We’ve been doing the Long Game series on China here since 2004. The “why” then is the same as the “why” now; the Chinese Communist Party has a plan, has the economy to feed this plan, and is building a military to execute this plan. It was clear well before 2004. Any student of history could see it.
I was firmly in, and remain, of the school that it is only a matter of “when” and not “if” the Chinese will decide to challenge the United States on the battlefield again. They did once after WWII and fought us to a tie. They are preparing to do it again, somewhere.
The key, if you desire peace, is to not give them a window – to provide them no easy opportunity to challenge us – before demographics and luck close that window for them.
Demographics like we have now is not well understood with regards to its impact on a nation's willingness to step in to war, and luck is beyond our control – so that leads us to what we can control; what we do.
To stop a window from opening, we and our friends west of Wake need to remain united on the diplomatic front, closer on the economic, smarter on the informational, and robustly strong on the military front. If we do that, we can stop the CCP from deciding that they will use us as their coming out party as a global military power.
There are China watchers out there who mostly agree with the above but are much more pessimistic. They believe that war with China will come earlier, not later.
I don’t think I’ve outlined it here, but in private conversations over the last year with some of those – for a lack of a better word – “Eventualists”, I’ve stated that I believe our window of vulnerability opens around 2030 after The Terrible 20s has its expected effects on our warfighting capabilities.
The Eventualists trend earlier – closer to 2025. I’m not there yet, but the last year has convinced me their pessimism is warranted. As such, I’ve been looking for and reading as many credible Eventualists I can run across.
Well, I’ve found one you might be interested in, Michael R. Auslin over at The Spectator. You should take time to read his recent article; The Sino-American War of 2025.
First he sets the ground work outlining, generally fair, what our wandering policy towards a rising China has been over the last three decades;
While the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations midwifed the PRC’s entrance into the World Trade Organization, successive presidents ignored growing evidence of China’s industrial and cyber espionage against both the US government and private American businesses. It was, however, during the Barack Obama administration that the real seeds of the 2025 Littoral War were sown.
The Obama administration’s response was muddled and hesitant. It initially downplayed the island-building campaign, then condemned it. ... Most crucially, Obama hesitated to conduct military operations in the contested areas. ... Only four Fonops were conducted during Obama’s last two years in office, and the US Navy muddied the waters by claiming that it was operating under the rules of ‘innocent passage’, which is a different category of transit under international law.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing rose dramatically through the Trump years. ... While high-level bilateral diplomatic meetings continued to take place, they produced no solutions, and both sides recognized that such gatherings were increasingly for show.
Joseph Biden initially downplayed China’s threat during the early stages of his successful presidential campaign. But after coming to office in 2021, he promised to maintain US pressure on China. Beijing responded in the first days of the Biden administration by drawing explicit red lines over issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Now the future;
In November 2022, the 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist party extended Xi’s rule as paramount leader, which was widely expected, and inserted a policy plank seen as a preemptive declaration that China would seek hegemony over the South China Sea by 2049. Public opinion polls taken in 2024 showed that the percentage of respondents in China and the United States with a positive opinion of the other country had dropped to single digits, and that each considered the other its foremost potential adversary. In short, the political relationship between the United States and China had deteriorated to such a degree by 2025 that relations seemed nearly unsalvageable.
If that is how it play out ... then you have a pile of tinder waiting for a spark;
The Littoral War of 2025 began with a series of accidental encounters in the skies and waters near Scarborough Shoal, close to the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Ungh. Horrible name for a war. I almost stopped reading right there ... but no ... push on my dear Front Porch ... push on ...
On Monday September 8, at approximately 18:30 local time, a US Navy EP-3 surveillance flight out of Japan over the Spratlys was intercepted by a PLAAF J-20 taking off from Fiery Cross Reef in the same chain. After warning off the American plane, the J-20 attempted a barrel roll over it. The Chinese pilot sheared off most of the EP-3’s tail and left rear stabilizer; his plane lost a wing and went into an unrecoverable spin into the sea. The EP-3 also could not recover and plunged into the sea, killing all 22 Americans aboard. Tragically, the EP-3 shouldn’t even have been in the air: the US Navy had intended to replace the fleet with unmanned surveillance drones as early as 2020, but the Biden administration’s post-COVID-19 defense cutbacks led to occasional use of a limited number of the aging manned aircraft.
Roughly 30 minutes later, before word of the EP-3’s downing reached US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, let alone Washington or Beijing, the Bertholf, a US Coast Guard cutter, and the Motobu, a Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel, were returning from a joint training mission when they were approached 13 nautical miles northwest of Scarborough Shoal by an armed Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) cutter. After broadcasting warnings for the Bertholf and the Motobu to leave the area, the Chinese ship attempted to maneuver in front of the American ship in order to turn its bow. The CCG captain miscalculated and struck the Bertholf amidships, caving in the mess and one of its enlisted-crew compartments. The CCG ship immediately left the scene without rendering assistance. Six US sailors later were declared missing and presumed dead in the collision, and three Chinese CCG sailors were swept overboard and lost at sea.
The Curtis Wilbur was the closest US naval vessel to the downed EP-3, and it raced toward the crash location while the Charleston moved to assist the Bertholf. Night fell, and the darkness caused confusion for both sides’ rescue and patrol operations. Two Plan ships returned to the scene of the maritime collision to search for the lost Chinese seamen, coming in close quarters first with the Motobu, which was helping operations to stabilize the Bertholf, and later with the Charleston, which arrived several hours later. In the dark, American and Japanese ships struggled to disengage from the Chinese vessels, while continually warning the other side to stand down so rescue operations could continue.
After several close encounters, a Chinese destroyer, the Taiyuan, activated its fire-control radar and locked on the Motobu. The captain of the Motobu, knowing he could not survive a direct hit from the PLAN destroyer, radioed repeated demands that the radar be turned off. When no Chinese response was forthcoming, and with rescue operations ongoing, the Motobu’s commander fired one round from its deck gun across the Taiyuan’s bow. In response, a nearby Chinese frigate, thinking it was under attack, fired a torpedo in the direction of the Motobu. In the congested seas, however, the torpedo hit the Charleston as it transited between the Chinese and Japanese ships, ripping a hole below the waterline. Early on Tuesday September 9, the lightly-armored littoral combat ship, with a complement of 50 officers and seamen, foundered in just 25 minutes with an unknown loss of life.
OK, there are more than one problem in the above from the timeline for an unmanned replacement for the EP-3E to the anti-surface capabilities (NB: is doesn't have such a capability, it is an ASW torp) of the PLAN's Type 052D destroyer's Yu-7 light weight torpedo (basically a copy of the Italian A224-S).
Why no one makes the effort to let me read over their stuff first, I will never know. Call me next time Michael, will work for a Midrats interview.
Anyway ... ignore those things. As I've taken a few long quotes from the article, and I've only scratched a bit, read the body of what his scenario involves then come back to see what I find interesting at the end.
This is what hit home as it emphasized the dangers of what I consider one of the most pernicious theories infesting the natsec nomenklatura in DC - the short war fallacy.
Since neither side had taken any territory, Harris and Xi agreed to ratify the military status quo at the time of the ceasefire and avoid bringing in the diplomats. The commander of US Indo-Pacific Command met the chief of the Joint Staff Department of the PLA’s Central Military Commission in Singapore on September 26, and they reached an agreement on a permanent cease-fire on September 28.
Each side agreed to inform the other of naval and air activities taking place in the Yellow, East and South China Seas. The US would notify Beijing of any passage of US naval ships through the South China Sea, while China would undertake to ‘limit’ but not cease its naval activities in the East China Sea. Further, the US recognized Chinese control over the Spratly and Paracel island chains and acknowledged China’s ‘historic interests’ in the South China Sea. For its part, the PRC promised never to invade or attack Japan, provided Japan refrained from interfering with peaceful Chinese military activities in the East China Sea. (A secret codicil, revealed five years later, contained an American promise to end all military and intelligence aid to Taiwan, effectively killing off the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.)
After the agreement was made public, President Harris announced a withdrawal of US naval, ground and air forces from Japan to Guam and Hawaii; the US would leave a token force of one F-16 squadron and two guided-missile destroyers in Japan but withdraw completely from Okinawa. The US-Japan alliance would instead be maintained by enhanced military aid to Japan and full intelligence sharing along the lines of the ‘Five Eyes’ arrangement. In the interests of maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula, the US Army would reduce its forces in South Korea from 28,000 to 7,000 soldiers, 3,500 of them in combat units, with all of them to be located in Busan, on the southern tip of the country. Seeking to reassure America’s allies, Harris reiterated that America’s extended deterrence commitments, the ‘nuclear umbrella’, would remain in force. Harris’s policy shifts caused an uproar among mainstream foreign policy experts, but they were applauded on both the progressive left and isolationist right of the political spectrum.
Beijing concluded that its victory was a prelude to squeezing the reduced American-led alliance and steadily pressuring the nonaligned bloc. In public, Chinese officials repeatedly maintained that Beijing considered the diplomatic solution merely ‘temporary’, and that China would not rule out further action to follow up on its gains, but it failed to activate any plans to take advantage of its success. Beijing soon discovered that its new allies were resentful and unwilling partners, requiring the investment of Chinese political, economic, and military capital. This restricted Beijing’s freedom of action.
The United States limited its strategic goals to protecting Japan and ensuring that it could operate in part of East Asia’s marginal seas (the eastern portion of the East China Sea) as well as beyond the outer crescent of Japan. This allowed for the possibility of power projection into the inner seas and littorals in a future crisis, but turned the US largely into an ‘offshore balancer’, with its forces concentrated in Hawaii and on Guam. The US’s surviving alliances with Japan and Australia were inherently weaker than before the war.
With the US and China willing to limit future operations to preserve gains or prevent further losses, the political conditions were created for a geopolitical settlement that resulted in the emergence of three geopolitical blocs: one comprising the US and Japan, along with Australia; a second led by China, with its new satellites of Taiwan and the two Koreas; and a third, ‘nonaligned’ bloc containing most of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as India and Russia. The Chinese and American blocs were mutually antagonistic, while the third, nonaligned one maneuvered for advantage between the other two.
A cold peace settled on East Asia. Intraregional trade was reduced, though not eliminated, while multilateral diplomatic initiatives and mechanisms such as those sponsored by ASEAN became arenas for rhetorical combat. A sharp drop in Sino-US trade rocked both countries, with the United States entering a recession that lasted three years, while reports of widespread demonstrations in China hinted at pervasive domestic unrest. Trade slowly stabilized between the two, but some of the nonaligned countries — particularly India, Vietnam and Malaysia — retooled their economies to supplant China in the global supply chain, leading to a boost in their exports to America and Europe.
The Chinese and American blocs began a prolonged contest for influence in Asia. Beijing continued its military buildup, though at a slower pace than during the century’s first two decades, due to its economic slowdown. American defense planners increased their reliance on unmanned systems, hypersonic weapons, underwater systems and cyberwar capabilities. Both sides increased their espionage activities and conducted regular cat-and-mouse games in the skies and on the waters of the region. As of this writing, the two antagonists have so far avoided outright conflict. This may be as much through luck as from a shared wariness of stumbling once again into armed conflict.
If we design our military around the mirage that we can fight and win a quick war, or worse condition our decision makers to think we will - we will lose the next war.
Should war of a limited extent or not come with China, it will not be short. We will take loses. There will be important things we overlooked in peace that are critical to victory, and there will be things we placed too much confidence in at peace that will be of little use when war comes.
Give some of the political swipes and tactical/equipment shortcomings in the article a break and give his scenario some thought. Add it to your mix ... and ponder harder.
History is impatient with the complacent.