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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

China Could Decide Now Is the Time for War with America

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier
The aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) participates in a composite unit training exercise (COMPTUEX). Truman is underway as a part of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) performing COMPTUEX, which evaluates the strike group’s ability as a whole to carry out sustained combat operations from the sea, ultimately certifying the HSTCSG for deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tommy Gooley/Released)

Will a ‘Peak’ China decide now is the time for war with America: Hal Brands and Michael Beckley have breaking news from 1832! Namely that it sometimes makes sense for the weak to pick a fight with the strong. No less an authority than Carl von Clausewitz affirms it. Suppose, postulates Clausewitz, a weaker contender “is in conflict with a much more powerful one and expects its position to grow weaker every year. If war is unavoidable, should it not make the most of its opportunities before its position gets still worse? In short, it should attack . . . .”

Verily, Clausewitz is a man for all seasons. If you know important trendlines are turning against you—if you expect your strategic standing vis-à-vis your antagonist to be worse next year than this—then he advises you to strike now. Otherwise, you’ll get less than you might. Your window of opportunity might even slam shut by next year.

Such a now-or-never calculus makes for a combustible atmosphere. The challenge before America is to deter China from striking a match.

Brands and Beckley are professors at Johns Hopkins and Tufts, respectively. Though they don’t mention the sage of nineteenth-century Prussia in their lucidly written new book Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, they apply Clausewitzian logic to Communist China, arguing that the world is witnessing “peak China.” If China stands at the zenith of its power, and if Chinese Communist Party magnates know it, then they might reason that now is their best opportunity to use military might to settle longstanding grudges.

The next few years will be a time of temptation for Beijing—and thus a time of peril for the Indo-Pacific.

To buttress their case the coauthors catalog various factors that have turned negative after abetting China’s rise to great power. China, they observe, has been the beneficiary of a uniquely favorable political and strategic environment over the decades since party leaders resolved to reform the economy and open it to the world. But China’s surroundings are no longer so auspicious—in large measure because Beijing has squandered Asian and international goodwill through its bellicosity and mendacity.

There are externally imposed limits to China’s rise.

And then there are internal woes. It’s always tough to gauge how well a totalitarian society like Communist China is faring within its frontiers. Official figures out of Beijing are worth precisely what you pay for them. There’s no oversight over them, and the party has every reason to game them in its favor, in an effort to show the Chinese people it’s an indispensable steward of the common weal. Nevertheless, it does appear that key indices such as demographics, GDP figures, natural resources, and the environment are set to constrain Chinese power rather than fuel it.

If so, domestic travails will eventually drag down military budgets—and, potentially, martial adventurism with them.

In other words, it’s far from fated that China’s rise will track forever upward. The United States and China may never reach the crossover point envisioned by exponents of the “Thucydides Trap”—the point beyond which Chinese power outstrips American, giving Beijing the upper hand in the Western Pacific. But Brands and Beckley argue rightly that an impending stall in China’s rise doesn’t mean the coming years will be free from U.S.-China conflict. In fact, the opposite could well be true.

A China on the threshold of decline is a dangerous China—as Clausewitz might prophesy were he among the quick today.

Now, positing that the 2020s constitute a danger zone is nothing new. In 2010, for instance, a conference convened at the Naval War College in Newport to explore how demographic decline is transforming great-power politics. The organizers did the usual academic thing and bundled the conference papers into an edited volume. Gordon Chang, an analyst who always takes a gloomy view of China’s communist future, had the China portfolio for the project. Gordon made many of the same points Brands and Beckley do a decade-plus hence, forecasting that China will be easier to live with once its population size starts to wane—as it’s set to do sometime this decade.

Until then it might be a problem. An elderly populace is an expensive populace, and it’s hard to recruit a family’s only child—a legacy of the long-running “one-child” policy—for military service. If demographics threatens to muffle Beijing’s ambitions, party leaders might opt to act now.

