What would US-China war really mean?

Apr 7, 2021

Do the commentators who talk of war with China actually think about what this would mean?

“Military conflict in the Pacific, which would certainly involve Australia, is becoming more likely,” Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s Foreign Editor proclaimed on the front page of the paper in March this year.

But what sort of a war with China is he and his like-minded cold-warriors trying to provoke with their constant stream of articles predicting a war?

Perhaps one like those war games you find online where the Chinese would line up in yellow and the United Sates troops, dressed in red, white and blue with Australia at its side, faces off  on the beaches of Taiwan?  Or maybe our cannon-armed sailing ships would take on their junks in the Taiwan Strait?

In continually writing about and promoting war Sheridan and others such as Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), provide no depiction of the conflict they envisage. They seem to assume that the world would roll on as normal while these two nuclear-armed superpowers go to war.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that the United States has 5,800 nuclear warheads and China 320.   The Union of Concerned Scientists believes that fewer than a hundred Chinese warheads and bombs could reach the United States. But even a fraction of that number could kill hundreds of thousands of people. If only one was detonated over New York an estimated 583,160 people would die.

How can we be sure that the war that Sheridan, Jennings and others envisage, will not spiral out into a full nuclear conflict?

The US’s provocative action in sailing fleets of warships off the Chinese coast — euphemistically designated as “Freedom of Navigation” exercises — could provoke an incident that leads to war.

So too could a lone US warship manoeuvring in the region and bumping into a Chinese ship.  Collisions between US warships and other shipping have occurred in the past. In 2017 the USS Fitzgerald and a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, the ACX Crystal, collided south of Tokyo Bay in the East China Sea, costing the lives of seven US sailors.  Australians will also well remember the June 1969 tragedy when the USS Frank E Evans crossed the bow of the aircraft carrier Melbourne during a training exercise in the South China Sea. Seventy-four US sailors lost their lives.

The commentators most commonly foresee the war being fought over Taiwan. Jennings bluntly says “President Joe Biden’s first international crisis will likely be over the future of Taiwan.”  Sheridan, who takes his riding instructions from the US Pacific commanders, reminds readers that US Admiral Philip Davidson says Beijing could invade Taiwan within six years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is always “the baddie” in these cold-war scenarios. After stating that military conflict with China is becoming increasingly likely Sheridan says his words are not hysterical, they are the implicit message in the words of President Xi at the March National People’s congress in Beijing.

But is President Xi really saying anything different to what the Chinese have said in the past? 

No! For decades the Chinese have stated their strong views on Taiwan without launching an all-out war. In 1995 then US President Clinton expressed an interest in visiting Taiwan. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping responded in exactly the same way as Xi would today. He said the status of Taiwan was at the crux of Chinese-US relations. “If this question is not handled properly the result could be very explosive.”

Put simply the Chinese government has always said that Taiwan is part of China and for that matter the Nationalists who fled to Taiwan after the civil war and established government there also agreed that the island is part of China, claiming that they were still the legitimate government of the mainland.

Australia accepted the Taipei claim until the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1972. Australia’s Joint Communiqué with the PRC recognised the PRC Government as China’s sole legal government and acknowledged the PRC’s position that Taiwan was a province of the PRC.

Jennings says that in his view Xi thinks he can exploit a window of opportunity created by COVID-19 and the change of US president to accelerate China’s ambition to take over Taiwan.  But he also notes that the Chinese Communist Party’s objective is that Taiwan should be under its control by 2049, the centenary of the party’s takeover in Beijing.

2049! If that is true it hardly seems that the Chinese are intent on rushing to war. And it’s hardly likely that XI will still be president.

What such a timeline does suggest is a patient process, one that might see ever increasing trade and investment between Taiwan and the mainland, leading to closer co-operation and gradual integration. It’s certainly not in China’s interest to see the region that has flourished in recent decades torn apart by conflict.

Nevertheless another of the cold warriors, Clive Hamilton claims that the United States is not going to unilaterally undertake some sort of military action, but Beijing might do so.

Hamilton conveniently forgets Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and a host of other unilateral US military operations around the world.

But could it suit the US to provoke turmoil in the seas off China? Might the US hawks believe, as US generals did during the Cuban military crisis,  that the US has the ability to knock out the enemy before the enemy has sufficient military strength to seriously threaten the United States?

During the Cuban missile crisis US General Curtis Lemay argued that the US and Soviet Union were approaching a nuclear weapons balance where war would bring mutually assured destruction. LeMay pushed President Kennedy to take out the missile sites the Soviet Union was constructing in Cuba, holding the view that the Soviet Union could be obliterated without more than normal US Strategic Air Command losses.

Might the US generals and admirals believe today that the United States could quickly and clinically wipe out China?  We can only hope that like Kennedy, Biden keeps a level head and tempers any such thinking.

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