This year marks the second anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan – which ended America’s longest war. Yet, there are still approximately 2,500 U.S. servicemembers deployed to Iraq, while there are now around 900 U.S. forces serving in Syria.
Since the Second World War, the United States has been involved in a multitude of “military adventures” – notably Vietnam. By contrast, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has largely avoided any notable deployments around the globe.
Its last true “war” was in Korea, which ended 70 years ago this month.
Even China’s last brief border war with Vietnam was more than four decades ago. Moreover, it hasn’t fought a major naval battle in more than a century – while the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has never engaged a significant enemy.
As a result, China’s military has no combat experience, which should be seen as a good thing for the United States and its allies.
However, Beijing has also largely avoided any costly conflicts.
China Will Likely Get Its Chance
There is no denying that China is seeking to expand its influence around the globe. It has established a military presence with its PLA support base in Djibouti in Africa, while it has a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan. In addition, the PLA has established a military post in Tajikistan and an espionage facility in Havana, Cuba.
This has been seen as a serious concern for the United States and its interests, while there are also worries that Beijing will extend its influence in Central Asia and Africa.
However, a case could be made that this could be a good thing for the United States in the long run.
During the Cold War, China avoided those costly adventures that saw the end of the European empires. The French government likely spent more than three billion francs between 1945 and 1955 – around $6.8 billion in 2023 dollars – while nearly 100,000 of its soldiers were killed in its futile efforts to hold onto its Indochina colonies.
The British, Dutch, and Portuguese also fought costly colonial wars in the decades after the Second World War with absolutely nothing to show for it. Likewise, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan helped accelerate its collapse.
There is no reason to believe that Chinese neo-colonialism would end differently. As it seeks to expand into Central Asia and Africa, it could end up engaged with enemies where war is just a part of daily life. Even if Beijing can forge a relationship with Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, it will still face threats from ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other insurgent groups.
The same almost certainly holds true in Africa.
Neo-Colonialism Means Neo-Colonial Wars
Beijing’s involvement in the region dates to the Cold War, with Beijing’s support of liberation movements fighting colonial rule. There is little reason to suspect the same groups that sought independence will welcome China as their masters – while the more stable governments will actually welcome business opportunities for Washington as well as for Beijing. Moreover, China’s involvement in Africa could ease the burden on the West to help establish stable regimes.
It is still easy to see why China’s rapid expansion is a serious threat to the U.S., but it will overburden Beijing. Establishing overseas bases will be costly, and while some nations like Iran may welcome closer ties with China, it is unlikely to last.
Any Chinese expansion will serve as a wedge that drives it apart from Tehran, not closer.
One factor at play is that Communist China and Islam cannot readily co-exist. It is a marriage of inconvenience at best, especially as Beijing has sought to crack down on its Muslim minority population.
As a result, China could find itself in its own war on terror against Islamic extremists in the coming years. And unlike when the West rallied around the United States following 9/11, it is unlikely the world will stand behind Beijing – rather, Communist China will largely stand alone.
Whether it is in Africa, Afghanistan, or even within its own borders, China will likely get a chance to see if its military is ready for a fight. Without any experience and with a potential battle-hardened enemy, it might end up being welcome. The sleeping dragon is waking up, but it isn’t really ready to face its potential dragon slayers.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.