For my part I surveyed the classical precedent, reviewing how ancient Athens and Sparta responded to demographic shocks. Sparta suffered a catastrophic earthquake in the 460s B.C., losing the flower of Spartan infantry to a natural disaster. Spartan rulers reacted cautiously and conservatively, as you would expect. The fewer your resources, the more precious they are. From a cost-benefit standpoint it makes sense that political and military leaders would be loath to hazard a diminished soldiery on the battlefield.

Rival Athens was another story altogether. Athens endured a demographic blow of its own, in the form of a devastating plague that felled some thirty percent of the populace early in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). But rather than hunker down, Athenians cast off all restraint. They jettisoned the prudent, resource-conserving, saltwater-oriented strategy preached by “first citizen” Pericles, who perished from the pestilence.

Athenians refused to abide by cost-benefit logic and conserve diminished manpower. Instead they went adventuring—and ended up weeping bitter tears in defeat.

Demographics is important, then, but it is not destiny. Extrapolating from that small sample size, I set forth the hypothesis that—rather than exert a uniform influence on all strategic communities at all times—population decline makes a contender more like itself. A shrinking populace, that is, primes a contestant to act in keeping with its ingrained character and reflexes. Spartans already inclined to conservative strategy; they were even more conservative following the earthquake. Athenians were known for enterprise and derring-do despite Pericles’ cautionary counsel; they veered from venturesome to reckless following the plague.

Will China tread a Spartan or an Athenian pathway in the coming years?

If Beijing reckons that now is as good as it gets for Beijing—if China’s strategic position has crested or stands poised to—Xi Jinping & Co. could well decide today is the day to take up the sword. China might try to conquer Taiwan, wrest the Senkaku Islands from Japan, or clamp down on Southeast Asian rivals in the South China Sea. If so it would follow the Athenian model, wagering everything on a bold gambit. Hence the danger zone Brands and Beckley espy.

Now-or-never logic could prevail among communist magnates, to the detriment of regional peace and security.

Or Beijing could take a Spartan tack, playing things safe while hoping circumstances boost its prospects in the future. That would be the prudent course of action. If that approach prevails—if the United States, its allies, and its friends can deter China from warfare for the next decade or so—then a prudent Spartan outlook might take hold. The strategic competition with China should prove more manageable over the long term. Brands and Beckley incline to something approximating this view, and cost-benefit logic backs them up.

We’ll see. Much depends on the character of the Chinese state, party,  and society.

However things unfold, the recommendations put forth in Danger Zone are sound. For example, they urge U.S. leaders to set priorities “ruthlessly.” And indeed, setting and enforcing priorities while husbanding finite resources for what matters most is Strategy 101. They exhort Washington to be “strategically deliberate and tactically agile.” Tactical agility means devising stratagems to keep China off-balance, while deliberate strategy assures all stakeholders of American constancy. And, as in the late Cold War in particular, U.S. leaders should play some offense in the service of strategic defense.

The coauthors’ bottom line: “Think of danger-zone strategy as something that helps you win in the future by avoiding disaster in the here and now.”

But a measure of fatalism and a sense of urgency must propel U.S. policy and strategy in the Indo-Pacific over the long haul, even if the next few years constitute the time of greatest peril. Even if China’s rise tops out, as Professors Brands and Beckley foretell, it has already put in place enough implements to make serious mischief for East Asia and the world into the indefinite future. An impressive People’s Liberation Army Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force exist now, and they will continue exist in the coming age of demographic downturn. A fraction of the U.S. armed forces will continue to face off against the whole of the Chinese armed forces bestriding their home ground. Danger will linger, then, even if Asia crosses safely through the danger zone.

Forewarned is forearmed. Read the whole thing.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. GhostTomahawk

    September 25, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    What does a war with China look like? They can’t invade the US.

    So it’ll be something stupid like the invasion of Taiwan.

    If China wants Taiwan wait til 2023 when Biden and the democrats won’t want to start a war of any kind in fear of losing the white house (which is at this point guaranteed). Biden and his puppet masters will bluster but China will invade and lose a lot.. maybe take Taiwan or not. Other than that I see no scenario where the US and China go toe to toe. US politics are too cozy with China and so are US businesses. China would never recover and US businesses would and the politicians would be exposed.

