Capstones: Preventing the Next War

By Alan W. Dowd

What’s true in physics is true in geopolitics: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. China’s actions have finally triggered a corrective reaction across the free world, after years of complacency and wishful thinking. Now the free world must marshal its resources to deter a hostile regime and prevent a new cold war from turning hot.

Before we discuss the costs of deterrence, it’s important to discuss China’s actions. The free world is not contriving pretexts for Cold War 2.0, but rather reacting to years of aggressive, lawless behavior in Beijing.

Consider Xi Jinping’s criminal mishandling of COVID19. It took six weeks for Chinese officials to quarantine Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. During that time, Xi’s regime allowed thousands to leave Wuhan for destinations around the world; lied to the World Health Organization about human-to-human transmission; ordered scientists not to share findings about coronavirus-genome sequencing; and carried out a premeditated plan to hoard 2.5 billion pieces of medical protective equipment as the virus swept the globe. The University of Southampton concludes that had Beijing taken appropriate action three weeks earlier, 95 percent of cases would have been prevented across China. That, in turn, would have prevented COVID19 from becoming a global pandemic—but that would have required China behaving like a responsible power.

The COVID19 crisis proves what many of us have argued for decades: China’s internal political system is an international problem (see here, here, here, here and here p.50). Like the Soviet Union, Xi’s China is an ends-justify-the-means regime that has contempt for the individual at home and disdain for norms of behavior abroad.  If there’s a silver lining to the COVID19 crisis, it’s that the world has seen the true nature of Xi’s China.

However, Beijing’s intentional or incompetent (it’s one or the other) mishandling of COVID19 is only one ingredient of Cold War 2.0.

Beijing’s cybersiege of the free world is siphoning away billions of dollars in intellectual property and government data. Beijing’s assault on Hong Kong is a violation of international treaties. Beijing’s menacing of Taiwan destabilizes the region, jeopardizes a vital international trade route and threatens a free people. Beijing’s attack on Indian troops in the Himalayan border region is an act of war. And Beijing’s treatment of religious groups is both barbaric and revealing. Xi’s regime is herding Uighur Muslims into concentration camps, forcibly sterilizing Uighur women and forcibly aborting Uighur babies; smashing Christian churches, jailing pastors and sending Christians to reeducation camps; and bulldozing Buddhist temples. As dissident leader Xu Zhangrun observes, a regime so “blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.”

On the strength of a massive military expansion—a 170-percent increase in military spending the past decade—the PRC bristles with hundreds of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, deploys a high-tech air force, and boasts a power-projecting navy of 335 ships.

Beijing is using those assets to construct and bolster 3,200 acres of illegal islands in the South China Sea’s international waters. These “Made in China” islands include SAM batteries, warplanes, anti-ship missiles and radar systems. In and above the East China Sea, Beijing is violating Japanese airspace (58 incursions per month), loitering coast guard vessels in Japanese waters for days at a time, and surging fishing vessels into the region—all in a bid for de facto annexation.

Pointing to this record, State Department officials argue, “This is how modern sovereignty is often lost—not through dramatic, overt action, but through a cascade of smaller ones that lead to its slow erosion over time.” The Trump administration rejects Beijing’s claims in the East and South China Sea as “completely unlawful.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced that the U.S. “will support countries all across the world who recognize that China has violated their legal territorial claims…or maritime claims,” bluntly adding: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”

Indeed, much of the world is finally rising to the China challenge.

Japan has increased defense spending each of the past eight years. Warning that China plans to turn the East and South China Seas into “Lake Beijing,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered 147 F-35 stealth fighter-bombers (only the U.S. has procured more); upconverted Japan’s helicopter carriers into full-fledged aircraft carriers (each armed with 40 F-35s); created island-defense units modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps; built East China Sea military bases laden with anti-ship and air-defense missiles; and authorized construction of runways on Mageshima Island, with plans for U.S. and Japanese warplanes to operate from the base.

After Chinese and Russian warplanes swarmed around and through South Korean airspace in mid-2019, Seoul increased its F-35 buy and announced plans to boost defense spending by 7 percent annually through 2024.

Following Pompeo’s lead, the Australian government has officially rejected Beijing’s “coercive actions in the South China Sea” and declared “there is no legal basis” for Beijing’s claims. Australia led the effort to launch an investigation into what Beijing did and didn’t do about COVID19. The Aussies are fielding a range of assets to deter China, including anti-ship missile systems, anti-submarine surveillance systems, cyber-defenses and squadrons of F-35s. Australia is increasing defense spending 81 percent between 2016 and 2025, doubling its submarine fleet, and hosting U.S. Marines, F-22s and B-52s for extended rotations.

The Philippines has reversed plans to terminate a military-training agreement with America. Manila challenged China’s maritime mischief before an international tribunal—and won. Pompeo then, in effect, widened the scope of the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty by declaring: “Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”

The Himalayan attack serves only to accelerate India’s pivot toward Washington. Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls the U.S.-India relationship a “robust strategic partnership.”

