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The Unlikely Prospect of War with China

By James H. Nolt 

Periodically, over the last couple decades, I have written on the issue of a potential U.S. war with China. I did not explore this issue because it is likely, but to demonstrate why it is unlikely. I still believe war is unlikely, but the possibility may have increased with the election of Donald Trump. My argument unfolds in two parts: War could not broadly benefit either China or the U.S., but war with China might sweep away many of the domestic obstacles that would otherwise prevent Trump from achieving his policy objectives and fulfilling his promises to voters. 

In order for war to start, one or the other power must push for it. Liberal international relations theory, on the contrary, contends that wars may start by accident. I strongly disagree. In all the cases where liberals have argued this, beginning most extensively with World War I, I find that the preponderance of evidence shows that one or more of the contending leaders calculated that war would benefit them and pushed it forward. However, after disasters happen, evidence of the real origins remain inaccessible in obscure archives while official cover stories, rooted in wartime propaganda, blame foreign opponents for starting the war. Subsequent historians see through these flimsy cover stories and, recognizing that nobody is willing to take credit for starting the war, begin to construct alternative narratives claiming that nobody really wanted the war and it was an inadvertent misstep. 

The danger of liberal illusions about accidental war is that the real war criminals escape blame and the public begins to overestimate the chances of war. People assume that even if every major power seems genuinely war averse, their mutual fear and misapprehension of an adversary’s motives may lead to a war that nobody wants. Ironically, such exaggerated fear of war makes it easier for disingenuous war mongers to whip up war fever. Thus despite the fact that many liberals love peace, their irrational expectations about the causes of war may play into the hands of real warmongers who act deliberately. 

Some people think that once any shooting starts, the slippery slope to war is almost irresistible. This blog is too short for me to discuss cases where major shooting or bombing incidents involving regular armed forces, even causing scores of deaths, were smoothed over by the adversaries, averting all-out war. I will not claim that accidental war is impossible, but so far I have not found any convincing examples. 

If war were to start between U.S. and China, it would certainly not be China that starts it. There are several reasons I am confident about that. First is that China’s collective leadership has a strong aversion to chaos and instability. Managing China’s many problems is tough enough. War would exacerbate these immensely, as China’s long and sad history of war illustrates, especially since 1840. Second is that China’s military forces are much weaker than those of the U.S., particularly for any naval and air conflict in the South or East China Seas. This is true even without considering China’s lack of reliable military allies, whereas the U.S. has numerous powerful military allies, including (with the U.S. itself) eight of the top 10 industrial powers on Earth. Third is that the economic consequences of any war with the U.S., even a limited war, would be much more severe for China than for the U.S. China’s military planners might attempt opportunistically to coerce isolated weaker countries, such as Vietnam, but their posture toward the U.S. and Japan is to deter potential foreign aggression rather than to initiate war. 

Furthermore, the economic vulnerability of China in event of a war is not sensitive to the lopsided military balance. Even if the U.S. halved its current navy and all of its numerous military allies stayed neutral, China’s overseas trade would cease from the first day of the war, much like what happened to Germany in both world wars. Many commentators suggest that China’s new bases in the South China Sea are changing this, but in doing so they fail to see the bigger picture. Little of China’s vital trade terminates in the South China Sea. Most of it extends over vast oceans easy for U.S. naval power to interdict with a distant blockade, just as the U.K. did to Germany twice in the 20th century.

China is now vastly more trade dependent than it was when President Carter established diplomatic relations in 1979. Much of the machinery for its factories comes from Europe, especially Germany. Much of its oil travels over the long sea route from the Persian Gulf. Much of its metal ores come from South America, Canada, Australia, and India. Most of its exports are sold in North America and Europe. Many of its best naval and air weapons come from Russia. Though some of these could reach China by rail, with most of its overseas trade stopped, China would lack the means to pay for significant arms replenishment from Russia. The Chinese people’s living standard would fall drastically as many industries grind to a halt from lack of vital raw materials or overseas markets. It is extremely unlikely that China’s leaders would willingly inflict such a catastrophe on themselves. This is even before considering the devastation likely inflicted by the fighting itself. 

Until Trump’s election, I considered it very unlikely that the U.S. would initiate war against China because both major American political parties have been fueled by support and political contributions from hundreds of powerful American and transnational corporations with strong profit incentives for good relations with China. It is hard to find a major corporation that does not extensively source from or market to China. For many, China contributes the largest share of their profits. For example, General Motors, one of the three largest auto companies in the world, now sells more cars in China than in the U.S. Any war with China would cause massive losses to numerous corporations. 

Even though most American corporations would suffer heavily from day one of any war with China, the American economy overall would suffer less than the Chinese. The reason is that the majority of products the U.S. imports from China is not vital. Most of the consumer goods imported from China could be sourced from dozens of other countries around the world. Prices would certainly rise for a time and the American people might have to cut purchases somewhat, but there is little that China exports that the U.S. could not replace. Even rare earths, vital for many electronic products, for which China supplies most of the world market today, could be supplied by reopening mines in North America. 

If Trump is really serious about the economic nationalist program he espoused on the campaign and that key advisors like Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro have long advocated, perhaps the only politically plausible way to implement it, given the strong corporate opposition it would arouse, would be by picking a fight with China. Only during war might Trump gain the overweening executive power he seems to crave. Without extraordinary powers, Trump is likely to fail to deliver on his campaign promises, like returning factory jobs to the U.S., given extraordinary Republican and corporate opposition to many of his remedies, such as tariffs. Yet war would be a very high-risk political and military gamble. Wars tend to be easier to start than to end favorably. More on that next week.

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James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.

[Photo courtesy of the Kremlin]

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