Could Trump’s War of Words with China turn Hot?

By Rajan Menon | ( | – –

Forget those “bad hombres down there” in Mexico that U.S. troops might take out. Ignore the way National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice” and the new president insisted, that, when it comes to that country, “nothing is off the table.”  Instead, focus for a moment on something truly scary: the possibility that Donald Trump’s Washington might slide into an actual war with the planet’s rising superpower, China.  No kidding.  It could really happen. 

Let’s start with silver-maned, stately Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state.  Who could deny that the former ExxonMobil CEO has a foreign minister’s bearing?  Trump reportedly chose him over neocon firebrand John Bolton partly for that reason.  (Among other things, Bolton was mustachioed, something the new president apparently doesn’t care for.)   But an august persona can only do so much; it can’t offset a lack of professional diplomatic experience.

That became all-too-apparent during Tillerson’s January 11th confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  He was asked for his view on the military infrastructure China has been creating on various islands in the South China Sea, the ownership of which other Asian countries, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei claim as well.  China’s actions, he replied, were “extremely worrisome,” likening them to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, an infraction for which Russia was slapped with economic sanctions.

The then-secretary-of-state-designate — he’s since been confirmed, despite many negative votes — didn’t, however, stop there.  Evidently, he wanted to communicate to the Chinese leadership in Beijing that the new administration was already irked beyond measure with them. So he added, “We’re going to have to send China’s leaders a clear signal: that, first, the island building stops and, second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.”  Functionally, that fell little short of being an announcement of a future act of war, since not allowing “access” to those islands would clearly involve military moves.  In what amounted to a there’s-a-new-sheriff-in-town warning, he then doubled down yet again, insisting, slightly incoherently (in the tradition of his new boss) that “the failure of a response has allowed them to just keep pushing the envelope on this.”

All right, so maybe a novice had a bad day.  Maybe the secretary-of-state-to-be simply ad-libbed and misspoke… whatever.  If so, you might have expected a later clarification from him or from someone on the Trump national security team anyway.  

That didn’t happen; instead, that team stuck to its guns. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made no effort to add nuance to, let alone walk back, Tillerson’s remarks.  During his first official press briefing on January 23rd, Spicer declared that the United States “is going to make sure we defend our interests there” — in the South China Sea, that is — and that “if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yes, we are going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”

And what of Trump’s own views on the island controversy?  Never one to pass up an opportunity for hyperbole, during the presidential campaign he swore that, on those tiny islands, China was building “a military fortress the likes of which the world has not seen.” As it happened, he wasn’t speaking about, say, the forces that Hitler massed for the ill-fated Operation Barbarossa, launched in June 1941 with the aim of crushing the Red Army and the Soviet Union, or those deployed for the June 1944 Normandy landing, which sealed Nazi Germany’s fate.  When applied to what China has been up to in the South China Sea, his statement fell instantly into the not-yet-named category of “alternative facts.” 

Candidate Trump also let it be known that he wouldn’t allow Beijing to get away with such cheekiness on his watch.  Why had the Chinese engaged in military construction on the islands?  Trump had a simple answer (as he invariably does): China “has no respect for our president and no respect for our country.” The implication was evident.  Things would be different once he settled into the White House and made America great again.  Then — it was easy enough to conclude — China had better watch out.

Standard campaign bombast?  Well, Trump hasn’t changed his tune a bit since being elected.  On December 4th, using (of course!) his Twitter account, he blasted Beijing for having built “a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.”  And it’s safe to assume that he signed off on Spicer’s combative comments as well.

In short, his administration has already drawn a red line — but in the way a petulant child might with a crayon. During and after the campaign he made much of his determination to regain the respect he claims the U.S. has lost in the world, notably from adversaries like China.  The danger here is that, in dealing with that country, Trump could, as is typical, make it all about himself, all about “winning,” one of his most beloved words, and disaster might follow.

Whose Islands?

A military clash between Trump-led America and a China led by President Xi Jinping?  Understanding how it might happen requires a brief detour to the place where it’s most likely to occur: the South China Sea.  Our first task: to understand China’s position on that body of water and the islands it contains, as well as the nature of Beijing’s military projects there.  So brace yourself for some necessary detail.

