When the Military Plans for War

Policy makers determine policy. The military plans for war against the nation’s most likely major adversary. There usually, but not always, is close coordination between policy makers who are determining the nation’s foreign policy, and their military leaders who are trying to foresee which country or countries are most likely to pose a threat to the nation’s vital and important interests. Since military budgets are often a substantial portion of the national budget and military leaders are often looked to by policy makers for advice on national security issues, there often is a considerable military influence on how a nation’s security forces are used by policy makers. What this means in practice is that, in many cases, what the military plans for as its most likely adversary in the foreseeable future can in fact become that adversary in an armed conflict. Making this cascading sequence even more likely is the fact that the potential adversary usually views the other nation’s plans for war as an indication that the nation is a threat to its own security interests.

A vicious circle is thus created, whereby the two nations plan to fight each other, develop their strategies against each other, forge alliances, and build and train their armed forces in a way calculated to defeat the other. Under these circumstances, a self-fulfilling prophecy of future war can be precipitated. Increasing the likelihood of conflict is the tendency of human beings to see predictable patterns in almost all things. One such predictable pattern in international conflict theory is the assumed high probability of there being an eventual war between great powers who enforce an existing status quo in the international order and emerging great powers who want to change the status quo to one more favorable to themselves and in recognition of their growing influence in the international community.

Most of these conditions would seem to apply to relations between the United States and China at this time. National leaders in Washington and Beijing tend to look at the other country as  being its most serious strategic competitor. Top military leaders in both countries are actively preparing their military for a future war against the other. And among the most developed of conflict scenarios are those involving Taiwan and the South China Sea. Like a heavy weight boxer, U.S. military strategy focuses on establishing predominant power, while Chinese military strategy focuses on making U.S. intervention over Taiwan and the South China Sea untenable and unsustainable. Both strategies could be successful under the right circumstances and thus are unlikely to be changed.

The key variable is the political will of the two sides: Will the United States, China, or both countries change their fundamental policies in the Western Pacific? If yes, then a new accommodation might be found that would improve the prospects for peace in the region. If not, then tensions between Washington and Beijing will probably increase. However, making those fundamental changes in policy for Washington and Beijing would be enormously difficult and could result in leadership changes in the countries seeking those policy adjustments. For example, could an American President forego U.S. leadership preeminence  in the Western Pacific, as would be signaled by reduction in support to Taiwan or curtailing naval transits through the South China Sea? Could a Chinese President walk away from China’s ambitions to reestablish its historic leadership role in Asia, again as signaled by renouncing territorial claims over Taiwan and the South China Sea? Perhaps these policy changes could be adopted, but only at very great risk to national leaders and to the nation’s prestige and influence in the global community. 

Conclusion: Even though the probability of conflict between the United States and China appears to be  growing, the political risks to national leaders in the two countries are at present too high to make the policy changes which might avert such a conflict.  In the meantime, the military on both sides will continue to build up their forces and plan to fight each other. This is a dangerous situation and one that is likely to continue for some time to come.