    Sorry.

  2. pagar

    September 25, 2022 at 7:22 pm

    Unlikely, Dr Holmes, with xi jinping in charge.

    Xi wants to rule china
    using his one-man show or authority for perpetuity and thus he can’t have war with uncle sam.

    In the meantime, xi will abandon putin and allow US to pursue its now globalized monroe doctrine so long as biden looks other way and xi can export as much as possible to US including his opioids.

    For china to take on US with its very humongous war machine & its equally humongous army of minions, the PLA needs to possess a mount everest-arsenal of rockets including hypersonic ones.

    Now, under xi who wants to prioritize exports, the PLA ain’t gonna get what it wants to ensure measure of minimum survival in any tiff even against the pacific forces, never mind the US military plus minion armies.

    With US hyper arsenal coming into being in the next few years and the appearance of LGm-35 by 2029, china isn’t prepared.

    China’s only hope is to drag xi down from his horse and quickly develop its FOBS potential plus a fleet of spaceplanes & space stations.

    Otherwise it’s gonna be GAME OVER for china by time perpetual ruler xi kicks the bucket.

  3. HAT451

    September 25, 2022 at 7:35 pm

    There are several other indicators that China may be peaking in power. The supply chain interruptions will slow down it’s economic options, and the ability to expand. China may have reached, or will plateau in military industrial power. Next, what gains they have made in the last few years will need to be consolidated. Finally the the impact of COVID and China how they responds to it. The current inflation in the US is another thing that will affect China. Likewise the other major region China is sells it’s product to is Europe, which is about to experience energy shortages due to the war in Ukraine.

    The other calculus in this equation is what China’s major opponent, is doing, specifically what may happen in the USA after the swearing in of the new senate and congress. If there is a dramatic shift in political decision making in the USA with respect to national defense, our energy infrastructure and defense of our allies, then it will be the USA which will change it’s trajectory in power projection upward, after what happened in Afghanistan in 2021.

    I think that this means that the power ratio, between China and US will be as good as it can get in China’s favor prior to January 2023. The other “elephant” in the room is what is currently going on in Ukraine and material support of Ukraine. Likewise, the other factors that might effect our reaction to China is what happens if in the Middle East, Iran, Korean Peninsula, Caucus Mountains (Armenia / Azerbaijan) and other volatile spots, especially if we commit to another regional conflict, similar to how the USA and EU is currently committed to the conflict in Ukraine.

    There is a saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I think we are living in very interesting and dangerous times.

  4. Steven

    September 25, 2022 at 10:03 pm

    There’s an Artificial Intelligence (AI) race going on right now between China and the US, as well as other players in Europe, and possibly Israel, Japan and Korea, Japan and Korea being very
    Whoever wins this race may win the arms race by default.
    Conquest probably isn’t the only road to victory in the current age strong in robotics, while Korea has become world class in building the super ships, container, bulk and tankers.
    China is likely winning the commerce war, and in fact, no one else is really competing.
    American business interests, politicians, even scientific researchers are rushing to partner with China in their specific areas, and even staff at American scientific labs, such as Los Alamos weapons lab, security evaluated by Strider Technologies found at least 162 scientists had gone from Los Alamos to Communist China.
    Is there really any competition. If China just keeps doing what it does best, it will be far ahead,mdominant in world affairs, and no one even actively opposes them.
    They set up military bases, stated claims in the South China Sea, and no one ever opposed them.perhaps a speech in the UN, even a court case in the Court of InternationalmAffairs in The Hague, but China simply went on about its affairs and said they’re not subject to the court.
    China will prop up the US, since it’s China’s biggest customer, and they’ll make sure the US remains dependent on China for manufacturing.
    Given time, likely the US will even support China’s claim on Taiwan. There might be some haggling, but the US isn’t in a state to go to war with anyone.
    The US can’t even control it’s own borders or actively confront the drug cartels, even with over ninety thousand drug overdose deaths in 2020, with even more now, the majority probably fentanyl.
    The US has thousands of people killed from crime on the streets every year, but as long as the political status quo holds , no one will do anything.
    To think the US would go to war, and those in power possibly lose the White House or Congress over it is preposterous.

