Why the U.S. probably loses to China

The United States of America is simply not that good at the whole war thing.

No, really, it isn’t. America is a country built on marketing slogans that everybody pretends are real until they’re proven wrong — then we all shrug and move onto the next like we’re living in a sitcom.

And the real military record, setting aside the yay-go-team chest-thumping that gets pumped across the air waves, ain’t great:

War of Independence — win*
*after substantial French assistance

War of 1812 — draw, White House and Capitol burned by British

Indian Wars — win*
*opponents remnants of populations recently suffering 90% population reduction in epidemics

Mexican War — win
note: produced tensions substantially contributing to outbreak of Civil War

Civil War (own goal)

Spanish-American War — win, seizure of Cuba, Philippines from Spanish Empire (already collapsing).

World War I — win*
*entered very late, hastened foregone conclusion at cost of enormous casualties

World War II — win*
*entered late, used first atomic weapons against civilian targets to force Japanese Imperial government to accept occupation.

Korean War — draw*
*frozen conflict, after failed American attempt to invade North and 3-year stalemate.

Vietnam War — loss*
*ceasefire agreement allows withdrawal, followed by conquest of allied South Vietnam two years later.

Gulf War — win
note: opposing forces sat still in desert for several months of bombing before collapsing after a brief ground invasion.

Global War on Terror — draw*
*major target groups badly degraded, at enormous cost. United states forced to evacuate many regions by constant insurgent attacks.

This rather poor record is why it is deeply troubling and also kind of hilarious whenever American political leaders start rattling spears at China.

This isn’t a truth you are likely to see admitted in any American publication. In U.S. media — funded by advertising, a fair amount coming from Defense companies — it is taken as an article of faith that the United States military is the best in the world, unbeatable, a bedrock of Western Civilization.

It’s a convenient lie to tell because it is difficult to disprove, absent a full-scale military conflict of the kind nobody should want to see. Everyone likes to cheer for the home team, and military affairs are generally considered the domain of “experts” with the general public not allowed any meaningful input. On the whole, there is about as much democracy in the United States’ foreign policy as there is in China’s.

There is virtually zero public education in military affairs in the United States, which has led to the absence of intelligent discussion. Americans have no clue that there is actually deep science powering what happens on the international stage. They are mis-educated into a mythological understanding of their own country and fear to question the experts for fear of being labeled unpatriotic.

If the American public truly understood just how badly the foreign policy experts have abused this position of power over the past eighty years, the United States itself would probably collapse. More than half of our federal income tax dollars, nearly $3,000 per American per year, goes towards the nebulous and ever-expanding “defense” budget.

To put this in perspective, forgiving $10,000 in federal (not even private!) student loans is considered too expensive by about half of American elected representatives, even though this would eliminate student loan debt for something like a third to a half of borrowers. Basically, American college graduates pay for the military in two ways: through taxes that fund it directly, and through student loan payments they incurred because the government funds the military better than schools.

The irony is, what has been the single most destructive enemy the United States has faced since the Second World War in terms of the death toll and economic damage?

The Covid-19 Pandemic.

Not China, not terrorists, not the Soviet Union. A supercold that many other countries were able to beat while the US floundered about, unable and unwilling to defend its people.

Yet in the midst of this epic failure, cutting defense spending isn’t remotely on the table. Instead, the news is being filled with ominous warning about China’s growing power, Russia’s misbehavior, and the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.

The reason? It’s a convenient distraction that happens to make a whole lot of people rich.

The problem sounds too big to tackle, I know — especially when extreme military spending is now bipartisan. The highest annual expenditures before the Trump era came during in Obama’s years, after all.

But if nothing is done — and soon, powerful structural factors threaten to drag the United States into a conflict with China that this decrepit system cannot win.

Americans are used to seeing their military operate wherever it wants because up until the past decade, it could. But while the U.S. twenty years of chasing terrorists across the Middle East, China was busy looking on in alarm and preparing for the worst.

Now, they’re ready for it. They’ve crossed a threshold, and there’s no going back absent an internal collapse that seems more likely to occur in the United States than China, for the moment.

