War with China: Babbling incoherence and missing evidence

Nov 24, 2023
The US vs China conflict, international relations crisis.

With the expansion of all services of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – no matter that it is consistent with a defensive posture – China’s every strategic move now is rendered totally unacceptable after passing through a prism designed and issued on a complementary basis by the US.

Hyper-suspicion is the attitude and threat inflation is the product.

Whatever China does, regardless of its context, is automatically rendered an indication of a currently hostile mindset and, quite likely, future aggression.

In the parlance of the dominant western strategic discourse, China is the “pacing threat” – a catalyst producing not only contradictions between foreign economic policy and defence policy, but grossly expanded military budgets, and extraordinary levels of weapons procurement throughout the Western system of alliances.

Close attention to this cacophony soon confirms that, what appears at first acquaintance to be groups of people uttering speech-like sounds in language unknown to those listening from an informed and critical standpoint, is in fact exactly that: a vocalising of something resembling speech but which lacks any readily comprehended meaning. The referent of the speech – China’s bellicosity – is not apparent.

It is as well for those speaking that there is no equivalent of Psychology’s Goldwater Rule in strategic commentary.

Strictly speaking, the utterances are not necessarily indicative of mental illness but, also strictly speaking, they’re gibberish.

In some religious contexts they might pass muster under the rubric of glossolalia – but it appears that it is a phenomenon which can now be extended to Australian strategic pronouncements on (say) deterrence.

For references, those of Defence Minister Richard Marles may be consulted (if you must).

What follows is an attempt to highlight this pathology from a perspective that regards it as a form of stupidity within the rubric of the extremes covered by Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial study, The March of Folly.

Consider the “pacing threat” and its associated glossolalia: Exactly what is being attributed to China? Answer: overall, an irrational strategic mindset.

And why? China, is not a complete major power and is, in several respects, extremely vulnerable.

At the core of this is the allegation against it which arises from the strategy of Area Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) a measure inferred to promise the disruption of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and beyond.

What would China gain from such a move (let alone war), given the likely reactions to it?.

This question needs to be asked because: [1] China is highly dependent on fossil fuel imports.

It is the world’s largest importer of oil and natural gas, the bulk of it imported from ostensible US allies; it is an important coal importer as well.

Currently, 80 percent of China’s oil imports, 50 percent of its natural gas imports and 42 percent of goods transit these waters.

[2] Chinese trade through the straits of the Indonesian archipelago would be easy to interdict – and even if that is eventually circumvented by the port projects in Burma and Pakistan, the fact remains that routes from as far away as the Gulf of Guinea and across the Indian Ocean are also extremely vulnerable.

In the event of prolonged disruption, furthermore, China’s economy and, by extension, its ability to wage war, is eventually strangled.

Under such conditions it would legitimately conclude that it faces existential risks.

To enter, as best as one can, the strategic mindset in Beijing, therefore, brings to light the logic of China responding, by way of Area Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), to potential threats to its territory.

Simply expressed, China rejects the suggestion that, given the possibility of war, its intention to deploy deterrent measures (by way of a modernised fleet, undersea warfare capabilities and air warfare systems capable of attacking US fleet elements out as far as Guam) should not be construed as reasonable and threatening when it is the defensive prerogative, justified by the sacred doctrine of Rational Deterrence, of every nation state in the same position, not least the United States and its allies.

Why, then, is the talk of, and preparation for war? The context here being the reconfiguring of the US military, and its tasking, to fight Version 2 of War in the Pacific.

The US Marine Corps, it should be noted, have surrendered their tanks and some aviation capabilities in the name of fighting island campaigns against China involving anti-ship missions from the island chains to Australia’s north.

When? Soon is the favoured answer and to be found in the considered judgements of those who, in ancient Greece, were known as the gnostikoi – those who not only have knowledge and understanding but also make the presumptuous claim to have exclusive access to them.

In the current context they are also thought, especially by the mainstream media, to be better informed by virtue of having once been either “on the inside,” or to have held the status of “consultant,” or “advisor,” and thus, even now, in hearing range of what in Rome is termed “voci di corridoio.” How soon? No later than 2049 – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.

This, however, is a distant prediction given the many that foresee a prior démarche.

Consider this brief, but representative schedule of the offerings:

  • ADF Major-General Adam Findlayin a confidential briefing in 2020: “high likelihood” that the tensions created by China may spill over into actual conflict.
  • In March 2021, Admiral Philip Davidson, the head of US Indo-Pacific Command warned Congress that China’s military capabilities and posture should only be understood as indicating an aggressive intent; indeed, he described China as “the greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st century,” and one that could erupt in war by 2027.
  • Eight months later, Admiral Davidson’s “2027 window” for an invasion of Taiwan — was reiterated by General Kenneth Wilsbach, the US Air Force Pacific (PACAF) commander.
  • Also in 2021, retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, announced that it was “just about inevitable” that the timeline for war with China, specifically as a consequence of its invasion of Taiwan, was within the next five years.”
  • October 2021 also saw former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, announce that China could “soon” invade Taiwan or otherwise escalate the situation.
  • The following month former ADF Major General Jim Molan warned that, in three to ten years, a war will be fought against China over Taiwan and that Australians are going to have to fight in that war to prevent a future Chinese invasion of the land down under.
  • Former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne (in 2021) was in broad agreement: 5-10 years.
  • At year’s end, the US Department of Defence annual report on China’s military strength was advising Congress to be prepared for a war with China over Taiwan any time after 2027.
  • 2022 was no different: in August, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at ANU, Paul Dibb, stated his view that Australia faces the “probability of high intensity conflict” in the region and (inferentially) by 2032.
  • US Chief of Naval Operations, Mike Gilday, by October, had concluded that Admiral Davidson’s “2027 window” was possibly overly optimistic; he cautioned that the window could potentially be later that year, or in 2023.
  • Similarly convinced around this time was US Navy Admiral Charles A. Richard, commander of the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM): warned that the war in Ukraine isn’t the largest conflict that the U.S. will see right now— “Ukraine … is just the warmup … The big one is coming …” “As I assess our level of deterrence against China, the ship is slowly sinking.”
  • Into the current year consistency is maintained. It started with a directive: “Aim for the head.” It’s author is the aggression-obsessed head of US Air Mobility Command, General Michael A. Minihan, whose concern is the need to be ready for a potential war between the US and China within two years. The source of this confidence: “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”
  • It was a timeline that the Red Alert series in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age were substantially in agreement with – their horizon extending to three years.
  • With the passing of time the “2027 window” provides a rough consensus: last September, Admiral Davidson’s successor, Admiral John Aquilino, who commands all U.S. forces in the Pacific, said in March that he believes a Chinese military attack on Taiwan “is much closer to us than most think.”
  • By September, however, he had been outflanked by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s fear that the U.S. could find itself in a near-peer conflict with an adversary like China and Russia  “tomorrow.”

A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association soon after Russia invaded Ukraine last year found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans feared “that we are at the beginning stages of World War III.”At this juncture the crucial question is whether there is a substantial body of evidence which justifies these prognostications? Not least because of Australia’s reflexive responses to US wars.

The mood in America is bellicose, as evidenced by the Eurasia Group Foundation’s latest survey report, titled “Order and Disorder: US Foreign Policy in a Fragmented World.”It reveals that overall support, across all political camps, not only favours American military intervention but has undergone a significant increase – to 60%.If evidence is crucial, then the just published 2023 Report to Congress by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission might reasonably be thought to provide it.In summary terms, it does not, despite its exorbitant length (753 pages).

What it does provide is evidence of a lack of analytical rigour with regard to its subject matter and thus a superficial charge sheet – a grab-bag of grievances (real and imagined) – none of which justify the alarmism and hysteria to hand, nor any notion that war would resolve them.Indeed, reflection by the various experts on just how the present came into being is absent.

Were it not, they would recognise that, through hybrid war, the US and some of its allies are already at war with China – diplomatically, economically, financially, commercially, culturally, and ideologically.

What animates these actors, clearly, is the spirit that Thomas Hobbes described as the “disposition to war.”Relatedly, they would reflect on the fact that, while the authorised mainstream discourse is always careful to invoke deterrence as the justification for the exponential expenditures on defence, the pronouncements above are proof that they believe deterrence will fail, sooner rather than later.

The transformation, in plain sight, is from a frequently misunderstood portmanteau concept prone to abuse in strategic policy to a refuge in dystopian fatalism about any serious attempt to engage politics and history at the level of empathy and rigour.

The impending war talked of, therefore, is a clear example of what Tuchman identified as the wilful “impotence of reason.” And it is some abdication.

Pine Gap and other facilities aside, Australia will be ill-equipped in the event of such war.

The AUKUS SSNs, and whatever future surface fleet the RAN might propose, will be anachronisms because their delivery dates are radically out of sync by decades with the circumstances and concepts thought to justify them.

And merely to entertain them, now, requires a suspension of all critical faculties.

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