In the wake of the PRC’s actions around the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been increasing speculation in some circles that the PRC might be preparing to wage war against the United States, or at least some sort of regional war (such as an invasion of Taiwan) in which treaty obligations would involve the U.S.
I’ve actually been considering this possibility, from my perspective as a wargamer and military-history buff, for over a decade – ever since China began seriously flexing its muscles in the South China Sea. And the risk of war has undoubtedly been rising recently.
The PRC has given U.S. and other trade partners ample reason to conclude that they need to decouple their economies from Chinese supply chains. Threats by China to use its control of most of rare-earth production for economic blackmail have been followed by much more serious threats to use its dominance of the manufacturing of basic pharmaceuticals as a weapon.
Post-COVID-19, it’s now strategically vital for other nations to develop supply chains for critical goods that are domestic, or at least better guarded against the political and epidemiological risk of relying on Chinese manufacturing. While necessary, this shift does mean the PRC has less to lose in the event of going to war.
Nevertheless, I continue to judge that the odds of China launching a war are very low. Nobody can entirely rule out enraged, irrational behavior by the PRC, but in the remainder of this post I will attempt to demonstrate why the war options available to the PRC hold out little or no prospect of a satisfying victory and entail severe terminal risks.
To wage a winning war, you need to formulate a set of war aims that are achievable with the tools and resources you have. Your strategy derives from your war aims, which have to be grounded in some notion of how you will manage the peace following a military victory to your advantage.
Historically, the overwhelmingly most common sort of aggressive war is a war of conquest. In these the war aim is simple – to conquer and annex some territory, and then integrate it into your state structure following victory.
In more sophisticated versions of this game you may be satisfied with the creation of a compliant client state from your conquest.
A step further away from raw conquest is war to maintain position as the dominant power (the hegemon) of a trade network that gathers wealth for your nation even without exerting formal control of the other polities in the network. Many wars that at first sight appear to be ideologically motivated can be understood this way, with political or religious ideology providing a rationale for hegemony that the entire trade network accepts – or can at least be made to echo.
Broadly speaking, land powers tend to wage wars of conquest, while maritime powers wage wars of hegemony. There have been exceptions in both directions. But in all cases, a set of war aims needs to hold out a better than even chance that the gains of war will outweigh the costs.
To understand how limited the PRC’s war options are, we can start with a grasp on how difficult and unsatisfying any war of conquest would be due to the geographic box China is in. The obstacles around it are formidable.
To the south, the Himalayan massif makes all of South Asia other than a narrow coastal plain on the Southeast Asian peninsula inaccessible to serious troop movements. There are no roads or rail links. The last time the Chinese tried pushing in that direction, in 1979, they were unable to sustain an offensive at any distance from their railheads and withdrew after less than a month. Their war aim – forcing the North Vietnamese to withdraw its troops from Cambodia – failed.
To the west, the vastness and comparatively undeveloped state of China’a western hinterland is a serious logistical problem before one even gets to the border. At the borders, the Tien Shan and Pamir ranges present a barrier almost as formidable as the Himalayas. External road and rail links are poor and would be easily interdicted.
To the north, movement would be easier. It might be just within logistical possibility for the PLA to march into Siberia. The problem with this idea is that once you’ve conquered Siberia, what you have is…Siberia. Most of it, except for a small area in the south coastal region of Primorsky Kraye, is so cold that cities aren’t viable without food imports from outside the region. Set this against the risks of invading a nuclear-armed Russia and you don’t have a winning proposition.
To the east is the South China Sea. The brute fact constraining the PRC’s ambitions in that direction is that mass movement of troops by sea is risky and difficult. I recently did the math on Chinese sealift craft and despite an expensive buildup since the 1980s they don’t have the capacity to move even a single division-sized formation over ocean. Ain’t nobody going to take Taiwan with one division, they’ve has too much time to prepare and fortify over the last 60 years.
The PRC leadership is evil and ruthless, but it’s also cautious and historically literate and can read maps. Accordingly, the People’s Liberation Army is designed not to take territory but to hold the territory the PRC already has. Its mission is not conquest but the suppression of regional warlordism inside China itself. The capability for the PLA to wage serious expeditionary warfare doesn’t exist, and can’t be built in the near-term future.
It’s often said that the danger of aggressive war by China is a function of the huge excess of young men produced by covert sexual selection and the one-child policy. But to expend those young men usefully you need to get them to where they can fight and are motivated by some prospect of seizing the wives unavailable for them at home. The PRC can’t do that.
The military threat from China is, therefore, a function of what it can do with its navy, its airpower, and its missiles. And what it can do with those against the U.S. is upper-bounded by the fact that the U.S. has nuclear weapons and would be certain to respond to a PRC nuclear or EMP attack on the U.S. mainland by smashing Chinese cities into radioactive rubble.
