in a joint DR exercise that implicitly prepares for a post-DPRK Korea?

Through these cautious but increasingly complex joint exercises, America and China can take the first steps to form a true maritime partnership. Such ties would help transform the entire relationship from what conflict theorist Johan Galtung calls a “negative peace,” in which there is no direct violence, to a “positive peace,” in which an attitude shift has allowed the development of a cooperative partnership. China recently identified HA/DR as promising common ground for expanded U.S.–Chinese military relations. It’s a sentiment they’ve expressed in the past and one that has finally shown signs of actualization. Both the United States and China participated in this summer’s ASEAN-led disaster response exercise (ADMM-Plus), a first that also notably involved Japan. There are additional signs of burgeoning defense ties, from band exchanges to counter-piracy to China’s first participation next year in the American-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise. Prevention demands more of this.

Demonstrating America’s commitment to enhancing familiarity requires both time and money. Beyond resourcing the exercises and engagements, the DoD should also consider this approach to prevention when making difficult programming and platform choices; because the means to prevail in war aren’t always those that can best prevent it. Once a certain level of respect has been attained, money spent enhancing familiarity can more effectively aid prevention than money spent on new military hardware.

Yet despite the hopes for a thaw, it’s important to remember that these ties are just one leg of the prevention triad. Even the familiar and sometimes familial ties of the Union, where future foes sat side-by-side in the same military academies, could not prevent the U.S. Civil War once policy makers had settled on violence. While MEOW works passively in the background, as long as measures to sow respect are required, the United States must continue to fund and field credible combat capability. Nonetheless enhancing familiarity could mean turning China from a potential foe to an ally. Such a task is far easier said than done and requires a willing partner operating in good faith. With the stakes so high it is well worth trying, dedicating as much creative energies and resources towards these prevention approaches as to remaining ready to win if they fail.


Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. This article evolved from a series of posts on the Next War Blog of the Center for International Maritime Security.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery