A Coming War with China? Think Again

April 10th, 2009 in Current Events by Frank Chadwick

A few weeks ago Armchair General ran an e-poll on the likelihood of armed conflict between the US and China within the next ten years. Actually, I prefer to think of it as a quiz rather than a poll, and here are your grades:

Very Unlikely (24%) A
Somewhat Unlikely (34%) B
Don’t Know (5%) C (points for honesty and humility)
Somewhat Likely (26%) D
Very Likely (11%) F

Pretty good, class. Almost 60% got a B or higher. Now what do those 58% understand that the other 42% of you are a little foggy on?

A good friend of mine is married to a Chinese lady who moved here from mainland China a number of years ago. About half of her extended family did as well, with the other half still in China. Many in this second half visit on occasion. This gives my friend some unique insights into the Chinese, and one of the most interesting observations he made was: “Every culture except the Chinese thinks they’re superior to everyone else; the Chinese know it.”

On a certain level it’s pretty hard to argue with; China has been around for a LOOOONG time and developed a vibrant and sophisticated culture far in advance of Western Europe. Interestingly enough, this aspect of Chinese . . . let’s call it self-confidence instead of arrogance . . . is a major reason we are unlikely to become involved in a shooting war with them in the near future. That’s because the Chinese simply do not care about the things that spark conflict in the modern world.

First, they don’t have this neurotic need to be loved by everyone on the planet. They don’t stay up late making lists of people who like them and people who don’t like them. Sure there was this vague hope that everyone would fall in love with Beijing during the Olymics, but for the most part their self-image does not depend on the opinions of non-Chinese. They just don’t care.

The very Anglo-American idea of “supporting our friends around the world” is not a significant component of Chinese foreign policy. Think it is? Okay. Name three of China’s “friends” it would go to war to protect.

Name two.

Admittedly, there is also a xenophobic ultra-nationalist contingent in Chinese politics (as there is most other places) but for now they are a powerless minority, and failing a major and pronounced economic downturn, they are unlikely to gain much ground. But you never know. Anyone who says they know all the answers ususally doesn’t know any.

Second, they don’t step on anyone’s ideology because they are basically ideology-free. They are the ultimate pragmatists and care about advancing China’s welfare – as they see it, of course. Although Lou Dobbs invariably refers to it as “Communist China,” I’ve been to Congregationalist churches that are more communistic, in any meaningful sense, than these guys are.

Who hates China in the Middle East? Nobody. Because the Chinese don’t have a dog in that fight, and they aren’t likely to pick one, because they just don’t care. They need oil, but they buy it on the world market, and they’ll keep buying it there no matter who pumps it.

They need markets and are investing a lot of capital – both financial and human – in Africa. But they aren’t picking sides in Africa’s internal struggles. They don’t care who wins; they just want a piece of the economic action, no matter who comes out on top. This ideological neutrality is an enormous asset.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the US and Chinese economies and financial systems are now so completely entangled that any war between these two countries will economically destroy both and lead to a global financial melt-down that will make our current problems look like a little bump in the road. Why are they entangled? Because the Chinese only care about what’s good for China, and the US has been a great investment.

Will the Chinese start trying to decouple their financial system from ours? Probably. Their investment portfolio could stand a bit of diversification. But they will only do so to the extent that they see it advancing their interests. They aren’t interested in paying any sort of price to hurt us.

Not because they like us. Because they just don’t care.

About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.

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13 Responses to “A Coming War with China? Think Again”

  1. Frank, another great post. One thing you didn’t address is how the US is the most indebted customer to the Bank of China. How does this fact strengthen or weaken your argument? I mean, if China doesn’t really care, how is it in China’s interests to keep loaning us money? I wonder.

  2. Tracey,

    Thanks again. Good point on the Bank of China. That indebtedness is at the core of the entanglement of our two economic systems that I mentioned. On the one hand, we need the Chinese to continue to underwrite our borrowing to keep the wheels of commerce and government turning. On the other hand, China needs us to keep those wheels turning, or else the biggest single chunk of their investment portfolio turns toxic, with consequences nearly as bad for them as for us. From both points of view, a shooting war would be catastrophic.