As Marina Tsirbas, a former diplomat now at the Australian National University’s National Security College, explains, Beijing’s written and verbal statements on the South China Sea lend themselves to two different interpretations.  The Chinese government’s position boils down to something like this: “We own everything — the waters, islands and reefs, marine resources, and energy and mineral deposits — within the Nine-Dash Line.”  That demarcation line, which incidentally has had ten dashes, and sometimes eleven, originally appeared in 1947 maps of the Republic of China, the Nationalist government that would soon flee to the island of Taiwan leaving the Chinese Communists in charge of the mainland. When Mao Ze Dong and his associates established the People’s Republic, they retained that Nationalist map and the demarcation line that went with it, which just happened to enclose virtually all of the South China Sea, claiming sovereign rights.  

This stance — think of it as Beijing’s hard line on the subject — raises instant questions about other countries’ navigation and overflight rights through that much-used region. In essence, do they have any and, if so, will Beijing alone be the one to define what those are?  And will those definitions start to change as China becomes ever more powerful?  These are hardly trivial concerns, given that about $5 trillion worth of goods pass through the South China Sea annually.

Then there’s what might be called Beijing’s softer line, based on rights accorded by the legal concepts of the territorial sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which took effect in 1994 and has been signed by 167 states (including China but not the United States), a country has sovereign control within 12 nautical miles of its coast as well as of land formations in that perimeter visible at high tide.  But other countries have the right of “innocent passage.”  The EEZ goes further.  It provides a rightful claimant control over access to fishing, as well as seabed and subsoil natural resources, within “an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea” extending 200 nautical miles, while ensuring other states’ freedom of passage by air and sea.  UNCLOS also gives a state with an EEZ control over “the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations, and structures” within that zone — an important provision at our present moment.

What makes all of this so much more complicated is that many of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea that provide the basis for defining China’s EEZ are also claimed by other countries under the terms of UNCLOS.  That, of course, immediately raises questions about the legality of Beijing’s military construction projects in that watery expanse on islands, atolls, and strips of land it’s dredging into existence, as well as its claims to seabed energy resources, fishing rights, and land reclamation rights there — to say nothing about its willingness to seize some of them by force, rival claims be damned.

Moreover, figuring out which of these two positions — hard or soft — China embraces at any moment is tricky indeed.  Beijing, for instance, insists that it upholds freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the Sea, but it has also said that these rights don’t apply to warships and military aircraft.  In recent years its warplanes have intercepted, and at close quarters, American military aircraft flying outside Chinese territorial waters in the same region.  Similarly, in 2015, Chinese aircraft and ships followed and issued warnings to an American warship off Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, which both China and Vietnam claim in their entirety.  This past December, its Navy seized, but later returned, an underwater drone the American naval ship Bowditch had been operating near the coast of the Philippines. 

There were similar incidents in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2013, and 2014.  In the second of these episodes, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane, which had a crew of 24 on board, less than 70 miles off Hainan island, forcing it to make an emergency landing in China and creating a tense standoff between Beijing and Washington.  The Chinese detained the crew for 11 days.  They disassembled the EP-3, returning it three months later in pieces.

Such muscle flexing in the South China Sea isn’t new.  China has long been tough on its weaker neighbors in those waters.  Back in 1974, for instance, its forces ejected South Vietnamese troops from parts of the Paracel/Xisha islands that Beijing claimed but did not yet control.  China has also backed up its claim to the Spratly/Nansha islands  (which Taiwan, Vietnam, and other regional countries reject) with air and naval patrols, tough talk, and more.  In 1988, it forcibly occupied the Vietnamese-controlled Johnson Reef, securing control over the first of what would eventually become seven possessions in the Spratlys.

Vietnam has not been the only Southeast Asian country to receive such rough treatment.  China and the Philippines both claim ownership of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal/Huangyang Island, located 124 nautical miles off Luzon Island in the Philippines.  In 2012, Beijing simply seized it, having already ejected Manila from Panganiban Reef (aka Mischief Reef), about 129 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan Island, in 1995.  In 2016, when an international arbitration tribunal upheld Manila’s position on Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sniffed that “the decision is invalid and has no binding force.”  Chinese president Xi Jinping added for good measure that China’s claims to the South China Sea stretched back to “ancient times.”

Then there’s China’s military construction work in the area, which includes the building of full-scale artificial islands, as well as harbors, military airfields, storage facilities, and hangars reinforced to protect military aircraft.  In addition, the Chinese have installed radar systems, anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-missile defense systems on some of these islands.

These, then, are the projects that the Trump administration says it will stop.  But China’s conduct in the South China Sea leaves little doubt about its determination to hold onto what it has and continue its activities.  The Chinese leadership has made this clear since Donald Trump’s election, and the state-run press has struck a similarly defiant note, drawing crude red lines of its own.  For example, the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper, mocked Trump’s pretensions and issued a doomsday warning: “The U.S. has no absolute power to dominate the South China Sea.  Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories.” 

