It’s important for Filipinos to be aware of the probability of war between the United States and China because the Spratlys may be the flashpoint in such a development.
The probability is based on the emerging threat of China’s “antiaccess/antidenial capabilities (A2/AD),” or new weapons that will make it difficult for US carriers to ply China-Taiwan waters.
In 1996, China conducted missile tests and military exercises in the Strait of Taiwan. The United States responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. To America the issue was, hardly Taiwan’s independence, but US military superiority and pride. The US show of force was to remind China of America’s vast superiority. The move was a “deterrence” to China’s aggressive posture.
Alas, the move backfired. Instead of deterring, it triggered an arms race. Realizing its weakness in its own backyard, China had to move in the name of survival. It embarked on an aggressive weapons program to bridge the gap.
Even earlier, China was investing in sophisticated but low-cost weapons, such as “antiship missiles, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, stealth submarines, and cyber and space arms.” The Pentagon called these “asymmetric weapons,” meaning cheap bullets threatening expensive tanks. It saw threats against fixed US bases in Japan and Guam, and mobile carriers. Six decades earlier, the United States had “unrivaled naval and air power.” Now, all of a sudden, it can be denied access to Taiwan waters by antiship missiles.
The Pentagon’s goal was to respond to the “Chinese threat.” In truth it was a “US threat” on China’s turf. The Pentagon had a misguided mindset that America had a right to intrude into any territory on the planet—in layman’s terms, hegemony. There were two hurdles to a greater response. The first was the absence of a consensus from the civilian government, which pooh-poohed the Pentagon’s urgent cry of “Wolf! Wolf!” The second was the prospect that the cost of such an expensive war would dwarf that of US military interventions combined, and serve as the coup de grace for a US economic collapse. The Pentagon saw that China’s A2/AD would “raise the human and economic cost of [US presence] in the region to prohibitive levels.”
Two strategists, Andrew Marshall and Andrew Krepinevich, have been raising the alarm about China’s new capabilities since the early 1990s. A sophisticated US Air Force simulation war game in October 2008 called “Pacific Vision” triggered the conceptualization of the Air/Sea Battle (ASB) that could “execute networked, integrated attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy, and defeat the enemy (A2/AD).” The ASB strategy is a “blinding attack” on “Chinese antiaccess facilities, including land- and sea-based missile launchers, surveillance and communication platforms, satellite and antisatellite weapons, and command and control nodes.”
But Pentagon officials knew that such an aggressive plan of hitting mainland China facilities, not to mention the collateral damage on population centers, had “escalation implications” because China was likely to respond by going for the jugular—that is, using nuclear weapons. Some US generals believe that China will never go to that extent, but others know there are possibilities. This is why the US civilian government today is wary. The victory that the Pentagon is seeking is the same as Gen. Douglas MacArthur asking permission to nuke Shanghai and Beijing to end the Korean War, or Gen. William Westmoreland asking permission for saturation bombings resulting in genocide to end the Vietnam war in two months.
The Pentagon is full of disillusioned generals who are blind to the consequences of their actions. They see only the vision of defeating an enemy. No matter how small China’s nuclear arsenal is, it will be a war without winners. Nukes are an equalizer of superiority. If the ASB unleashes Armageddon, it will take just one tiny five-megaton bomb, 10,000 times the Hiroshima bomb, to wipe out the Big Apple in a blink.
Says Australian strategist Hugh White: “We can be sure that China will place a very high priority indeed on maintaining its capacity to strike the United States, and that it will succeed in this.” The ASB will surely accelerate Chinese response, as in the 1996 affair.
Joshua Rovner of the US Naval War College comments that “deep inland strikes could be mistakenly perceived by the Chinese as preemptive attempts to take out its nuclear weapons, thus cornering them into a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma.” And since the ASB cannot be tested or simulated, it will forever be on the hypothetical plane. Its success will never be known until there is a real war.
Given that the ASB, with the capability to induce a nuclear war, will be scrapped in the name of humanity, just as MacArthur and Westmoreland were denied, China will now push to bridge the gap even more, to whittle down US superiority. This will in turn make America come up with new weapons as counterresponse, which is already happening.
What is scary is that despite the futility of the ASB in the eyes of the civilian government, Gen. Norton Schwartz writes that: “The first steps to implement Air-Sea Battle are already underway here at the Pentagon. In our FY 2012 and FY 2013 budgets we increased investment in the systems and capabilities we need to defeat access threats.” In other words, the Pentagon may be proceeding without the go-signal of the civilian government.
Bernie Lopez ([email protected]) has been writing political commentaries for the past 20 years. He lists the source for this piece as the writings of Amitai Etzioni, professor of international affairs at George Washington University and a senior advisor to the Carter White House.