  3. Andrwe Nicoll said:

    Nice piece. Before WWI it was a thought held by some economists that Europe’s economies were so entwined that a war was unthinkable. This turned out to be true: WWI *DID* effectively destroy most of western Europe’s economies. That wasn’t enough to prevent it happening because ideologies or other tensions overcame rational thought. A microcosm of the same thing happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. Rational economics is never enough by itself to prevent a war if the other drivers are strong enough. So it seems to me that a very real question here is not whether China will stand by a friend but whether the US will. The only current likely cause of a direct shooting war would be a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan. Does the US care enough about Taiwan to go to war with China and destroy the world economy in the process? Let’s hope China doesn’t want to annex Taiwan badly enough to cause the question to arise, because I personally can’t guess which way DC would jump. My guess is that China probably won’t provoke this issue, mainly because of another major difference between China and the rest of the world: Chinese governments (of any stripe) think in *very* long timescales. Unimaginably long by the standards of western democracies. My 2c is that they’ll wait for a less risky opportunity.

  4. Great article Frank, well thought out as usual. I would, however, point out that Germany’s biggest trading partner in 1914 was…France. Never underestimate the collective stupidity of humans.


  5. Beleive me, I would never underestimate the power of cillective stupidity. The reason I put the entangled nature of our economies last was that, powerful a force as that entanglement remains, it is still subject to the sort of flights of irrationality which history reminds us are all too frequent. Our most likely hedge against war is that ideologically, the Chinese just don’t have a bone to pick with us — Taiwan being (as Andy points out) the big X factor here. As I said in the column, anyone who thinks they know all the answers probably doesn’t know any of them, but like Andy I am inclinded to think the Chinese will play it safe on Taiwan. They have too much to lose if things go wrong.

  6. Martin Gualdarrama said:

    Ma Ying-jeou election to the presidency of Taiwan pretty much indicates that reunification which was unthinkable 20 years ago has a shot of happening in my lifetime. The way China has handled Hong Kong has made a larger percentage of the populaion amenable to the idea. It also doesn’t hurt that most of Chiang Kai-shek’s cronies are dead by now. So Taiwan is not likely to be a reason for conflict between thwe United States and China.

    North Korea has a slight(but highly unlikely) chance of starting a war with Japan which might get the US and China involved. But the more likely scenario is that before North Korea provokes the Nipponese into a war, Big Brother China will tell them to knock it off in no uncertain terms.

    There is no other country that I can think of that China would meddle in militarily that it doesn’t already control.

    The Chinese are starting to build more modern naval vessels but it seems that prrojection of power is mainly to battle piracy/smuggling for it’s surface component and spying for it’s nuclear sub component.
    Uness they start building a dozen nuclear carriers, they aren’t gearing up nor a naval war againt the US. And certainly we don’t have the manpower/logistical capability of fighting a mainland war against China. Finally nuclear exchange just has no winners.

    But I deny writing any of tis if the shooting starts.

  7. Russell White said:

    I enjoyed reading this article and the commecnts posted somethings I disagree with though.
    China has had border conflicts with USSR, India and I beleive a large scale operation againt Vietnam. They also massively supported North Korea in that countries war.
    They havent needed to fight anyone or struggle for influence because the US polices the world for them rather like Britian policed the world in the 19th century to the USAs advantage.
    Whilst things are running smoothly, world trade is running fine and everyone has easy access to natural resources, there isnt a need for them to spend huge amounts on armaments. If/when resources start becoming scarce I think there could be lots of opportunities for conflict.

    As people have pointed out the economic thing didnt prevent the first world war, and it wasnt the damage done because of the end of the system but the massive amount that was spent fighting the war that ruined europes economies as well as having other countries, like the US and less importantly south America, around to take over the foreign markets.

  8. [...] frankchadwick added an interesting post on A Coming War with China? Think Again : Great HistoryHere’s a small excerptA Coming War with China? Think Again. April 10th, 2009 in Making History – Current Events by Frank Chadwick. A few weeks ago Armchair General ran an e-poll on the likelihood of armed conflict between the US and China within the next ten … [...]

  9. Tomek said:

    This is a bit dated, but a few comments:

    - That Chinese sense of superiority is not just another case of cultural chauvinism, it’s engineered. Ever since the post-Mao reform days in the 1970s, the decreasingly communist government in Beijing has relied increasingly on nationalism, a particularly filtered and self-serving form of nationalism to curry favor and legitimacy with Han Chinese. Modern Chinese learn in school about the Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion, European imperialism and the horrors of the Japanese occupation — but never learn of Qing China’s own imperialism, about the centuries of Vietnamese and native Taiwanese resistance to Chinese colonization, or the horrors China inflicted on Tibet during its war of conquest there in 1950-59. According to Chinese pro-democracy activists, the average school student in China today has no idea that anything took place in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago.