Were the administration to follow its threatening talk with military action, the Global Times added ominously, “The two sides had better prepare for a military clash.”  Although the Chinese leadership hasn’t been anywhere near as bombastic, top officials have made it clear that they won’t yield an inch on the South China Sea, that disputes over territories are matters for China and its neighbors to settle, and that Washington had best butt out.

True, as the acolytes of a “unipolar” world remind us, China’s military spending amounts to barely more than a quarter of Washington’s and U.S. naval and air forces are far more advanced and lethal than their Chinese equivalents.  However, although there certainly is a debate about the legal validity and historical accuracy of China’s territorial claims, given the increasingly acrimonious relationship between Washington and Beijing the more strategically salient point may be that these territories, thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland, mean so much more to China than they do to the United States.  By now, they are inextricably bound up with its national identity and pride, and with powerful historical and nationalistic memories — with, that is, a sense that, after nearly two centuries of humiliation at the hands of the West, China is now a rising global power that can no longer be pushed around.  

Behind such sentiments lies steel.  By buying some $30 billion in advanced Russian armaments since the early 1990s and developing the capacity to build advanced weaponry of its own, China has methodically acquired the military means, and devised a strategy, to inflict serious losses on the American navy in any clash in the South China Sea, where geography serves as its ally.  Beijing may, in the end, lose a showdown there, but rest assured that it would exact a heavy price before that. What sort of “victory” would that be?

If the fighting starts, it will be tough for the presidents of either country to back down.  Xi Jinping, like Trump, presents himself as a tough guy, sure to trounce his enemies at home and abroad.  Retaining that image requires that he not bend when it comes to defending China’s land and honor.  He faces another problem as well.  Nationalism long ago sidelined Maoism in his country.  As a result, were he and his colleagues to appear pusillanimous in the face of a Trumpian challenge, they would risk losing their legitimacy and potentially bringing their people onto the streets (something that can happen quickly in the age of social media).  That’s a particularly forbidding thought in what is arguably the most rebellious land in the historical record.  In such circumstances, the leadership’s abiding conviction that it can calibrate the public’s nationalism to serve the Communist Party’s purposes without letting it get out of hand may prove delusional.

Certainly, the Party understands the danger that runaway nationalism could pose to its authority.  Its paper, the People’s Daily, condemned the “irrational patriotism” that manifested itself in social media forums and street protests after the recent international tribunal’s verdict favoring the Philippines.  And that’s hardly the first time a foreign policy fracas has excited public passions.  Think, for example, of the anti-Japanese demonstrations that swept the country in 2005, provoked by Japanese school textbooks that sanitized that country’s World War II-era atrocities in China.  Those protests spread to many cities, and the numbers were sizeable with more than 10,000 angry demonstrators on the streets of Shanghai alone.  At first, the leadership encouraged the rallies, but it got nervous as things started to spin out of control.

“We’re Going to War in the South China Sea…”

Facing off against China, President Trump could find himself in a similar predicament, having so emphasized his toughness, his determination to regain America’s lost respect and make the country great again.  The bigger problem, however, will undoubtedly be his own narcissism and his obsession with winning, not to mention his inability to resist sending incendiary messages via Twitter.  Just try to imagine for a moment how a president who blows his stack during a getting-to-know-you phone call with the prime minister of Australia, a close ally, is likely to conduct himself in a confrontation with a country he’s labeled a prime adversary.

In the event of a military crisis between China and the United States, neither side may want an escalation, to say nothing of a nuclear war.  Yet Trump’s threats to impose 45% tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S. and his repeated condemnation of China as a “currency manipulator” and stealer of American jobs have already produced a poisonous atmosphere between the world’s two most powerful countries.  And it was made worse by his December phone conversation with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, which created doubts about his commitment to the One China policy the United States has adhered to since 1972.  The Chinese authorities apparently made it clear to the White House that there couldn’t even be a first-time phone call to Xi unless the new president agreed to stick with that policy. During a conversation with the Chinese president on February 9th, Trump reportedly provided that essential assurance. Given the new American president’s volatility, however, Beijing will be playing close attention to his words and actions, even his symbolic ones, related to Taiwan.

