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World War III and IV? Why a U.S.-China War Might Have a Sequel

U.S.-China Wars
The sun rises over the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Hue City (CG 66) in the Atlantic Ocean March 28, 2018. Hue City is underway supporting Carrier Strike Group Four Task Force Exercise 18-2. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Danny Ray Nuñez Jr.)

A war between China and the United States is horrible to contemplate, but we might hope that such a war would bring a degree of closure to US-China competition, and peace to the region. “The object in war is a better state of peace,“ or so said British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart. But what if a better peace does not result?

Competition between the United States and China might look less like a single sharp, decisive conflict between Washington and Beijing, and more like a series of militarized conflicts in a broader context of trade and cooperation. This would represent more of an 18th-century appreciation of international conflict, seeing no wars as particularly decisive in themselves, but rather each as a step to improving a state’s position for the next conflict. As Paul von Hindenburg said of annexing the Baltic States into the German Empire during World War I, “I need them for the manoeuvring of my left wing in the next war.”

The idea that long-term great power competition must end in a single decisive conflict is recent, and wrong. World War I seemed to end decisively in that it eliminated two of the Central Powers, led to regime change in another, and produced a new international settlement, but of course, Germany’s ambitions were not quenched. World War II decisively ended the expansionist aspirations of Germany, Japan, and Italy, replacing the existing authoritarian governments with democratic systems (in Japan, Italy, and ¾ of Germany, at least), and made a replay of the war exceedingly difficult. However, both World War I and World War II were followed by long periods of disorder, civil war, and proxy conflict even after the guns of the primary combatants fell silent.

During the Cold War, not much thought was given to the prospect of multiple, iterated wars between the United States and the Soviet Union, largely because of the belief that nuclear weapons would come into play and possibly destroy both combatants, if not the entire world. At the same time, the sharply clashing ideological nature of the combatants led many to imagine that a US-Soviet fight would be resolved quickly and decisively, with the victorious ideology reigning supreme.

But the situation with China and the United States is different. Although Washington and Beijing have sharp ideological differences, neither puts much weight in the idea that it can topple the other. Each can inflict severe damage on the fielded military forces of the enemy, but is unlikely to cause much destruction to the industrial and economic foundations of the other’s military power. Weapons that a destroyed or expended can be rebuilt, quickly in the case of cruise missiles and slowly in the case of aircraft carriers.

The disputes that might spur conflict have similarly indecisive potential. A US defeat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan obviously won’t settle the question of Taiwan in the Chinese mind, and quite possibly won’t even unsettle the hold of the Chinese Communist Party over mainland China. It is entirely conceivable that the United States and China could fight a short, sharp war over Taiwan, resume relatively normal political and commercial relations, then fight another short, sharp war over Taiwan.

U.S.-China War

PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 10, 2015) – The guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) fires an SM-2 missile during a live-fire exercise. Sailors from the John C. Stennis Strike Group are participating in a sustainment training exercise (SUSTEX) to prepare for future deployments. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Jiang/Released) 151112-N-DA737-424.

Even if China won such a conflict, the fundamental issues that divide Washington and Beijing would not disappear. While the regional reaction to a successful Chinese conquest of Taiwan context dependent and difficult to predict, countries such as Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea might well try to bind themselves more tightly to the US military, immediately creating the conditions for future conflict.

Any imaginable military conflict in the Western Pacific would be catastrophically destructive, not simply to the theaters of conflict but also to the financial and trade networks that have developed between Asia and North America. But we should take care with the notion that China and the United States will fight just one war. Hopefully, they will fight none. If they fight one, they are likely to fight more.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Slack

    October 7, 2021 at 2:48 am

    A war between the 2 is horrible to contemplate, for ordinary people, yes. But not for pacom (now in anticipation of battle has become indo-pac command) or US politicians.

    US has waged war in china, like in aug 1900 expedition.US gunboats were there when jap military was slaughtering people in the thirties, too.

    US is a war nation, at war for 93% of its brief existence, and war with china is desirable to stomp china’s economic rise.

    US can’t defeat china in war at all short of an all-out first strike USAF/Navy nuke obliteration, but US aim is to cripple it, not defeat it.

    US aims to dominate world, with nations as obedient vassals or pauper states or downright objects of derision and ridicule. Just like genghis wanted in his time.

  2. Commentar

    October 7, 2021 at 5:20 am

    US and other powers killed and raped with big galore in 1900 much to very BIG astonishment of japs who were also there.

    US contemplated nuking china in 1950s korea war, again during ’55 strait crisis, once in 1962 cuban crisis (!), also the 1962 border war which ended before nukes could arrive, then again in 1964 against Lop Nor which was opposed by USSR, thus it is genghis of modern age.

    US only power to nuke japan and the marshall islands republic and very possibly in desert near Basra in feb 1991.

  3. Vandervecken

    October 7, 2021 at 9:05 am

    You don’t mention that we’ve already fought a protracted high intensity group war against Communist China within living memory. The Chinese army lost roughly a Million Soldiers in Korea. While we seem to have forgotten that, the Chinese have not, I assure you. Their entire posture is to avoid fighting US Soldiers on the ground at all costs. They intend to mitigate intervention in Taiwan via bribery and threats. With a catastrophically weak and incompetent US administration in power and China still having time before the wheels fall off their economy entirely, they will have to act very soon or give up that ambition for at least a generation.

  4. Cenebar

    October 7, 2021 at 11:24 am

    Many expect a war between China and Taiwan when in fact many don’t realize that Russia and China have the ability to invade almost any Second and Third World Nation in the world for self-profit and interests.

    Russia is already in Syria. China is eyeing Afghanistan for mineral wealth and influence. Both nations want influence in the Arctic for natural resources. These are all “For Profit” goals to feed their own civilization and country.