To understand exactly why geopolitics look the way they do today, you have to look back to the early 1990s. As the Soviet Union collapsed and splintered, the United States found itself in a curious position.

Neither side ever truly wanted the Cold War to get hot — both the USA and USSR, former allies, did what the biggest powers left standing after a major conflict always do: divvy up spheres of influence. Both became the security guarantors for a bloc of countries, this giving them a degree of influence and power over their clients.

Naturally both competed aggressively in the borderlands and the instabilities produced by Europe’s collapse took time to work out. The nuclear arms race added a dangerous new layer to the dynamic, very nearly causing a catastrophe despite neither side wanting one.

The Soviet Union and United States were separated by vast oceans and the Arctic. So as long as conflicts could be kept contained, neither needed to truly fear for its long-term existence. This created a constant source of pressure tending against large-scale violence.

But in the 1990s leaders in the United States — especially the Clinton administration — were facing the collapse of what had been a very convenient system. Both sides’ leaders could point to the threat of the other to justify high military expenditures, which slowly ate away at the competitiveness of each side’s economy as defense-related interests forced spending on their sector to stay high.

In the United States cutbacks began to reap a “peace dividend” but this naturally produced large numbers of displaced workers and weakened companies, many of which began merging. This generated pressure — boosted by the success of the carefully stage-managed First Gulf War — to find a new justification for defense spending.

President Clinton, a shrewd political operator keen to avoid being labeled as “weak” by his conservative opposition, took advantage of a period of tension between China and the breakaway province of Taiwan — backed by the US — to send aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait. These vessels send an unmistakable message, one the United States is fond of repeating, and sending them so close to China’s shores was a calculated and pointed intimidation.

It — and other measures like it — had an unfortunate long-term consequence. In the 1990s China was facing a moment of crisis. Pro-democracy demonstrators had been ruthlessly suppressed, the United States was now the world’s dominant military and economic power, and the communist development model was discredited in the wake of the U.S.S.R.’s demise.

China’s leaders since Mao have united their nation using a simple formula:

  1. Remind China’s population of the century of humiliation resulting from European attempts to colonize China.
  2. Generate steady economic growth that lifts the fortunes of the majority of Chinese people.
  3. Crush any attempt at separation and assert China’s rights over a sphere of influence including the First Island Chain — what China views as its natural frontier.

Sending aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait was a direct challenge to both 1 and 3. And so as China’s economy embraced market reforms and began to grow, its leaders turned to developing technological solutions that would prevent the United States from coming to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a future repeat, or the emergence of a hard pro-independence movement in Taiwan.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 were a godsend to the defense industry in the United States and a nightmare for those caught in the fighting that followed. But it was the Bush administration’s heavy-handed military response in the Middle East that had far-reaching effects few understood at the time, but Americans are experiencing with interest today.

First off, the invasion of Iraq proved to every critic of the United States that it was most assuredly not the “special, indispensable” nation its media and leaders insist. The rest of the world viewed Operation Iraqi Freedom as an explicit attempt at modern-day colonialism, and the failure of the American public to successfully resist this gross stupidity proved that neither Congress nor public opinion could not be relied up to restrain a President.

And then the bumbling omnishambles both Iraq and eventually Afghanistan also became offered tangible proof of something even more important: America’s vaunted military power was a phantom after all.

Yes, it could fill the skies with planes and drones and reduce insurgent-held cities to rubble. But it couldn’t deploy enough troops to actually control the land, and its diplomats were too inept to forge alliances or political structures capable of controlling the violence that tore Iraq apart.

For years the United States struggled to recruit enough troops, replace worn-out equipment that was shown to be far more vulnerable than the defense companies promised, and develop new strategies and tactics. The United States military was demonstrated to be a hidebound bureaucracy unwilling to spend enough money to outfit all its soldiers with body armor or equip them with vehicles that could survive improvised explosive devices — this despite pouring trillions into over-budget, under-delivering programs like the Joint Strike Fighter and Littoral Combat Ship.

