It’s alleged far and wide, and sometimes even by the Chinese, that China is planning a war. I would suggest to you, very strongly, that this is not so. Whether it’s a case of the Western vapors because we expect China to start a war to enhance the regime’s prestige and legitimacy, or to bolster Chinese national pride,1 or because the one child policy has left them with a dangerous surplus of young men who will never find a woman,2 or simply to prevent their being encircled by us and our allies, or at least their enemies,3 it is just not in their interest. Neither are they likely to be deluded enough to think it is in their interest.
In the first place, war has rarely been kind to China. They’ve been invaded, plundered, pillaged, occupied, exploited, murdered, enslaved, and raped en masse (not usually in quite that order, of course). They’ve had opium force fed to them. They’ve had their governmental legitimacy undermined by gunboats. Large chunks of their territory have been sliced away. As much as half their population disappeared from the census – dead or enserfed, scholars debate the matter – during and largely due to the Mongol conquest. For a majority of the last seven hundred and fifty years or so they’ve been ruled in whole or in fragmented part by foreigners…conquering foreigners. For much of the rest of the time, since a couple of thousand years BC, when there were no aggressive foreigners handy to do the dirty work, they’ve managed well enough in the infliction of misery on themselves and on each other. Their forays in imperialism against their neighbors have, generally speaking, not worked out especially well for them, either.
Although some of that military failure might be attributable to a certain innate cultural conservatism, it’s by no means clear that this was a cause of much of it. Indeed, it’s harder than hell to see an overarching cause. They’ve lost when they had the numbers. They’ve lost when they had technological advantages. They’ve lost even with the best bureaucracy – to support their armies – even imaginable for the day and age. They’ve lost more often than not despite being a highly intelligent, hard-working, capable, and brave people. Defensive works didn’t save them. Military force failed regularly. The only times they’ve succeeded was when their goals were quite limited. I don’t know why they lose and I doubt they really know either or they’d long since have fixed it.
It’s a truism, even a cliché, but only China’s culture has saved China when its military failed.
These are people who are going to put their faith in a potentially existential war when they don’t have to? Color me skeptical.
In the second place, by their actions since the re-occupation (or conquest or Anschluess; take your pick) of Tibet in 1950, the Chinese attitude to the use of military force can be summed up as, “Strongly worded diplomatic message.” Think about the times and places they’ve employed direct military force against foreigners, and the manner in which they’ve done so:
Korea, 1950: They warn us through neutrals (India) that they’re getting very antsy about our apparent intent to extinguish the North Korean regime as well as about how close we’re getting to their border. We don’t listen. So they smack the shit out of us and send us reeling south in a panic. Do they pursue? Why, no, they don’t. Rather, they back off, regroup, and give us a chance to think about it. We don’t think about it. We advance; they kick the crap out of us, again, driving us south, and then we slowly drive them north to the point where nobody gains or loses much, but China manages to retain a buffer between us and our allies and China proper. Short version: China fought for and achieved a return to the status quo ante bellum.
India, 1962: With border negotiations having failed, concerning the border previously negotiated between the British Empire and Tibet, which China effectively owns again, with India stationing troops north of that border, and apparently patrolling north of that border, and with India providing sanctuary to the Dalai Lama, the Chinese strike. Notably, however, they give warning, they announce their goals, they achieve their goals, and then they announce a unilateral cease fire, backing off to something close to the status quo ante bellum. Moreover, in 1967, with the Chola Incident, a case of Indian forces intercepting Chinese infiltrators, which led to something close to four hundred killed, the Chinese lost. Even so, rather than seeking revenge, they returned to the status quo ante bellum.
USSR Border Conflict, to include Zhenboa Island, 1969: Theoretically a huge incident, with as many as a million and a half troops either involved or poised, casualties are much lower. The Chinese lose more, while the USSR retains its hold on the islands in the Amur River. Basically, China stakes its claim with blood and then relaxes to the status quo ante bellum.
Vietnam, 1979: With serious tensions between China and the USSR, and Vietnam on China’s southern border, with China’s only ally in the region the extremely unsavory and murderous Khmer Rouge, and with Vietnam firmly allied with their chief supplier during our war in Vietnam, the USSR, China went to war for the very limited goals of keeping their Khmer Rouge allies in the war and reminding the Vietnamese that Russia was powerful but China was closer. End result: somewhere between ten or fifteen thousand and one hundred and fifty thousand dead (commies lie; remember that), pretty much status quo ante bellum, with the Khmer Rouge hanging on another ten years.
The short version? China will use military force, but always with restraint and largely as a mere tool of diplomacy. They don’t start existential wars.4
In the third place, I remind the reader of the old saw, “If you owe the bank ten thousand dollars and can’t pay, you have a problem. If you owe the bank ten million and can’t pay, the bank has a problem.” Well, friends, we’re the debtor and China is the bank. They’re the largest single foreign holder of US government debt, being exposed to the tune of about 1.2 trillion.5 That is a non-trivial proportion of their not quite ten trillion dollar gross domestic product. In other words, they’ve got a problem.
Fourthly, Japan. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that if you gave the average citizen of the PRC a box with a button that would kill every Japanese in the world, he’d push the button twice. The first time he’d point an ear toward Japan and push the button slowly, for the emotional satisfaction of hearing all those Nipponese last screams. The second time he’d mash it, hard and fast, to make sure. An online chum of mine is married to a mainland Chinese girl. She can, if only just barely, manage to be polite to American Japanese she meets. But she still cannot for the life of her understand why we only dropped two nukes when there were so many Japanese cities. That they surrendered is not, to her, a sufficiently good reason to have stopped.6
So China wants to do something that runs the risk of turning nice, soft, pacifist, corrupt (oh, yes, they are) Japan back into the Japan of the 30s and 40s? Pull the other one; that’s China’s nightmare, not its goal.
3 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-29469719, which ought to remind you that a) nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, and b) that however short he may be, the Vietnamese in the picture, on the left, still looks like a bigger man that that orange-faced, windsurfing buffoon on the right.
4 Note, here, that I haven’t discussed the three Taiwan Straits Crises, nor even the massively bloody artillery duels over Matsu and Quemoy. Why not? Well, some things the Nationalist and Communist Chinese of the day would surely have agreed on were that a) there was only one China and b) they were engaged in a civil war over it. Different class of problem, in other words.
5 https://usgovinfo.about.com/od/moneymatters/ss/How-Much-US-Debt-Does-China-Own.htm and https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/terence-p-jeffrey/china-s-holdings-us-government-debt-have-declined-2013
6 Hi, Ned, best to the Missus.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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