Within the constraints of conventional warfare waged by navy and air force it is difficult to imagine an achievable set of PRC war aims that gains more than it costs.
This isn’t to say the PRC couldn’t do a lot of damage if it wants to. Anybody with a brain has to worry about U.S. carriers looking like big, fat, slow targets in the modern naval battlespace. There’s intelligence that the PRC is working hard on hypersonic ship-killer missiles, and I certainly would be in their shoes. It may already be unsafe for hostile carriers to operate inside the first island chain.
The problem is this: after you’ve surprised and sunk a couple of U.S. fleet carriers, what do you do for an encore? How do you convert that tactical victory into strategic gains? You’re not going to do it with your army, which can’t get anywhere more interesting after the sinkings than it could before.
Your problems are compounded by China’s extreme import dependence. You need a constant high volume of imports of coal, oil, and steel to keep your economy running. These have to be imported through sealanes that are extremely vulnerable to interdiction, notably at the Malacca Straits and in the Persian Gulf.
In a lot of ways your strategic situation is like a scaled-up version of Japan’s in 1941 – you could seize the initiative with a Pearl-Harbor-like initial shock, but you can’t wage a long war because without sealane control you’ll run out of key feedstocks and even food rather rapidly. And unlike the Japanese in 1941, you don’t have the kind of serious blue-water navy that you’d need for sealane control outside the first island chain – not with just two carriers against up to eleven U.S. Carrier Battle Groups you don’t.
There is one way an aggressive naval war could work out in your favor anyway. You can count on the U.S.’s media establishment to be pulling for the U.S. to lose any war it’s in, especially against a Communist or Socialist country. If your war goals are limited to ending U.S. naval power projection in the Western Pacific, playing for a rapid morale collapse orchestrated by agents of influence in the U.S. is not completely unrealistic.
It’s playing with fire, though. One problem is that before you launch your attack you don’t know that your sucker punch will actually work. Another is that, as the Japanese found out after Pearl Harbor, the American public may react to tragic losses with Jacksonian fury. If that happens, you’re seriously screwed. The war will end with your unconditional surrender, and not sooner.
You’re probably screwed anyway. Given even minimal spine in the U.S.’s civilian leadership, the U.S. Navy can strangle your economy in a matter of months by interdicting a handful of chokepoints well outside of the area where you can sustain naval operations at a wartime tempo. Those hypersonic missiles are all very well if you actually have them, but even if you could could reach out and touch the Malacca Straits with them they’re not going to do much against attack submarines.
Again I note that the PRC leadership can read maps. It is probably more aware and less self-deluding about the economic precariousness of its situation than American politicians would be if the positions were reversed, because Marxist doctrine insists that politics is an epiphenomenon of economics.
The PRC can start a war, but they don’t have the capability to win one. That’s why, barring a Hitler-scale episode of insanity in the PRC leadership, it’s not going to happen.
UPDATE: A reader trying to evaluate the plausibility of an invasion of Taiwan asked “What’s the PLA’s NCO corps like? What’s their ‘Marine’ troopers quality?”
Confucian culture, Communist doctrine. No successful military adventure ever unless you count bloodying the U.S.’s nose in Korea (and they didn’t win that one, South Korea exists). With that record I don’t think anyone can know for sure, but I know which way to bet.
The way to bet is that Chinese NCOs are good at dealing with pitched attacks along a well-defined threat axis, but otherwise almost incapable of operating without clear command direction. Expect their Marines (and other troops) to be individually tough and skilled, but incapable of tactical initiative and vulnerable to morale collapse when faced with an enemy that gets inside their OODA loop.
Ordinary line troops will fight better than Arabs and Arabized tribesmen, because they have a much higher average IQ and more ability to form loyalties above the familial/tribal level. They’ll certainly be much more effective users of military technology. But they’ll have the same tendency to shatter when faced with Americans or Brits or Germans or Israelis who really get high-intensity maneuver warfare.
Overall I’d expect battlefield performance somewhat better than Warsaw Pact troops once their feet are dry, but they’re going to make a lot of costly bonehead mistakes in naval and amphibious operations due to inexperience and inflexible combat psychology. Their senior officers will, on the whole, be technically competent but cautious and unimaginative (nails that stick up get pounded down in their culture).
A tiny handful of their special-operations troops may be better than I’m describing so far. Because their population is so large they might be able to collect enough super-warrior outliers to field SpecOps teams that are world-class (comparable to Americans/Brits/Russians/Israelis). Russian Spetsnaz are the precedent here. But they’ll have a hell of a time replacing those troops and will be poor at integrating them into normal combat operations (again, see Spetsnaz).
They won’t be particularly atrocity-prone. Along this axis expect: (1) way way better than pre-1945 Japanese, (2) way better than Nazis, (3) better than Arabs, (4) possibly better than Warsaw pact troops.