Understanding China: The Real Key to Avoiding War


In his article, “How Not to Go to War With China”, Scott Cheney-Peters correctly posits that a war between the United and China would not be, in a rational sense, in the interest of either country, nor of the rest of the world. He further elaborates that relying on the unprecedented level of Sino-American economic interdependence is not a sufficient guarantee in itself for future peace.

Cheney-Peters draws on the Cold War doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) as an example of a “constraining factor” that prevented a Soviet and American nuclear war, yet argues that the global economic catastrophe that would result from a Sino-American war may not be enough to sustain peace.  Cheney-Peters further notes that we therefore have a duty to “find other means of prevention and ways to manage risk.”

A place to begin our efforts in avoiding war with China might be avoiding engagement in some of the same incorrect mirror-imaging assumptions we once made about the Soviet Union, not least of which was MAD.  As a doctrine, Soviet leaders never accepted MAD and the Red Army general staff ignored it in drafting war plans to fight and prevail in any nuclear war. While the Soviets had no choice but to tackle the logic of deterrence as we did, the operative Soviet assumptions were predicated on a different strategic calculus, a different force structure and above all, different policy goals from their American counterparts.  A dangerous gap between American assumptions of Soviet intentions and the reality of these intentions came to light when in 1983 the Reagan administration discovered to their alarm that Soviet leaders had interpreted the NATO exercise Abel Archer 83 as preparations for a real, imminent nuclear first strike on the USSR and ordered Soviet nuclear forces on high alert.

The military-to-military confidence-building initiatives outlined by Cheney-Peters intended to construct “habits of cooperation” are not entirely useless. There is some value in ensuring that high-ranking American military officers have personal and limited operational familiarity with their Chinese counterparts in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but as potential game-changers, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Such a policy misses the essential strategic and political centers of gravity in the Sino-American relationship.  Namely that for the first time in 600 years, China is building a blue water Navy that will foster power projection as far away as the Indian ocean and Australia.  Secondly, this naval expansion, coupled with a new Chinese foreign policy, aggressively presses grandiose territorial demands on nearly all of its neighbors, including India and Japan.  These are fundamental conflicts with American interests that cannot be explained away or papered over by banquet toasts with visiting delegations of Chinese admirals.

We should exercise great care before we help China train its nascent Navy personnel to be better warfighters. This is historically something a maritime great power does only for a close ally—and then only out of necessity. China is not an ally of the United States; it is basically an important, but unfriendly mercantilist trading partner that would like PACOM and our military alliances to get the hell out of their neighborhood. This is a fundamentally a problem of internal Chinese elite politics and the unrealistic ambitions they generate and one that cannot be solved by continual American military gestures of goodwill that are never reciprocated by Beijing.

Until senior Chinese leaders temper their regional policy and the PLA shows visiting American flag officers the same open door courtesies that we extend to them, our scarce naval resources are better used in helping American regional allies upgrade their own capabilities and resist Chinese bullying.


Mark Safranski is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, LLC. and is a contributor to Pragati: The Indian National Interest. He is the publisher of the national security and strategy group blog, Zenpundit.com.

Photo credit: Asitimes