And meanwhile, alert to the possibility of a future America that was even more hostile, countries like China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia carefully prepared. They watched, evaluated their potential foe’s weaknesses, and developed the precise set of technologies needed to exploit them if need be.

The media and amateur commentators make too much of individual weapon systems, like hypersonic missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth aircraft, drones — even nuclear weapons. The real secret to warfare is using the right combination needed to achieve a particular goal.

Right now, the United States military is adopting a defense posture that specifically aims to dominate China within the First Island Chain. China’s government has stated that its sovereignty is defined by controlling this region. Unlike the Soviet Union and United States, Chinese and American leaders perceive their frontier to overlap. Both have publicly committed to this position. The stage is set for an escalation — most likely accidental at first, deliberate when China sees escalation to its advantage and worth the inevitable risks.

China will most likely win any conflict for two simple reasons:

  1. Any conflict will take place on its doorstep
  2. It has been preparing for 30 years

History is full of examples of hungry, up and coming challengers taking apart an older, slower, more hidebound adversary. American leaders — mostly educated into Atlantic Northeast culture, tend to hold deeply biased attitudes towards Asians. Orientalism is deeply entrenched in Transatlantic circles. This leaves America’s Northeast-dominated culture uniquely blind with respect to the Asia-Pacific.

The sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in the Second World War offers a preview of the consequences. To try and deter Japan from attacking British colonies in Southeast Asia, Churchill sent these powerful capital ships — Prince of Wales famous for having helped sink the German battleship Bismark — into the South China Sea. Japanese aircraft destroyed both, and thousands of British sailors died.

I think about this whenever I read about a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier like the USS Ronald Reagan or USS Theodore Roosevelt entering the South China Sea. And Americans are, of course, familiar with the story of Pearl Harbor — though perhaps not how foreseeable the attack actually was. There America badly underestimated Japan, American officials amplifying the “Day of Infamy” aspect to avoid scrutiny of the many failures of United States foreign policy that contributed to the outbreak of the horrific Pacific War.

Mark Twain famously said that history never repeats itself, but that it does rhyme —my own research in systems theory has found mechanisms for why this is the case. Structural factors are always at play, never determining the outcome, but always influencing the choices of the actors playing the game.

The simple truth is that the United States can no longer hope to fight China anywhere inside the First Island Chain. For the United States military to project power across the Pacific Ocean, an enormous logistical load has to be supported. For it to deploy and sustain all those fancy ships and planes in the western Pacific it needs bases — which are all now vulnerable to being hit by missiles launched from the Chinese mainland.

There is a concept the American defense establishment never talks about, but that governs all its actions: the tyranny of distance. Only 1/3 of the United States’ military assets can be deployed — in use — at any one time. This means that out of the 11 aircraft carrier battle groups in the U.S. Navy’s arsenal, only 4 (at most) can be at work at any given time.

China on the other hand can probably have 1/2 of its forces actively ready to fight. So the 6 carrier groups China is likely to field by the end of this decade gives it an *effective* power of 3 so long as it fights near its own coast.

And that’s assuming the U.S. doesn’t face any other crises at the same time. This is why it is becoming so reliant on its allies like Japan, Australia, and — it hopes — India to counterbalance China. It also needs more bases — right now, China could, if it chose to, quite easily Pearl Harbor the United States and cripple its ability to sustain a conflict with China, because American bases are all poorly defended and well in range of Chinese weapons.

But none of them are likely to want to risk a war with China over dominance in the First Island Chain. There’s too much danger — imagine what would happen if a single Chinese missile struck a target — even without doing material damage — anywhere in Japan. There would be mass panic, dramatic consequences for the Japanese economy — Japan’s government is unlikely to risk that even if China physically invaded the uninhabited Senkaku islands both lay claim to.

China is now fully capable of fighting the United States toe-to-toe beyond the First Island Chain, and pretending otherwise is frankly dangerous. The kind of rhetoric that sounds great to domestic audiences but materially increases the perception by China that the United States is fundamentally hostile to its survival.

Never do American commentators accept that it is kinda problematic that the United States — an increasingly unstable country with a proven track record of starting dumb wars — has decided that its western border actually runs through Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. A region where — and the importance of this can’t be stated strongly enough — the vast majority of China’s imports and exports must pass through.

In the Second World War, the United States strangled Japan — eliminating the need for a physical invasion or the atomic bombings — by cutting it off from the rest of the world with submarines and eventually air attacks. China isn’t as vulnerable as Japan — but it is vulnerable in economic terms. Supply chain disruptions at the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic were severe in large part because China shut down completely to stop the spread of the virus. Imagine a war breaking out along China’s coast — it would have exactly the same impact.

The truth of the matter is that the United States of America’s leaders are posturing in order to keep the defense lobby happy. Terrified of the prospect of losing access to the endless stream of tax revenues extracted from the American people, politicians continue to let the lobbyists control foreign policy, demanding confrontation with China that is needless and counterproductive.

China is no saint in all of this — its government, closely tied to China’s military-industrial complex — is actively stoking fears of American aggression to maintain its hold on power. Which is why the situation is such a sick game: so long as Americans can be convinced to fear China and vice versa, a tremendous amount of money that could be put to much better use — like solving climate change, or poverty, or, or, or… — but can’t be so long as our leaders are allowed to pretend that a war is truly possible — unless it starts by accident.

But keeping China from invading Taiwan doesn’t require constant confrontation — an actual Chinese invasion is far less likely than a bombing campaign the United States could do little to nothing to stop. And the South China Sea is to China what the southern California coast is to the U.S. Could you imagine the outrage if a People’s Liberation Army Navy carrier battle group routinely patrolled off the coast of Los Angeles? Why constantly pressure them in their own backyard?

The establishment answer runs along the lines of reassuring allies and standing up for the right of free navigation, but let’s cut to the chase — the Reagan and Roosevelt are today’s Prince of Wales and Repulse. Land-based missiles and drones make it all but suicidal to operate closer than about 1,000 kilometers from the Chinese coast — it doesn’t matter how many missiles are on the U.S. Navy’s aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers, decoys are cheap and crewed ships expensive. In a pinch, China can trade hundreds of one for a single hit that would cripple or even destroy another.

And it isn’t like the United States would be able to replace losses quickly enough to matter in a conflict. It takes years to build a warship, longer to train a crew to operate her. And the simple destruction of the military’s aura of invincibility in conventional warfare that would result from a single successful hit on a carrier would in effect automatically give China a win in the conflict. The morale hit at home and among America’s allies would be extreme. Victory and defeat in many conflicts is a matter of perspective — hence why the United States has so far refrained from directly attacking Iran, even under conservative administrations.

Iran’s government merely surviving — better yet scoring a few key public wins — would count as a victory for the regime. And because the United States lacks the ability to physically invade Iran, survival could well be enough of a victory to maintain the regime’s grip on their people.

For China, even a bloody stalemate would look like a victory — and so China has the upper hand even in an extreme conflict. America’s leaders appear to be growing aware of this — hence the hard shift towards ‘confronting’ and ‘containing’ China. China is a useful enemy for the defense industry — but it can’t become too strong, or else the illusion of American military supremacy will fade, obviating the need for high defense spending once people realize how effectively oceans serve as buffers between countries.

This is why provoking China is fundamentally stupid, the kind of thing that could well trigger a war. From Beijing’s perspective, if the moment arises where it feels the time has come to really push the United States, make a demonstration to the world, it stands to lose less than it gains in many scenarios.

Consider, say, there is a spat with the Philippines over some of the islands both Manila and Beijing claim. Say a Chinese patrol boat is damaged and someone dies, leading to calls for revenge by the Chinese media. The United States ambassador to the Philippines then gives a public statement implying that the United States stands ready to defend the Philippines against any Chinese threat.

This gives China a golden opportunity — in a swift series of strikes the entire Philippines naval and coastal defense forces are wiped out. China deploys two carrier battle groups into the South China Sea and mobilizes, warning the United States against any response.

