China's Deadly Miscalculation in the Making
Mr. Axe’s otherwise excellent article (“China Thinks It Can Defeat America in Battle”) starts with one huge non sequitur.
The bad news first. The People’s Republic of China now believes it can successfully prevent the United States from intervening in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or some other military assault by Beijing (emphasis mine).
Let’s call that assertion—with which I totally agree—the apples. Here come the oranges:
Now the good news. China is wrong—and for one major reason. It apparently disregards the decisive power of America’s nuclear-powered submarines (emphasis mine).
The bad news “apples” have to do with American intentions or will, that is, the psychological component of security planning. The good news “oranges” relate to U.S. military capability, the physical or technological component. By itself, the latter—the ability to prevail in actual combat—cannot compensate for the absence of the former—the willingness to intervene—or even the perception that it is lacking.
Effective deterrence requires both the will and the capabilities—and the proper communication to the adversary that we are armed with both.
As for communicating to the People’s Republic that we have the wherewithal to defeat it in a naval battle, say in the Taiwan Strait, Mr. Axe’s article generously lays out the Navy’s underwater prowess: numbers of subs on station, numbers of missiles on each boat, offensive capabilities, etc.
Of course, all that information is in the public domain, aside from the more granular secrets that China manages to buy or steal. So it is rather startling for Mr. Axe to conclude that, until the publication of his piece, “the PLA seems to have ignored Washington’s huge undersea advantage.”
He even offers an explanation for this apparent major intelligence failure on the part of the Chinese: “It’s not surprising that Beijing would overlook America’s subs," he writes, because they’re under water! "Unseen and unheard. That why the sub force calls itself the ‘Silent Service’."
Cutting to the chase, our superb sub service could doubtless wreak devastation on a Chinese surface fleet if given the order to do so. But would the order be given? I’m betting that Beijing is betting it would not.
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Why not? Because, short of a preemptive U.S. attack, our vaunted submarine force cannot prevent the Chinese—employing either its own subs or its anti-ship cruise missiles—from sinking at least one major U.S. combatant ship. If a single carrier goes down, more Americans could die than in Pearl Harbor and September 11 combined. Destroying China’s navy or some of its cities in retaliation will not bring our people back. Would an American president be willing to pay that price to defend Taiwan, let alone some rocks in the East or South China Seas? I am confident he or she would, for the historic, moral, and strategic credibility reasons Mr. Axe cites.
But several U.S. China experts publicly say otherwise, that the U.S. would not and should not intervene. Such talk, taken with other factors, encourages China’s planners to reach the same conclusion. I believe they are wrong, but a major strategic miscalculation is in the making—not because of U.S. capabilities, which are far more than adequate, but because of the perception of the lack of U.S. will.
Chinese strategic thinkers are fond of citing Sun Tzu for the doctrine that the objective is to win the war without having to fight it—that is, to win it psychologically so you don’t have to wage it militarily. So, if Beijing can convince Washington that it cares about Taiwan, “a core interest” a hundred miles off its shore, more than we do from a distance of 7,000 miles, then it follows that China is willing to risk more and lose more to achieve its goal than we are prepared to expend to defend it. Or, as one Chinese general delicately put it during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, “You care more about Los Angeles than you do Taiwan.”
What would lead Beijing to conclude such a thing? For starters, we democratic Americans care a lot more about individual citizens’ lives than do China’s Communist leaders—see the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Korean War, Tiananmen Square.
Second, our media and politicians keep telling the world that Americans are war-weary except—at least for a while and from the air against monstrous ISIL, which happens to lack nuclear-armed missiles. Would Taiwanese being slaughtered by Chinese planes and missiles arouse the same public and official revulsion as the beheading of two Americans when missiles could also be directed at “hundreds of U.S. cities” as another PLA general threatened? Beijing presently guesses not, a very risky assumption on its part.
Third, there’s something called the doctrine of strategic ambiguity by which the U.S. will not state outright that it will defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. Instead, we say “it would depend on the circumstances.” Possibly we have said tougher things privately so only the Chinese can hear and can decide whether they just heard a credible red line. In diplomacy and deterrence, words matter, and words said publicly and unequivocally by an American president or secretary of state or defense would matter a lot.
Had the right words been used in December 1995 when China’s officials directly asked Assistant Secretary Joseph Nye about a possible U.S. response to an attack on Taiwan, perhaps Beijing would not have been encouraged to spend the next two decades building the capabilities Mr. Axe ably describes. That is, if they hadn’t told his interlocutors that “circumstances” (rather than strategic principle) would dictate U.S. policy, maybe the Chinese would not have set about with such determination to create the uncomfortable circumstances we now confront.
Fourth, China was an observer, and a participant, in America’s protracted limited wars in Korea and Vietnam, and learned much about the sustainability of U.S. commitment in such conflicts.
Fifth, Beijing has witnessed Washington’s handling of Russia’s Ukraine aggression and the U.S. preoccupation with “off ramps” along the escalatory ladder, even in the context of economic sanctions. In a kinetic situation over Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, or the South China Sea, China would be more than willing to offer face-saving off ramps to the U.S.
Mr. Axe aptly, but incompletely, surmises:
Beijing believes it can attack Taiwan or another neighbor while also bloodlessly deterring U.S. intervention. It would do so by deploying such overwhelmingly strong military forces—ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers, jet fighters and the like—that Washington dare not get involved.
What he fails to note is that China is deploying more than capabilities. It is demonstrating that its will to take Taiwan (and other places) is stronger than America’s will to defend them. The problem is not, as the article’s title suggests, that China thinks it can defeat America in battle. It is that it believes it can defeat America without battle.
For that reason, the expert Mr. Axe cites is wrong in saying: “We should not adopt an air-sea strike plan against the mainland, because that is a sure way to start World War IV.” That assumes China’s leaders are suicidal. They are not, and the Cold War threat of massive retaliation and mutually assured destruction proved effective in preventing not only nuclear war, but major conventional wars.
Removing ambiguity about U.S. commitment may sound provocative but would instead have a calming and cooling impact. Unclear intentions and wavering U.S. will invite Chinese adventurism.
As Henry Kissinger says of the Korean War, “We did not expect the attack; China did not expect our response.” Of such miscalculation, devastating wars are made.