    - China does have an agenda in the world, and a zone it considers its sphere of influence. Witness the Chinese navy threatening and harassing Japanese fishing and commercial boats near the Spratley islands, Filipino fishing ships in the East China Sea, and more recently, video-recorded attempts by Chinese naval vessels trying to disrupt U.S. Navy operations in open seas. China is currently under-going a massive military build-up, with — according to several global military analysts — a couple main goals, one of them being able to challenge the U.S navy locally in any conflict with Taiwan. (China’s other major military goal is to conquer Taiwan, which requires developing a massive first-strike capability to overcome Taiwan’s formidible defenses and then to amphibiously transport significant land forces to the island. This relates to my last point, that China sees Taiwan and Tibet as historical Chinese territory and therefore they are required to submit to Beijing. Taiwan’s native population spent centuries fighting off Chinese colonization, only to succumb in the very late 17th century. Still, only in 1949 did the Han Chinese significantly outnumber the native Taiwanese, and a few European friends living in Taiwan recently have reported that many older native Taiwanese today remember the Japanese occupation years (1895-1945) fondly and still teach their children Japanese and encourage them to study in Japan, such is their hostility still to Chinese rule.

    - Who hates China in the Middle East? Government-wise, few, but population-wise, nearly everyone. Among the many minorities China suppresses today are the Uighurs, an ancient Turkic people who once ruled an impressive empire of their own in the 8th and 9th centuries. Active Chinese suppression of Uighur cultural rights, coupled with a very active program of Han Chinese colonization of Xinjiang province in northwestern China, has sparked Uighur resistance to Chinese rule and some Uighur organizations have actively cooperated with Al Qaeda, just as some Chechen groups fighting Russia have also reached out to wider Islamicist groups for help. Indeed, a few friends serving in Iraq have reported facing Uighur (and Chechen) volunteers fighting for Al Qaeda there.

    - China has fought several wars with India since 1949, one brief border war with the Soviet Union in 1969, and another short summer war with Vietnam in 1978. If the U.S. decided to retaliate against some North Korean provocation (like dropping a missile in downtown Honolulu), I am not nearly as sure as you that China will not still actively defend North Korea. The hyper-nationalist version of events that Beijing teaches its citizens about the Korean War of 1950-53 is that the evil United States invaded poor, defenseless North Korea but China vanquished the mighty Americans; this is an enormous sense of pride for modern Chinese. The regime in Beijing would have some uncomfortable explaining to do to its citizens if the U.S. flexes some military muscle against Pyongyang, and might not be able to stand by idly with daily pictures of outdated North Korean forces being pummeled by the evil Americans again — even if China ultimately agrees with Washington about the need for a non-nuclear Korean peninsula and that Pyongyang needs to calm down a bit.

    - As far as economic ties are concerned, you are assuming that humans will always, or even a majority of the time, act from rational impulses. As someone else where already pointed out, as the July Crisis of 1914 played out, many in Paris and Berlin assumed war to be impossible because of the strong economic ties that bound the two countries together and transcended borders. we humans often respond to influences and impulses that ignore many aspects of what an objective observer might argue would be our better interests….

  10. MIG said:

    I couldn’t say it better myself Tomek. You made it crystal clear that China is a possible threat, and it would be foolish for the US or any country that borders China to ignore all the facts you clearly pointed out. I would also add that China is actively pursuing a long term strategy (China’s String of Pearls Strategy) to keep it’s war machine going by building a string of bases from the middle east to South East Asia, if the Tawain issue is not resolved peacefully (Anti-Secession Law).



  11. Edward P said:

    One other side note, China will soon have 24 million plus men of military age with no females of a similar age. This due to the years of 1 child policy and the cultural preference for males. It will be interesting to see what China will do with a bunch of “randy” men if there is a down turn in the economy and now this men with no jobs and nothing else to occupy their times. As Frank says the only thing that the Chinese Government cares about is the well being of the Chinese government. Boy sounds a bit like here in the good old U.S.A. Just a thought. Carry on.

  12. Edward: No question it’s a looming demographic disaster. Even without an economic downturn, once those men reach an age where they want to begin families, there is likely to be a lot of resentment. If the division of the economic pie is seen as rigged, the lack of marriagable women will be an additional, potentially explosive, element of that resentment.

  13. Jeremy Betz said:

    No need for China to go to war with the U.S. militarily while they are destroying them economically. What would be the point?

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