No one wants a war between China and the United States -- the costs would be enormous to all involved. Nonetheless, American and Chinese military planners are fully engaged in preparing for such a conflict, be it initiated over Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Korean peninsula, or some other scenario. This is not warmongering; it is what nation-states do when leaders foresee the possibility of conflicting interests in areas of vital concern. Such conflicting interests do exist in East Asia between the United States and China. The PLA modernizes its naval, air, and missile forces in large part to deter the United States from intervening over Taiwan and in the South China Sea; the Pentagon develops concepts such as the Air-Sea Battle to bring American air and naval assets rapidly to bear in any regional conflict involving China.
The essence of the PLA strategy is to deny access to American forces that might support Taiwan or U.S. friends and allies in the East and South China Seas. The essence of the American strategy is to blind the surveillance and missile systems that pose the greatest threat to the intervening U.S. forces. China will use cyber attacks, waves of anti-ship missiles, attack submarines, and other capabilities to keep American carriers and other strike forces out of effective range for intervening in local conflicts. The United States will use its own cyber-attack capabilities and stealth weaponry to blunt China's ability to find and target U.S. offensive assets and then move close enough to conduct pinpoint attacks on critical Chinese units essential to PLA operations.
Strategists in both countries perceive the other as a long-term threat, so there will always be the temptation to escalate the conflict just enough to inflict strategic damage on the other side, thereby reducing the opponent's threat for several years beyond the end of the current crisis. China, for example, might try to gain control of Taiwan once and for all and position missile, surveillance, submarine, air, and other defensive capabilities on the island; or it might try to coerce Southeast Asian nations into accepting its hegemony over the South China Sea and limiting future military cooperation with the United States. For its part, the United States might deliberately maim the Chinese navy so that Beijing cannot for many years project power much beyond its own coastline.
The danger, of course, is that these strategic operations might cut too deeply into the perceived security interests of the other side. During the Cold War, there was always a risk of localized conflicts escalating between the United States and the Soviet Union. In today's security environment in East Asia, the risk is not nuclear exchange, but rather a long-term, seething tension between China and the United States that would poison the newly found prosperity of the Pacific Basin. Given the interdependencies that now exist, such long-term Sino-American hostility could have damaging economic, political, diplomatic, technological, security, and social effects for decades.
August 26, 2012