The Center for Naval Analyses recently published Grand Strategy: Contemporary Contending Analyst Views and Implications for the U.S. Navy, a survey of potential U.S. strategies being debated in the academic and defense communities. The study identifies four competing lines of strategic thought: maintaining American hegemony, selective engagement, offshore balancing, and integrating collective international efforts. Two additional options—isolationism and world government—are noted and disregarded as not viable. Under this list of strategic options a sharp division is apparent, dictated by the question, “Is great-power war obsolete?”
This fundamental question must be answered before any logical strategic decisions can be made. If great-power war is possible, then the de facto existential threat to U.S. interests, latent in the international system, must be addressed before all others. There are enormous implications for weapon procurement, operational doctrine, and force levels driven by this single issue.
Global strategists point to economic globalization and the proliferation of nuclear weapons as modern guarantors of peace among major powers. However, we contend that these very rational hedges against violence can still be shattered by decidedly irrational and reactionary forces. Thus, the possibility of great-power war between China and the United States cannot be ruled out.
Economic interdependence offers benefits beyond the sheer transfer of capital and goods—there can be no doubt of that. However, history renders globalization’s deterrent effects at least somewhat questionable. Substantial economic interdependence existed throughout Europe prior to World War I, and Japan was hugely dependent on American oil imports in the years leading up to World War II. It was this dependence that made the U.S oil embargo intolerable, ultimately motivating the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor.
On the other hand, the existential threat of nuclear weapons has certainly resulted in a universal desire keep Pandora’s Box firmly shut. While we concede the remarkable ability of weapons of mass destruction to dampen the oscillations of great-power relations, it is unclear that the nuclear restraint against total war ever takes limited war off the table as a strategic option. More fundamentally, though, the arguments for a nuclear-based “state of peace” are constrained by the limits of rationality. Rational bounds do not apply to the ephemeral—yet extremely powerful—waves of bellicose nationalism that can sweep up an entire nation.
National pride is embedded in the Chinese DNA—and rightly so. In certain segments of society, however, the sentiment manifests itself with a particular fervor, and some elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) epitomize this zeal. Alarmingly, the Communist Party leadership appears increasingly unable to act as a check on the military. Both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had ironclad control over the PLA, having earned unquestionable credibility during the Long March. Neither General Secretary of the Communist Party Hu Jintao nor First Secretary Xi Jinping can claim a similar rapport with the PLA. Neither possesses a comparable level of control. Any surge of aggressive nationalism, either in the PLA or among the greater masses, could conceivably compel contemporary party leadership toward a bellicosity it does not desire.
How might this happen? The two most likely scenarios deal with Chinese “core interests” in the Pacific: sovereignty in the South China Sea and Taiwan.
The South China Sea is no stranger to conflict. Its location and material promise have led to a host of conflicting territorial claims and brought the Chinese and Vietnamese to armed conflict over the Spratly Islands in the late 1980s. After a period of relative calm, tensions have once again begun to flare. American commitment to freedom of the seas in the region, exemplified by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s July 2010 speech in Hanoi, Vietnam, provides ample opportunity for a Sino-American butting of heads. Similarly, the Republic of China remains a perennially sore issue for the Chinese; the furor over the sale of American F-16s provides an ample platform for future, more-polarizing interactions over Taiwan.
War between China and the United States is unlikely. Economic interdependence and nuclear weapons are powerful, persuasive deterrents against it. However, Sino-American dealings, particularly in Taiwan or the South China Sea, provide instances in which the powder keg of Chinese nationalism could explode, effectively forcing party leadership into a series of irrational but irreversible actions. As such, the possibility of great-power war, unlimited or otherwise, cannot be ruled out. U.S. policymakers must plan accordingly.
Second Lieutenant Orzetti is a 2011 graduate of the Naval Academy and holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. His work has also appeared in Small Wars Journal.