    Thus to butt heads with Western Powers in the pursuit of mineral and natural wealth can indeed cause conflicts. That is the term for “Great powers competition” and the fact that there are some peer nations that are willing to exploit the environment for their industrial machine and people is very disconcerting such as overfishing, treasure, gold, gems, rare artifacts, information, people, materials, technology, and food.

    The problem presented here is that peer nations are willing to fight to get what it wants. These peer nations’ governments are “For profit” unlike the USA and NATO—they want stuff to benefit themselves. They won’t sell a multibillion-dollar decommissioned aircraft carrier to the scrapyard for a penny like the US because the US government can’t take profit unless at confiscated auctions. No, these authoritarian governments will sell such assets to others for a much larger profit. Adversary Peer nations’ beliefs, values, culture, and morals are different from the Western nations and when you have such governments like that, the world is seen as their oyster and playground. Recall, these adversary peer nations also have vast civilian criminal network enterprises of Human and sex trafficking, drugs, Fentanyl, illegal fireworks, ivory, animal parts, car smuggling, item smuggling, seafood exploitation, arms trafficking, Black Markets, gambling, counterfeit, espionage, etc. that may or may not have ties to their military. Sure, Western nations have these crimes too, but not as intensive or vast in organized crime people. Foreign crime in itself is a also threat to Western Society.

    It will be hard to fight a war against peer nations that can act as locusts to the world, swarming in and devouring everything of that host nation. So it’s not just China vs. Taiwan, but the fact that containing these peer nations’ desire to feed itself at the expense of other nations is the catalysts for starting global brush wars that need fighting. Fictional James Bond movies are a classic example of one 007 Agent against criminal masterminds that cause all sorts of havoc to the world if left unchecked and James Bond usually gets beaten up bloody to try to stop overwhelming odds against him.

    If the wildfire spreads out of control with not enough wildland firefighters (soldiers and Marines to fight), then the whole forest and all its animals go up in flames and smoke. That could be the basis of WW3 and WW4 and not many nations in RIMPAC and NATO are willing to send their soldiers and Marines tens of thousands of miles away to defend a country that has little profit value to the Western nation. Afghanistan after 20 years is an example of that with no nation able to tap into the mineral resources or establish firm control to better the people there. The Iraq War was for the stability of oil and the Middle East.

    So to understand adversary peer nation challenges, one needs to look beyond just the Taiwan Strait.

  5. hinckleybuzzard

    October 7, 2021 at 2:51 pm

    I lived through the Cold War and the idea of a “short sharp decisive conflict” was never heard. The idea of a “long twilight struggle” shaped American policy thinking for decades. Now, the idea has been bruited about here more than once, but still makes no geopolitical sense.
    War between USA and China is increasingly probable, due to international political calculations. With America currently leaderless and drifting, it will be almost certainly the wrong war, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. It will result in Chinese achievements of limited objectives, and the severe weakening of American power.
    There will be no sequel.

  6. Slack

    October 7, 2021 at 3:57 pm

    The US is a warmongering nation that always hankers for war. And for blood, pure gore and immense self-righteouness.

    If US is moral, it should boycott the 2022 winter olympics, issue arrest warrant or grab the suspect in view of johns hopkins statement that MORE US citizens died of covid in 2021 under biden than in 2020 under trump.

    Where is US righteousness. Rather US is god of hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Babylon on the potomac.

  7. Rick

    October 8, 2021 at 11:28 am

    Slack: “The US is a warmongering nation that always hankers for war. And for blood, pure gore and immense self-righteouness.”

    This is what passes for critical thought from the inept thinkers slouching out of our universities today. The belief espoused above probably sits right next to that other favorite belief: “The US is systemically racist”

  8. Rick

    October 8, 2021 at 11:36 am

    “Each can inflict severe damage on the fielded military forces of the enemy, but is unlikely to cause much destruction to the industrial and economic foundations of the other’s military power.”

    Claims and beliefs like that from the author of this piece lead to questioning the entire rational they are proposing.

    How can anybody claiming to be critical thinker/analyst believe that nuclear weapons cannot cause much destruction to industrial and economic foundations?

    Talk about sophomoric on steroids.

    “Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005”

    Ah! A master diplomat! That it explains it. And it shows why people like me are regularly ordered to pick up our weapons and deploy overseas to clean up the messes left behind by economic/security geniuses like Dr. Robert Farley. We put our expertise at what we do to work when Farley and his fellow genius diplomats fail.

    And only a genius diplomat could believe that nuclear weapons could not possibly do much damage to industrial and economic structures. Something a one hook military private fresh out of high school could figure out in just a few seconds.

    Try to do better next time, Mr. Farley.

  9. Denton

    October 8, 2021 at 7:59 pm

    All great powers fight among each other and have throughout history. The US is no more warlike than any other incumbent great power. China is just as ambitious as most other rising powers.

    The big issue is that China has no allies and the US has too many. The US is committed to defend a slew of allies and therefore can be dragged into a conflict it doesn’t want. China has no allies to fight a proxy war on its behalf. Therefore the clash between US and China must end up being a direct fight between the two principals, not just a limited war between proxies.

    It could end up being just like the long series of wars between England and France. England and France fought on and off every few years from the middle ages until Napoleon, almost 30 wars over 600 years; fight then trade then fight then trade.

    The cyber-wars, trade-wars and finance-wars portion has been underway for some time already.

  10. Chris Cha

    October 8, 2021 at 11:49 pm

    Shoot…. I know what I’d prefer to say strategically. If we heavily arm our allies with significant weapon systems and maintain a strong US / Allied ship presence in the Taiwan straight, that should make conflict painful enough for China to forego a Taiwan invasion. Hard to tell with the current addle-brained occupant of the White House, though (and, yes that’s Biden).

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