Sooner or later, if Trump doesn’t also dial down the rest of his rhetoric on China, its leaders will surely ratchet up theirs, thereby aggravating the situation further.  So far, they’ve restrained themselves in order to figure Trump out — not an easy task even for Americans — and in hopes that his present way of dealing with the world might be replaced with something more conventional and recognizable.  Hope, as they say, springs eternal, but as of now, in repeatedly insisting that China must do as he says, Trump and his surrogates have inserted themselves and the country into a complicated territorial dispute far from America’s shores.  The hubris of Washington acting as the keeper of world order, but regularly breaking the rules as it wishes, whether by invading Iraq in 2003 or making open use of torture and a global network of secret prisons, is an aspect of American behavior long obvious to foreign powers.  It looks to be the essence of Trumpism, too, even if its roots are old indeed. 

Don’t dismiss the importance of heated exchanges between Washington and Beijing in the wake of Trump’s election.  The political atmosphere between rival powers, especially those with massive arsenals, can matter a great deal when they face off in a crisis.  Pernicious stereotypes and mutual mistrust only increase the odds that crucial information will be misinterpreted in the heat of the moment because of entrenched beliefs that are immune to contrary evidence, misperceptions, worst-case calculations, and up-the-ante reactions.  In academic jargon, these constitute the ingredients for a classic conflict spiral.  In such a situation, events take control of leaders, producing outcomes that none of them sought.  Not for nothing during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 did President John Kennedy look to Barbara Tuchman’s book, Guns of August — a gripping account of how Europe slipped and slid into a disastrous world war in 1914. 

There has been lots of anxiety about the malign effects that Donald Trump’s temperament and beliefs could have domestically, and for good reason.  But in domestic politics, institutions and laws, civic organizations, the press, and public protests can serve, however imperfectly, as countervailing forces.  In international politics, crises can erupt suddenly and unfold rapidly —  and the checks on rash behavior by American presidents are much weaker.  They have considerable leeway to use military force (having repeatedly circumvented the War Powers Act).  They can manipulate public opinion from the Bully Pulpit and shape the flow of information. (Think back to the Iraq war.)  Congress typically rallies reflexively around the flag during international crises.  In such moments, citizens’ criticism or mass protest invites charges of disloyalty. 

This is why the brewing conflict in the South China Sea and rising animosities on both sides could produce something resembling a Cuban-Missile-Crisis-style situation — with the United States lacking the geographical advantage this time around.  If you think that a war between China and the United States couldn’t possibly happen, you might have a point in ordinary times, which these distinctly aren’t.

Take the latest news on Stephen Bannon, formerly the executive chairman of the alt-right publication Breitbart News and now President Trump’s chief political strategist.  He has even been granted the right to sit in on every meeting of the National Security Council and its Principals Committee, the highest inter-agency forum for day-to-day national security deliberations.  He will be privy to meetings that, according to a directive signed by Trump, even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence may not join unless “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise will be discussed.” Calling this a break with past practice would be an understatement of the first order.  

So Bannon’s views, once of interest only to a fringe group of Americans, now matter greatly.  Here’s what he said last March about China in a radio interview: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? There’s no doubt about that.  They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.”

Think of this as Bannon’s version of apocalyptic prophecy.  Then consider the volatility of the new president he advises.  Then focus on the larger message: these are not ordinary times.  Most Americans probably don’t even know that there is a South China Sea.  Count on one thing, though: they will soon.

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Rajan Menon


15 Responses

  1. Some “interesting facts” . . .

    – Military spending does **NOT** equal military effectiveness or ability to control any particular situation. Yes, the USA military spends an ungodly amount of money, BUT a significant part of that spending is wasted mostly on military suppler profitability. For example the USA F-35 is marginally better than existing USA (and non-USA) aircraft, but costs orders of magnitude more than most of its only slightly less capable competitors – wasted money. Comparing what the USA wastes on the military and what China (or Iran, or whoever) spends on military is NOT a valid comparison, especially since **ALL** “war toys” are based on the SAME science (physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, etc) and all are based on the SAME technology derived from the sciences. Essentially most wealthier nations are EQUAL in military capability. That is, the USA does **NOT** have any military superiority.

