Is a War With China Inevitable?

CNN on Friday optimistically reported that “Even some on Biden’s own national security team were surprised at how quickly some US allies in Asia… were willing to slap sanctions on Russia following its invasion.”

from CNN’s report 18th March 2022

There’s little doubt whatsoever that Biden’s national security team were not at all surprised at the speed with which Japan, South Korea and Australia, which it refers to as an Asian ally, followed the path of US sanctions. All three countries are, to all intents and purposes, locked into the same foreign policy path as the USA and would have been advised (probably not consulted), on what action they need to take. Some experts have pointed out that the path of having the USA as your friend is far more dangerous than the path of having them as your enemy. It may be true: Saddam Hussein was once a friend, he’s dead now; as are Muammar Gaddafi and Osama Bin Laden who was a 1980s poster boy for his heroic stance in Afghanistan’s fight against the Soviet Union. It’s hardly surprising that no country on the US State Department Christmas card list wants to go against them.

What the CNN report failed to point out is that other players in the region: India; Pakistan; Indonesia; Malaysia, Vietnam and… well, you can get the idea, the list is, in fact, all the Asian countries which are not Japan, South Korea and Singapore, didn’t go along with US Sanctions. One has to wonder if Biden calls them all, as he called President Xi on Friday, to tell them he expects them to support the USA.

John Mearsheimer is a world-renowned geopolitical analyst and known as a realist. In a highly predictive speech given in 2014, he put the blame on the Ukrainian crisis, as it was known then, squarely at the feet of US and EU policy in the region in his article, subtitled “The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin[1]. The article obviously was not about the current invasion but didn’t rule out Russian aggression. Imagine, he posited, how would Putin react when NATO, after giving commitments that it would not do so, appeared to be going along the track of expansion. It’s worth noting that, at no time in this Administration has the US government indicated or stated that Ukraine would NOT enter NATO. At the same time, weapons, equipment, training and military support have been given to Ukraine, a country that was crossed by Napoleon when he sought to subjugate Russia and by Hitler when he felt he could do the same. In fact, realist that he is, Mearsheimer (p11) states categorically that: “the US and its allies should abandon their plans to Westernize Ukraine and instead, aim to make it a neutral buffer”. Had they listened to him and done so back in 2014, there would be no war there now.

What Mearsheimer also predicted, a few years earlier, in 2010[2] was chillingly unthinkable; a war with China. Mearsheimer described the rise of China as a “gathering storm” leading to inevitable conflict.

Fortunately, and for a variety of reasons, he was incorrect. First and foremost because they’d lack the support of Asian countries, the most populated and most powerful countries of India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia nor Indonesia will come to this party, in the same way that they aren’t standing behind US in what is essentially a European matter. What Russia does in Ukraine, as Mearsheimer pointed out, was instigated by Western policies and furthermore, it isn’t going to impact on the day to day lives of 4.5 billion people living in Asia.

Many parts of Mearsheimer’s analysis are correct. For example, he accurately describes China’s military build-up and economic growth but he just as correctly suggests that China is not interested in exporting its ideological model to any other countries. He goes on to suggest that China’s military growth is defensive not offensive and this is borne out by the fact that, in the intervening years China has built more tonnage of ships than the USA and deployed more of these ships into Chinese waters. What hasn’t been realised by many observers is that few of these ships are “Blue Water” ships[3], in other words, China is building Frigates and Corvettes for local waters, strangely enough, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, they aren’t building amphibious assault vessels either, which makes an “invasion of Taiwan” something many so-called epxerts seem to think will be the catalyst for the next war, quite unlikely.

Deep, or blue water ships built in the last 8 years(note 3)
Frigates, corvettes and assault ships designed for short, local deployments (note 3)

Mearsheimer for all his brilliance, like so many Western scholars and experts, continues to view Asian policies through a Western lens. He suggested more than 12 years ago that China might, if requested by Iran, post troops inside of their borders for regional security. Something the US has done and continues to do in many countries. China However didn’t, nor does it have any history of ever doing so without a mandate from the United Nations to operate as peacekeepers or offer humanitarian support, not as combatants. He also suggested that, although China didn’t have the capacity to invade Australia, this couldn’t be ruled out in future as China will need resources. This is again something the US has done many times in the past but there is no record of the People’s republic of China, in the 70 years since its formation, or even before that at any time in China’s history, ever considering such an invasion.

One of the most condemning statements of Mearsheimer’s predictions is that his entire premise is based on the fact that China is just like the USA: “…which is why, in his opinion, China is likely to imitate the USA and attempt to become a regional hegemon (p390)”.

To answer Mearsheimer’s rhetoric questions: Yes, Chinese are more principled and more ethical than Americans, it comes from having a long and traditional communal, as opposed to an individualistic culture. No, they are not any less nationalistic but the Chinese sense of national pride is of China’s modern achievements, wealth growth, poverty alleviation, infrastructural growth and improvements in lifestyle, not their military strength or readiness to combat and win wars. And certainly, Chinese are no less concerned about their survival (and growth) which is why massive infrastructure is built, something not happening in America, and why foreign investment is sought as well as why diversification and expansion of trade through the BRI are important, much more so than military intervention.

We westerners would do well to remember that, just because a course of action is what we would do, doesn’t mean that’s what will be done by China.

[1] https://www.mearsheimer.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Why-the-Ukraine-Crisis-Is.pdf

[2] The Gathering Storm: China’s challenge to US power in Asia. The Chinese Journal of International Politics: Vol. 3, №4 (Winter 2010), pp 381–396 (16 pages)

[3] https://chinapower.csis.org/china-naval-modernization/#:~:text=Over%20the%20last%20few%20decades%2C%20China%E2%80%99s%20navy%20has,sizes%20of%20other%20leading%20nations%20are%20comparatively%20smaller.

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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences