If it Comes to War, Can the US Compete With China?

China is building an island. It may be the kind of thing you do when you’re a rapidly growing economy, but in this case it’s also the thing you do when you want to make a territorial claim on parts of the Pacific Ocean your neighbours also claim. In this case, China is building an island complete with airstrip in waters claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.

It’s just the latest chapter in the Big Book of China Being Dickish, and in case you’ve just jumped into this book, the Council on Foreign Relations has a handy map for all of the competing territorial claims China is making in the Pacific against basically every nearby country with sandy beaches.

It may not sound like it, but it actually is a coincidence that the major Pacific powers just wrapped up one of the major annual conferences on security matters in the region, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accused China of “aggregating one fait accompli after another.” American commentary, like that of Ely Ratner in the Wall Street Journal, suggests America take a more confrontational stance with China in places where the rising power is throwing its weight around.

In short, there remain a number of ways that things could go badly in the Pacific. The biggest thing we have going for us, for now, is that most everyone who’s actually in charge agrees it would be insane to start shooting over rocks that barely rise higher than the waves on a good day. But governments don’t last forever, and patience is not a long-term plan.

So what would a supremely bad set of days look like? I think Robert Farley has a thorough rundown of the interests of China and the US in a possible shooting war: the US would be trying to make things as painful as possible for China to remove any offensive capability and possibly destabilize the Chinese government, while the Chinese would try to disrupt the US-led alliance system in the Pacific.

One of Farley’s points that people should probably dwell on is how, even if things go well for the US, any lucky shots the Chinese manage to get in will be enormously more costly for the US than for China. While Chinese factories and shipyards could replace Chinese losses in short order,

The United States may have a harder time replacing losses, and not only because US warships and aircraft cost more than their Chinese counterparts. The production lines for the F-15 and F-16 are near the end, and the US no longer produces F-22. Moreover, US shipbuilding has declined to the point that replacing significant war losses could take a very long time.

If, for example, the Chinese manage to sink a US aircraft carrier with one of its ballistic missiles, as a steady stream of alarmist articles has spent a decade warning against, that carrier is unlikely to be replaced very quickly, if at all. This puts the US at a structural disadvantage in any conflict with China: whatever harm China causes the US is likely to be long-term or even permanent, while any harm the US causes China is likely to be temporary.

To spell out the increasing time costs of large weapon systems a bit more explicitly: the USS Enterprise that retired in 2012 began construction in 1958 and was in service by early 1962. The next Enterprise is currently expected to begin construction in 2018 but not enter service until 2027. And that assumes the Navy figures out the bugs that are plaguing the newest model carrier.

It’s all very daunting, but it begs the question of US industrial capacity. That is, it assumes the level (or more accurately, the efficiency) of military spending we’ve seen to date is the best the US can do, and that the US couldn’t, in a crisis, get much better at building things that go boom or are meant to make other people go boom.

But just as the next major-power war is going to look like nothing we’ve ever seen before, so will the home front. That we’ve gotten used, in the last decade, to fighting wars while arguing about whether everyone or just the very rich should get tax cuts says nothing about the merits of marginal tax rates, but quite a bit about how seriously we’ve taken our wars.

A war with China (or any other major power) won’t allow us the luxury to choose whether to take it seriously or not, and the kinds of costs it will impose on us won’t allow us the luxury of simply going away and calling it victory, like we’re doing in Afghanistan. This, in case it’s not obvious, is why war with China should be avoided.

The other scenario, then, is that the military-industrial complex is as fat and lazy as we assume it is, but that it would quickly get into a fighting trim if a crisis called for it. In one sense, this is good news for the US: losses in a fight with China could be replaced and the Pacific status quo could be maintained. The bad news is that this realistically just means we need to discuss the possibility of a first and second shooting war between the two giants of the global economy.

Since one war would be a disaster and a second one would be at least as bad, we return to square one: hoping the people who realize how crazy it all is continue to keep a lid on things, until China’s rise can be accommodated without violently disrupting the status quo. Seventy years after D-Day and a century after the start of World War I, we should be sobered by the fact that we don’t have a great history of this.

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