It seems a war between China and the US is on its way. All of America’s loyal allies, including Australia, will participate in this war. Given that China is the world’s second highest military spender and has more than 200 nuclear weapons, in the worst case such a war could have a devastating impact on the entire world.
But how likely is it, and when might it happen? In October 2018, retired US general Ben Hodges told defence experts at the Warsaw Security Forum that there was ‘a very strong likelihood’ of war between the US and China within the next 15 years.
It could be argued that it is in the best interests of the US military — from a strategic point of view — to wage such a war pre-emptively. Why is that? If war broke out within five years, say, there’s a good chance that the US would win. (For the record, I don’t believe anyone could ‘win’ such a war, so I am speaking solely from a military strategic perspective.) The longer they wait, the greater the odds against defeating China.
At the current pace of development, the Chinese economy is expected to overtake America’s around 2030 (some 12 years from now). We cannot know whether China’s military budget will also come to match or overtake that of the US? From the US perspective, if we assume the general is right, and we believe that nations act according to what they perceive as their best interests, war must happen soon.
Let’s take a look at the Chinese side. Besides the usual nationalist propaganda and demonstrations of the country’s ever-growing military power, 2018 saw a dramatic development in the political arena. The 2018 National People’s Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution that allows President Xi Jinping to remain in office indefinitely.
Over the past 40 years the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, and more recently that of President Xi, has been highly dependent on China’s economic success. External factors, such as the ongoing US–China trade war, are threatening the country’s economic future. When an economic downturn kicks in, Xi may look for other ways to sustain his legitimacy and authority, for example through taking a hard line with Taiwan over the One China Policy.
Taiwan has been separated from mainland China and governed more or less independently for almost 70 years, since Mao’s army chased the remnants of the KMT to the island at the end of the civil war in 1949. While Mao has been gone for almost 40 years, many observers have drawn more than a few parallels between the Great Leader and his current successor. It’s doubtful that Taiwan can be fully brought back into the Chinese fold peacefully. An attempt to ‘unify’ Taiwan by force is perhaps the most likely trigger of a major war between China and its opponents.
Although China’s military spend is less than one-third that of the US, its economy has been growing at a much faster pace than those of the US and its allies. In recent years, China has also been buying political influence around the world with large financial aid programs and direct investments, especially in the Asia–Pacific region. The high-speed rail system inside China, and the Belt and Road Initiative linking Asia, Africa and Europe, whose primary purpose is to increase trade and economic integration, might also assist in quickly deploying military forces in time of war.
When compared with the unpredictable and incoherent performance of President Trump, President Xi presents on the world stage as a rational actor and an advocate of multilateralism. But a rational decision maker can usually be expected to act out of perceived self-interest. A relevant example might be the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. To protect what she saw as her interests, the Empress Dowager of the Qing empire made the fateful decision of responding to an anti-foreigner peasant uprising by appropriating it, which led to a war with the world’s most powerful nations that China had no chance of winning. Today, and in the coming years, China’s odds of winning any war with its external rivals look rather better.
No matter the direction of the Chinese economy, I see military conflict between China and the United States as a threat of a scale that few seem to have fully recognised. I will argue that the only way to prevent such a war is to stop it at the source — that is, to reach into the minds of those who make these decisions and attempt to convince them to change course.
While political leaders in China remain more or less impervious to the concerns of ordinary people, the leaders of the ‘free world’ must at least pretend to listen to their citizens. My priority in writing this book is to add my weight to the arguments in the democracies that risking such a war is in no one’s interest and puts the whole world in mortal danger. I will offer some ideas on how we might step back from it, but will also explore what, if the worst happens, we might do to protect ourselves and our families, and what a post-war world might look like.