    – Chinese DF-21D “carrier killer.” While there is some debate in USA military circle as to just how dangerous the DF-21D is, there can be no doubt that it greatly complicates the lives of USA carrier crews. The most optimistic range for the DF-21D is 1000 miles and the pessimistic range is about half that. In either case, if the USA carrier has to stay out of range and expend lots of resources just defending itself, that will severely limit the capability of the 30 or so aircraft on the carrier. How far the carrier has to be from the target determines how much extra fuel the aircraft need to carry (limiting munitions loads) or how many times they have to do very exposed refueling. If the aircraft have to refuel inbound to the target and outbound from the target, that means many fewer sorties and much higher risks especially from long distance, deadly and accurate anti-aircraft systems like the S-400 and its Chinese/Iranian clones.Note also that long transit times to the target and multiple in-flight refueling vastly increase air crew fatigue causing very costly mistakes (missed landings, etc.). BTW – USA carriers only go about 35 MPH so during the DF-21D flight time, the carrier has moved very little and defending against something dropping on you at Mach 10 is somewhat difficult.

    – China will NOT back down. Unfortunately only a minuscule number of Americans have even a moderate understanding of the Chinese culture, so Americans are almost guaranteed to miss all the subtle warnings the Chinese will give and let their extreme pride (hubris) send them right off the cliff. While the Chinese PREFER to solve situations through negotiations, they have no problem brutally settling a disagreements to their satisfaction. Trump is no match for the Chinese government and his big mouth will lead him into a big trap. China has had over 5000 years to learn how to effectively deal with a noisy upstarts like trump.

    – There is a very good reason why there is a heavy Chinese influence throughout Asia – China has been heavily involved with all of Asia for thousands of years. Other than a two hundred or so year period (1750-1950) when “western” empires controlled Asia, China was the dominate power for the previous 4000 years and now China is reasserting that dominance and will simply shove the USA aside. There is nothing the USA can do to change this and trying to do it militarily will just get the USA humiliated.

    The world is changing the the USA is losing power. Trump can get his panties in bunch about it, but there is realistically nothing he can do about it. Americans will just have to accept that their egos are going to get knocked down multiple notches.

    • I wouldn’t say the US military has no assets in this situation. What it has accumulated from so many years of out-of-control spending is outstanding pilots and sailors and technical personnel. There’s some kinds of experience that it’s hard to get without expensive drills and even more expensive real wars. Part of China’s wisdom is in looking for weapons that take human skill out of the equation. But even a robot needs live-fire experience for the sake of programming its successors.

      In general, it looks as though any surface warships that go near China will be annihilated by its missiles. But conversely, American submarines will have a field day returning to waters they dominated in the war against Japan. Those subs could do even better if they were used as minelayers, a tactic belatedly employed against Japanese shipping that yielded better results than simply firing torpedoes against them. The problem is that the US Navy has publicized its carrier task forces and the White House has relied on them so much for gunboat diplomacy that no one pays much attention to the growing capabilities of submarines, and there is no consensus that any ASW weapons in non-US hands could begin to be as effective as the anti-ship missiles designed to go after those task forces.

      So you’re looking at mutually assured destruction of all forms of surface traffic over a huge area. All merchant ships will stay in port to avoid this madness. Trade between Asia and the Americas will break down, and what % of the world’s economy is bound to that?

      Then it becomes the nightmare of a starvation contest between two horribly-inflated economies that normally need each other to prevent financial collapse. I think it will go badly on both sides, and they will drag the world into another Great Depression.

      • I forgot about the subs.

        The only reservation I have is USA sub designs have been optimized to be either boomers or fast attack.

        – Boomers are designed to be missile launch platforms with few other capabilities.

        – Attackers are designed to be smaller and faster to destroy opponent’s boomers and fast attack subs.

        Laying mines requires different technology on board the sub, so while either type of existing sub might be retrofitted to sort of do the mine mission, the result would be sub-optimal.

        As for restricting shipping, China would be LEAST effected by the loss of trade because it has a HUGE internal market. Also, china could quickly ramp up the usage of the Silk Road giving it access to most of the world’s markets over land instead of via the sea.

        Sure, China would lose the USA market, but the USA market is relatively small (compared to the entire rest of the globe).

        Basically any war between the USA and China would cripple the USA far worse than China.

        As I noted, the USA would be humiliated. After China “won” it would not bother to waste its money occupying the USA, it would simply leave the Americans to starve in the rubble.

        • Generally I agree with you, but I think both economies are relying on speculative bubbles to put off recessions. It doesn’t matter that China’s real exports keep growing X% a year if its stock and real estate markets inflate 5X% a year; there still has to be a shakeout. And we know the shakeout can be triggered by a relatively tiny event compared to the size of the whole economy. That’s panic. But a wartime economy gives leaders options they don’t normally exercise to freeze or manipulate markets in the name of patriotism. What I can’t see, ironically, is any economic boost from genuine war production, because there’s nothing the US or China can mass-build to use in decisive warfare against the other, only esoteric gadgets or Special Forces to jab at soft spots.

