These comments refer to Elbridge Colby’s article below. I do not presume to change anyone’s mind, least of all the author’s, but I feel the need to respond. The point of view I will articulate is one that receives scant attention inside the American Military-Industrial-
Too much of what appears in the article extrapolates from a few recent events to larger assumptions that are very much open to debate. China’s grab for resources in its near-abroad is one thing, but the hype about the air defense identification zone is over the top. The air defense identification zone is just that: “identification.” It’s not a zone where anything entering will be shot down. China is a great continental power and must be treated as one, but it is foolish to think that China is some new version of the Soviet military state.[i] Comparisons with Cold War events like the Cuban Missile Crisis are not relevant to American interaction with China. With each succeeding Chinese attempt to extend its military defenses in East Asia, China nurtures new and more powerful opposing forces from Vietnam to Korea, something Beijing is well aware of.[ii]
In fact, I argue that China’s current military strategy for the near-abroad is much more a reflection of China’s experience with Japan in 1937. Look to Japan’s invasion of mainland China in 1937 for an appreciation of why the Chinese are investing heavily in coastal air and naval defenses. Japan’s use of Taiwan and Korea as platforms for the projection of Japanese military forces against China in 1937 remains a guiding influence in the development of China’s anti-access/area denial strategy.[iii] After the Japanese seized China’s coastal cities, Chinese military strategy adhered to the formula described in 1936 to Nishi Haruhiko, later Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and, later, Japanese Foreign Minister when Japanese Naval Forces attacked Pearl Harbor:
"If war breaks out between Japan and China, the Nationalist Government has made secret plans to resist to the bitter end. If their Shanghai-Nanking (Nanjing) defense line is broken, they will withdraw to a Nanchang-Kiukiang (Jiujiang) line. If that line cannot be defended, they will retreat to Hankow (Hankou). If the Wuhan defense collapses, they will shift to Chungking."[iv]
The Chinese, if provoked to war, will follow this same line falling back from coastal defenses into the interior. There are yet again reasons for this mentality. Ethnic (Han) Chinese have ruled China for less than 350 of the last 1,000 years of Chinese history. The last or Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), was established by Jurchen Nomads, a Mongol-Turkic People known to history as the Manchu. The Qing dynasty created the modern borders of contemporary China by gradually conquering the surrounding Mongol and Turkic peoples and asserting nominal suzerainty over Tibet.[v] Under the Manchus, the Chinese were nothing more than a conquered people alongside others as noted by a prominent Japanese statesman 100 years ago:
The expansion of China is an important subject in history, but its limit was reached long ago… The area of the original center of China was very limited, but its sphere of influence and activity gradually spread, generation after generation, as its civilization developed and extended to the surrounding regions… The one peculiarity of this extension is that, roughly speaking, it has not been the result of aggressive conquest. China has always been on the defensive, and it is the surrounding peoples who have always assumed the offensive against her.[vi]
Thus, deepening military ties with Japan in response to Chinese regional military strategy is foolish, if not dangerous. China’s unrelenting hostility to Japan means the red lines in East Asia should be drawn in ways that protect and enhance U.S. strategic interests, not just Japan’s interests. We Americans forget that much of the tension at sea began when Japan nationalized the Senkakus, a matter that was shelved in 1972 by then Japan PM Tanaka Kakuei. If anything Americans should expect Japan to be the adventurist in the future. In fact, I expect that Japanese aggressiveness toward China will become more pronounced as China’s internal social, political and economic weakness becomes more and more obvious in the years ahead.
Thanks to popular, but misleading narratives regarding U.S. participation in WW II, Americans forget that war with a continental power on the Eurasian land mass like Germany, Russia, China, or even Iran (seizure of southern Iran would be relatively unchallenging, but U.S. action to do so would also likely precipitate Russian military intervention in Northern Iran on the model of Chinese intervention in North Korea) negates American military advantages at sea and in the air relegating U.S. Naval Power in particular to a supporting role. We experienced these conditions on the Korean Peninsula from 1950 t0 1953, but apparently learned nothing from the experience.
Americans, like all of the English-speaking peoples want naval power to play a prominent role, but in wars with continental opponents it cannot do so. Wars with continental powers on the Eurasian Land Mass demand the persistent employment of large aerospace and ground forces over long periods. This means placing large air forces and ground forces on the Eurasian landmass. Britain missed this point in 1914. Britain’s Royal Navy could not defeat Imperial Germany and Austria during WW I. American air and naval dominance could not expel the Wehrmacht from Western Europe. It took an enormous effort by multiple nations on the ground to do so.
Our aerospace power has impressive reach, but we simply have too few aircraft for a war with China. We will exhaust our PGM inventory in short order. If we unnecessarily embroil ourselves in a fight with the Chinese the fighting could last for a decade with no strategic benefit to the U.S. or China. Russia will not miss the opportunity to reinforce China against us as long as we remain determined to fight. Given the absence of an American National Defense Staff or high command together with a guiding national military doctrine that rests on the foundation of true warfighting experience and strategic self-awareness, it would take years to build the military unity of effort required to prevail against a continental power.
Balancing deterrence with engagement sounds great in the classroom, but it is meaningless in practice. Political and military leaders who commit military power to action in crisis or conflict always hope the fighting will be purposeful and short, but they fail to realistically answer the questions of purpose, method and end-state before and during combat operations. Strategic self-awareness, an authentic, unbiased appraisal of one’s own capabilities and constraints, is either missing or confounded by utopian ideology, national hubris or ignorance of the opponent.
This sort of thinking in Washington, DC exemplified by Elbridge Colby’s article should be rejected in favor of steering the American ship of state away from decades of military intervention in matters and areas of peripheral strategic interest. Our focus should be on making the United States yet again the world’s engine of prosperity. Unless the Chinese deliberately block access to the global commons and obstruct the movement of shipping through the world’s sea lanes, there is no reason for conflict between the U.S. and China. To date, the Chinese have not done this and unless they do there are no grounds for military confrontation. Given China’s acute dependence on access to the commons for energy, minerals and food, the Chinese have far more to lose than we do. Beijing knows it.
The reorientation away from the strategy of confrontation outlined below is bound up with the understanding that a large, U.S. Naval, Air Force and Army presence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East could not prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power in Egypt. Nor could it prevent Iran from dominating Iraq; or Syria from imploding. It’s an admission that the power of national culture and social media frequently exceed the power of special operations forces and cruise missiles. It is also an approach that emulates the economy-of-force role Great Britain managed in national military strategy with substantial success until Britain threw everything away on a war it did not have to fight in August 1914.
It’s why these notions of challenging China on China’s terms in China’s near-abroad should be rejected. Otherwise, we risk ending up like the British Empire in 1919, exhausted, prostrate and finished as a world power, thanks to an unnecessary war for which our forces, our economy and our national culture are fundamentally unsuited.
Thanks, Doug Macgregor