  5. David Chang

    September 25, 2022 at 10:16 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Navy and Marine Corps must prevent the CCP from attacking the Republic of China at this time, for several reasons.
    First , many U.S. troops are defending East Europe, and troops on Korea peninsula cannot reinforce Europe.

    Second, although Trump hopes that U.S. military win the war in East Europe as soon as possible. Let logistics troops reinforce West Pacific. But it’s relied on whether Democratic Party want to gamble on socialism elections in the world.

    Third, Democratic Party mock the poor quality of PLA, but on the financial plan and quality assurance for weapon, vehicle, vessel , and aircraft, we can speculate that CCP war plan is short term and rapid attrition war, rather than long term. So U.S. Fed. need the dollar reform plan, not New Deal.

    Finally, people in Taiwan Province of the Republic of China are more like Saigon, critical race theory is national education curriculum and liberation theology is church curriculum. If chaplain are deployed to Taiwan Province, they will hinder CCP socialism warfare.

    God bless America.

  6. Gaspar

    September 25, 2022 at 11:37 pm

    US would use nukes. Enough is enough.

  7. Jacksonian Libertarian

    September 26, 2022 at 12:26 am

    Fortify the 1st Island chain around the China Sea with smart weapons, with the intent of imposing a Strategic Blockade of Communist China at the first sign of war. A Strategic Blockade would cut off 98% of China’s foreign trade and 40% of China’s GDP in an instant, and it would focus the Communists attention on the cost of their belligerence.

    Nothing China makes can’t be made elsewhere at less risk.

    The Communists might still start a war so they can “Wave the Bloody Shirt” and generate domestic support to stay in power. But at least everyone in the world will know what the 1st World’s plan is to combat the Communists.

  8. Ragnor Lothbrok

    September 26, 2022 at 8:51 am

    China doesn’t need to invade America, they have already won WWIII and 90% or more Americans didn’t even realize it was being fought. Say what you want, but Xi along with the CCP were brilliant in the accomplishment of this, and obviously students of Sun Tzu. He has used the “useful idiots” in America to create all but irreparable chasms and deep rifts between American citizens and played us against our enemies all the while stealing our technology and wealth under the guise of cheap labor with no EPA or OSHA over-site.

    China is now the #1 producer of consumer products in the world and is working hard to eliminate food production in the rest of the world so they can control that too. They already own or control a huge number of our politicians through marriages to CCP members or vote fraud to get them of office. They now pretty much control the world’s monetary supply through currency manipulation and the threat of keeping corporations out of their multi-trillion dollar a year economy. Lastly, by funding and empowering radical anti-American groups and agendas, they have corrupted traditional American values, and ergo, have destroyed traditional American culture and replaced it with a perverted, poisonous culture of sexual depravity, drug use acceptance and racially seated violence.

    So, no China doesn’t need another war with America, they have already won the one that matters.

  9. Rich

    September 26, 2022 at 9:09 am

    More China war porn. Economically speaking, the US is the best thing that ever happened to China. China has taken decades to position itself as the master of the US economy which, currently, is wholly dependent on Chinese goods. Why would China kill the golden goose? Between the US debt that China holds and the massive annual trade imbalance, China would be insane to throw that away for political control over Taiwan. Taiwan is no threat to China. China would do better by cozying up to Taiwan than trying to achieve political gain by force. If not for China war porn and sinking aircraft carriers, this site would lose half its content overnight.

  10. John

    September 26, 2022 at 9:46 am

    If China is smart, it will not start any wars. Instead it should enshrine a corpus habeas policy ensuring fairer treatment of its citizen. Everything else, one party rule, control of the internet, press can stay the same.
    The Western model in its present form seems more unappealing.
    Criminals are released back into the community . Academic achievement is deemphasized.
    Antiracist racism including resegregation (see page 19 of Kendi’s book) instead of full integration and individual achievement is being promoted.
    I am sure with this Corpus Habeas approach there is no reason for Taiwan not to join China in the foreseable future.
    So China, be patient. You still can become the world dominating colossus, but not by starting a pacific war which will seal your demise.

  11. Rational Thinker

    September 26, 2022 at 11:27 am

    A pretty typical case of projection: China must attack the US because time is not on their side… yet it is. The “demographic collapse” so many talk about ignores the fact that out of the top ten nations facing demographic decline, China doesn’t even rank. In terms of industry and manufacturing, China is only getting stronger as its trade ties with central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East further solidify. And lastly, China’s navy is increasing, not decreasing, whereas the US Navy has been forced by a lack of funding, manpower, and resources to decommission ships at a rate not seen since the end of WW2.

    Let us take a look at the “demographic bomb” China is supposedly facing. By most rational estimates, China is projected to have about one-point-three billion people, which is a bit of a drop, by 2050. Not often mentioned, however, is the fact that Japan and South Korea are aging even faster and Taiwan about as quickly as its Western-oriented partners.

    In short, everyone in the region is aging, but China is actually in third or fourth place… it’s America’s allies that lead the pack.

    When it comes to manufacturing and energy, China is upgrading and expanding what it already has. China is a world leader in next-gen nuclear technology, is automating faster than any other industrialized nation on Earth, and is expanding its already enormous transportation infrastructure… all while building up trading partners throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

    We also have to remember that the PLA Navy is expanding at a time when the US is looking to decommission its entire fleet of LCS’s and all of its cruisers, all while struggling to turn out large surface combatants and all while struggling to maintain what ships it already has. With a maintenance backlog amounting to several months if not years, the US Navy is decommissioning ships faster than they can be replaced.

    We want a war with China because the clock is ticking for us, not them. They have all the time in the world whereas we, with the decline of American market share, the US Navy’s decreasing fleet size, the divisiveness of American politics (half the US electorate still thinks Trump is president or should be), and the stuttering non-start of America’s multiple domestic and foreign trade, infrastructure, and military endeavors, the US is on a timetable… we need this war while we, in our own estimation, still have the upper hand because past WW2 we have never fought a war where we didn’t.

    And it’s pretty illuminating to note that out of all those wars we fought, we lost most of them. This is not China needing to launch a war with the US lest they lose because they’re already winning by every metric possible. We want one because we know time is not on our side.

  12. I. Martin

    September 26, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    Anything is possible. Political leaders are often not so rational. We see the evidence of that fact all the time. However, a war with America would essentially be an invasion of Taiwan. This would be the stupidest thing China ever did. Even initial success, would not be guaranteed. China is in crisis already–adding additional crisis will probably not distract from current troubles. I think distraction is the only reason why Xi would consider it, but he is less impulsive than Putin. Unlike Putin, however, who has calculated so very poorly–creating dissent where things were rather cozy. Xi has a restive population due to real estate market crises that he helped create. We must remember that these leaders do things for personal reasons, not the greater good.

  13. David Chang

    September 26, 2022 at 1:31 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    When Marine Corps argue force design 2030, retired generals talk about two important issues. The first issue is about from a sea base, and the second issue is about PE/S, but the reason for these arguments is whether Pacific Fleet must defend Taiwan Strait.

    If Marine Corps must defend Taiwan Strait. Like Ukraine War, Marine Corps must have air support and fire support in time, but cannot rely on the fleet and reserve.

    However, Professor Holmes talk about an important issue which is also the thought of Socialism Parties announce in East Asia. They tell to people that ballistic missile and cruise missile cannot sink aircraft carrier. They do not talk about ASW, only say that the armour and structure of aircraft carrier can withstand any weapon. So, many people in East Asia rely on U.S. West Pacific Fleet, but not fight by themselves.

    If the tonnage or displacement of battleship is the reason, Yamato, Bismarck, and Lexington are unsinkable battleships. But container ship with Klub-K is going to be the smaller battleship. So the combat theory is like Professor Holmes say, calculate and explain the damage of salvos to the fleet, and let more people understand the risk of fleet combat.

    If Navy think that Pacific Fleet are enough to defend Taiwan Strait in coastal combat, this strategy is the best for Marine Corps.

    Steady our faith, give us courage, and grant us wisdom,
    God bless America.

  14. I. Martin

    September 26, 2022 at 1:44 pm

    We all know that war between the U.S. and China would revolve around Taiwan. An invasion of Taiwan by China would be a mistake. However, why should it even be necessary? I am often astounded by the Chinese and their terrible choices that often compound their problems. The one-child policy has been a disaster. The Cultural Revolution–another disaster! I know the top down, corrupt approach, that they take, assures that party insiders get all the goods, but allowing a true free market (Ok, truer free market–who has a true free market economy, anyway?) would really change things.

    Taiwan and much of Asia is dependent on China for trade. The only reason that China is not more powerful is their corrupt way of doing business. Less top-down, less corruption, and China wouldn’t have to wait long or go to war with anybody. China is short on women, but they don’t know how to woo them. If the average Chinese wasn’t so poor and rude, the women would come to China looking for men.

  15. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 26, 2022 at 2:31 pm

    Dropping the doctrine of assured destruction was a mistake. Basically announcing to the world that you’ll tolerate engagments that will likely lead to nuclear exchange is insane.

  16. Omega 13

    September 26, 2022 at 2:48 pm

    China has already peaked. Now they’re just trying to bluff.

  17. Jack

    September 26, 2022 at 5:28 pm

    China is about making money.
    If they 1st strike attack the US they will lose 50% of their exports.

    China’s not going to do anything…

  18. Yrral

    September 29, 2022 at 11:50 am

    China and Russia launch naval exercise off US territory Google China Russia Naval Alaska Bearing Sea Patrol

  19. Tummentava

    October 13, 2022 at 11:15 pm

    The ChiComs prefer Sun Tzu to Clausewitz.
    “The greatest general is not the one who wins 100 victories in 100 battles, but the one who wins the war without having to fight.”
    (paraphrased, didn’t feel like looking it up.)
    The CCP already has effective operational control over a great number of “american” politicians (biden, mcconnell, etc), institutions (cnn, msnbc, wapo, etc), academia (the confusius programs, now renamed, on most major college campi), intellectual property control (apple, nike, google, etc), sports celebrities (lebron, etc), farmland and other real estate purchases (often right beside ICBM missile silo farms, etc), and on and on….
    The ChiComs don’t NEED to “go to war” with the United States – they already have their infiltrators doing it as we speak.
    Just let that simmer a spell…..

  20. TG

    October 17, 2022 at 1:14 pm

    First of all, given that the United States is being invaded by third world refugees, and our military is not only not defending us, but actively assisting the invaders, why should I care about China? The CCP is not my enemy: the roughly 600 western billionaires that run the US are.

    That said, the idea that an aging population is an expensive population, is not really true. Rather a population where people breed to the limit – where they have enormous numbers of children until eventually chronic malnutrition forces them to have few children – these societies are capital starved and corrupt and weak. Think India and Pakistan and Bangladesh – compared to China, these countries don’t have the ability to project power in any meaningful way, as they have no surplus.

    On the other hand, a population with a moderate fertility rate, everything is not consumed by the need to feed an enormous number of malnourished peasants. One can have a real surplus, that can be reinvested. One notes that during the Great Depression, the fertility rate in the US fell because people were worried about having children they could not support at a reasonable level. By 1940, the United States had an older and smaller population than either China or India – and who was the greater power?

    Indeed China and the CCP face many problems, and I can’t say if they will overcome them. But an older population can, in principle, be a great source of strength for an industrial power.

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