          The USN has been teaching our submarines all sorts of new tricks. Some missile subs were converted into carriers for SEAL teams. So I guess launching mini-submarines has already happened, and that’s not far from minelaying. Our attack submarines have long been able to launch naval cruise missiles from torpedo tubes to assault land targets, but with the limitations I noted.

          I expect that anything that can be fired out of a vertical or horizontal tube is ready to go. Eventually someone will finally design a drone torpedo that you can leave behind, able to identify and attack enemy shipping for weeks.

          It’s all very limited warfare without nukes. But the media machines at the disposal of governments can turn small actions into heroic victories or ignored sideshows based on their needs. That doesn’t mean that things aren’t spinning out of control in the real world. There’s too many other actors out there who might get involved.

        • About 65 countries have China as their major trading partner. How happy would these nations be and who would they blame as their exports are sunk in the South China Sea and they go into recession?

    • Any conflict in the South China Sea will only be a skirmish with few hundred to a few thousand casualties. Who comes out on top is also of small importance,
      It is what happens after the shooting subsides that is important. The only scenario that favors the US is China totally surrenders and demilitarizes and a few destroyed planes and ships won’t do that, just as the destruction in Pearl Harbor did not make the US cave in to the Japanese. More likely, the Chinese will go into full clandestine military production mode. If America considered Iraq and WMD a deadly threat, imagine a belligerent country with the technical and industrial capacity of China and already possessing several hundred nukes and long range missiles setting out to match the US nuclear arsenal.
      The Iraq debacle showed the US did not have the intelligence capability to judge if a country was building nukes. It also showed wars are easier to start than finish. A shooting war with China could end very badly indeed.

      • China has a community focused culture, whereas the USA culture tends to be more “rugged individual” focused.

        A six to one population difference coupled with a “community” culture will pretty much ensure the USA loses badly.

        To understand just how fierce China can be, look at their 5000 year history and read Sun Tzu’s 2500 year old “the art of war” which has proven, REPEATEDLY, to be extremely accurate.

        The USA would be very foolish to pick a fight with China

  2. Daily, if not hourly, we witness the damage that amateurs can do when they try to beat professionals at their own game.

    Trump’s military experience includes close-order drill, donning a spiffy military school uniform, and evading actual service, his diplomatic experience limited to “You’re fired!” and “I never settle!”

    He has no idea what he is up to. If he knew any history, he might be accused of thinking the South China Sea is a bigger version of the Gulf of Sirte (think 1981). More likely he’s remembering playing with toy soldiers as a lad; his side always won.

    If there is an actual confrontation, I’m reminded of The Hunt for Red October and what Admiral Painter (played by mediocre actor and senator Fred Thompson) said:
    ” This business will get out of control. It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it.”

  3. To continue my remarks, we could wonder what military moves would follow the extinction of surface ships in the China Seas. I expect our submarines, having nothing better to do, would be used to launch cruise missiles against whatever these Trump fascists consider a legitimate target. They will carry conventional warheads, so it would matter as little as the V-2s sporadically raining down on London. Perfect for Beijing’s propaganda needs, though. At that point the Chinese people will be in a frenzy for revenge. It would be very wise for South Korea to declare neutrality on Day One. Absent that, there’s no good way for the conventional Chinese military to hurt the US. The damage will be done in the economic war.

    From a policy standpoint, this sort of pointless stalemate gives Beijing an excuse to reimpose the old Communist discipline (which is what wartime economies all pretty much resemble) on the nascent capitalist interests that are holding back much-needed reforms. That means getting capital flows under control, banning sales of gasoline-engine cars, completing the poorly-coordinated renewable energy transition underway, etc. I don’t know if China ever completed its natural gas pipelines to Iran, but I’m sure it could expedite more and expand them throughout Central Asia. With Iran and Pakistan as its economic satellites, China would have some means to engage in proxy war against US forces far from home, but those forces might in turn be foolish enough to attack those countries to get at those economic flows.

    • FYI – S-400 systems can easily stop cruise missiles and China has LOTS of operational Chinese/Iranian designed clones of the S-400.

    • It cancels any payments being made now. But it’s still out there awaiting the outcome of the war. I’m pretty sure Saddam Hussein’s debt to Kuwait, which was one of the reasons he had to invade it, did not go away after he was defeated.

    • After the USA loses, China will ensure that the USA is strip mined to pay our debts in full.

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