Does the American President respond with military force, as the Philippine government demands? Will the United States risk a broader war over some uninhabited islands far from home?

No. And everyone in the region knows it. So China has at its disposal an opportunity to embarrass the United States and reveal the hollow nature of its security guarantees whenever the United States starts rattling sabers. The dangers of a wider conflict to the United States are too high — its forward-deployed forces are effectively hostages.

The far better posture in the region is one of distant watchfulness, constant diplomatic engagement, and the threat of economic conflict if China’s posture grows too aggressive. The United States and its allies should publicly commit to the territorial status quo, and begin bilateral arms control and conflict resolution talks.

Because the alternative is an untenable situation where the United States is bluffing the willingness and ability to do what it physically can’t: take on and defeat China in its own backyard. The disparity in military capabilities is no longer large enough — and never will be again — for the United States to pretend it can ever do more than inflict bloody damage on China while suffering equally in return — and probably smashing the economies of every country in East Asia if not triggering a global collapse.

A Second Pacific War can’t be allowed to happen, but the hair-trigger posture both the United States and China are adopting puts them at unacceptable risk of falling into an unintended conflict spiral. Crises have a way of convincing leaders to take bigger steps than they should, while at the same time their actions are viewed with magnified hostility by the other side.

This sets up a deadly feedback loop that can and has in the past caused major, unplanned military conflicts that take on a character of their own. The First World War offers an excellent example of this effect in action.

Say something a little more severe happens in the South China Sea. Vietnamese and Chinese ships exchange fire after an incident, with casualties on both sides. Coming at a moment of uncertainty in China, the leadership in Beijing decides to deliver a swift stroke against elements of the Vietnamese military.

But the Ronald Reagan and her carrier battle group are sailing in the area, when they suddenly find Chinese ships surging from their ports and assembling into two battle groups in preparation for the strike against Vietnam. Though not directly targeted, they find active hostilities breaking out nearby, with errant anti-ship missiles accidentally targeting a U.S. Navy destroyer.

Suddenly American air defense radars switch online and missiles are in the air — with the Chinese forces seeing a dramatic spike in American activity looking exactly like preparations for an intervention. Aircraft scramble on both sides and now there’s a shooting war taking place a hundred kilometers from a great power standoff, with both sides thinking the other is about to try something.

All it takes from here is one bad decision, one tragic mistake, to set off a chain of events culminating in an American carrier group being mauled and the American media crying for revenge for this “second Pearl Harbor.”

Does World War Three break out? Doubtful. Over a period of days and weeks tempers would cool and both sides would likely act with increasing restraint after the initial melee.

But that’s a bet no one should ever want to take, because the potential for going the other way becomes extreme. The United States and China could batter one another with missiles across the western Pacific for weeks or months until their weapons stocks begin running low. And nothing would be decided in the end, because the entire United States-China conflict is about perception, and of course, maintaining the wealth and power of the wealthy and powerful.

But the consequences for the rest of the world would be stark. United front against climate change? Forget that — a new era of international competition would begin with the planet’s resources fully exploited whatever the cost to the climate. Economic growth? Yeah, try building a business in a world where your supply chains might disintegrate at any moment. And wars have a way of spreading disease — the last thing humanity needs is another pandemic.

So what do people need to do about something this massive? Start demanding, however and wherever they can, that media and politicians honestly tackle the issue. Start talking to one another about what the country’s foreign policy should look like, and stop letting it be a taboo to everyone but the conservatives who oscillate between wanting to bomb everyone and trying to cut America off from the rest of the world.

Stop letting them waste our money on what really is a game that enriches a few at the cost of everyone else. Get rid of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and you can literally pay for free college for everybody. Giving money to Lockheed is just a way to subsidize a well-connected corporation, enhancing its power.

And if you live in a country that is allied with the United States — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea in particular, start pushing your governments for better answers, too. The danger of a new Pacific War is growing, and if it breaks out, the rifts generated will prevent any unified global action on any pressing issue for decades to come.

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