All 10 ASEAN members recently rebuked Beijing for its lawlessness in the South China Sea. This follows a 2018 ASEAN declaration endorsing “freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above, the South China Sea.”

ASEAN isn’t the only international bloc rising to the China challenge. The foremost alliance of Cold War 1.0 is poised to help. “NATO has to address…the security consequences of the rise of China,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in June, adding that Beijing is “investing heavily in modern military capabilities, including missiles that can reach all NATO allied countries,” “coming closer to us in cyberspace…in the Arctic…in Africa…in our critical infrastructure,” and “working more and more together with Russia.” As a result, NATO is expanding cooperation with Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. 

Britain’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will make its maiden deployment to the Pacific. And after scrapping plans to allow PRC-backed Huawei to build its 5G telecom network, Britain is calling on the D10—a partnership of 10 democracies enfolding the G7, Australia, South Korea and India—to pool their technological resources, build on their shared values and harness their interoperability to create an uncompromised 5G network.

France has outlined plans to strengthen military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. Canadian and French  warships have sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

Vietnam has opened its ports to U.S. aircraft carriers, most recently in March 2020.  

Deft diplomacy is needed to build this disparate group into a durable bulwark against China—for we know that allies will be key to waging Cold War 2.0, just as they were during the “long, twilight struggle” with Moscow.

Throughout American history, external threats have served as a galvanizing force. Imperial Germany’s diplomatic treachery and maritime barbarism spurred a pacifist America into World War I. Japan’s “unprovoked and dastardly attack” transformed an isolationist America into a global military juggernaut. The communist bloc’s attempt to seize West Berlin and South Korea rallied Americans for Cold War 1.0. What happened in China in 2019-20 may mark a similar turning point.

Seventy-three percent of Americans believe Beijing bears responsibility for COVID19 deaths; 66 percent hold a negative view of China; 71 percent distrust Xi. So, it’s no surprise that dozens of bills in Congress call for punitive action against Beijing. One envisions ways to “quantify the harm…to the health and economic wellbeing of the people of the United States” and proposes “a mechanism for delivering compensation” from China “to all affected nations.” Another would develop avenues for seizing Chinese assets. Several deal with diversifying America’s supply chains away from China.

On the military side, a House bill proposes $6 billion for an “Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.” A Senate bill would earmark $15.3 billion for weaponry, infrastructure and alliance support in the Indo-Pacific. This is a necessary first step, but it’s just that. Today’s defense budget is 3.1 percent of GDP. The Cold War average was more than twice that. If America is indeed in the early phases of Cold War 2.0, Washington will need to increase defense spending. That won’t be easy given America’s massive debt.

Deterrence works, as American presidents have been saying for centuries.

“There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy,” President Washington argued. President Roosevelt advocated carrying “a big stick” and declared, “We infinitely desire peace. And the surest way of obtaining it is to show that we are not afraid of war.” President Eisenhower argued, “Our arms must be mighty…so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk its own destruction.” President Kennedy vowed to “strengthen our military power to the point where no aggressor will dare attack.” Noting that “none of the four wars in my lifetime came about because we were too strong,” President Reagan steered Cold War 1.0 to a peaceful end by promoting “peace through strength.”

America’s overstretched military is doing its best to deter Beijing: Freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, transits of the Taiwan Strait and bomber flights across the region have increased this year. For the first time in three years, summer 2020 saw the U.S. simultaneously surge three aircraft carriers into the Pacific. The Navy carried out a robust deployment to support Malaysian vessels under harassment by PRC ships.

However, America’s military needs more resources to defend our interests and deter our enemies. In contrast to the bulging PRC navy described above, the U.S. Navy—at just 296 ships—lacks the assets needed to meet the China challenge. It pays to recall that the U.S. Navy has commitments around the world, while China’s navy is focused on its neighborhood.

The purpose of a bigger Navy, Army and Air Force is not to wage war against China, but precisely the opposite. The purpose is to deter war and prevent the sort of miscalculations that could lead to an accidental war—what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”

History reminds us that such miscalculations can spiral out of control: In 1950, Moscow miscalculated Washington’s commitment to South Korea, and Washington miscalculated Beijing’s commitment to North Korea. In 1939 and 1941, the Axis miscalculated the British and American commitment to freedom. In 1914, everyone miscalculated.

The antidote to miscalculation is clarity plus deterrent strength. Clarity alone isn’t enough. After all, President Wilson’s notes and warnings to Germany were clear, as were Prime Minister Chamberlain’s promises a generation later about peace between Britain and Germany. But America lacked the military strength to bolster those words, and Britain lacked the will to keep the peace. Neither are armaments enough. After all, Europe’s powers were armed to the teeth in 1914. But since they weren’t clear about their treaty commitments, a small crisis mushroomed into a global war.

The purpose of renewed military strength and renewed alliances is to prevent a replay of that.

Alan Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose.