PLA Modernization ≠ US-China War

Chinese PLA Navy submarine.

If you’re familiar with international relations theory, then you know the school of thought called “realism”. As it pertains to China, in a nutshell, realists say that China and the US are headed for great conflict because history and the dynamics of international power say so.

Case in point is Stephen Walt, one of the most well-known modern realist scholars, who recently wrote on the inevitability of Sino-American rivalry on his blog at Foreign Policy. His brief argument comes down to two particular sentences:

On Saturday, the New York Times published an important story supporting the realist view. It described the rapid expansion of China’s naval capabilities (a classic manifestation of great power status), as well as the more ambitious new strategy that this growing capacity is designed to serve.

Conveniently, this bit pretty much sums up the realist argument for Sino-US conflict: capabilities.

Yet Walt and others often sidestep altogether the most prominent counter-arguments, like intentions or conflicts of interest (when it comes to war). Rather, Walt only points to evidence that may support his realist view. It’s a decidedly illogical way to argue: shout your side of the argument and ignore the larger picture.

Chinese military hardware on display.

Chinese hardware on display.

For example, a constructivist could easily take Walt’s argument — which is that growing military capabilities equals conflict — and turn it on its head. India is also rapidly building military capabilities. Indeed, the US is selling them many of these arms. So, why aren’t the Chinese and Indians on a crash course? Similarly, the EU, collectively, has considerable military power (though they currently lack some coordination); why aren’t they a threat to the US?

The rather obvious answer is that capabilities are only half of the story. Intentions and limitations matter. Walt ignores this.

Feel free to argue this hefty issue in the comments below. But try not to be a Walt. That is, remember that this is a multi-variable issue. And if you argue that having a big military alone means an intention to use it in a great war, then you might want to reconsider hitting “reply”.


Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Click here to cancel reply.

  • Some HTML can be used to format your comment.
  • Add a picture to your comments with Gravatar.
  • Please be civil. Comments may be moderated.
  1. Mike

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Why the hell would China *want* to fight a war against the United States? Why would the U.S. want to fight a war against China? It serves neither party’s interests. Absolutely absurd.

    • yangrouchuan

      It serves the CCP’s needs for legitmacy and to satisfy growing nationalist sentiment within China.

      • friendo

        Yes, clearly a nuclear war that kills 95% of the world’s population would “serve the CCP’s need for legitimacy” and to “satisfy growing nationalist sentiment”.

        Sounds exactly like something your Military Industrial Overlords would try to sell to the dumbest member of congress.

        Oh wait…

  2. yangrouchuan

    Kevin doesn’t pay much attention to international affairs.

    India and China are squaring off, China has over 20,000 troops on the border west of Tibet, claiming Arunachel Pradesh as “South Tibet”. India has responded. China routinely harasses Indian subs in the Indian ocean and the US studies the PLAN subs.

    China harasses foreign military vessels in its EEZ waters, despite int’l agreements only recognizing 12 miles as the territorial limit. Remember the swarming of the US navy ship a few months ago in the S. China Sea?

    How about China swimming around Japan’s territorial waters and holding military exercises off of Okinawa?

    PLA modernization = war with its neighbors in the short term, the US in the long term.

    • The US held military exercises with Japan and S. Korea. Does this portray an intention to attack Russia? Proximity is but one factor among others, namely intention/motive.

      Better yet, the US and China may be holding a joint military exercise in the not-too-far-off future: (See page 6.)

      How does this level with a war? Do they shoot at each other before or after they learn about one another’s operational tactics?

      • yangrouchuan

        , never studied anything about military doctrine or geopolitics, eh Mr. Scholar?

        Japan and SK held joint exercises because of the USSR.

        And militaries hold joint exercises to build relationships between senior commanders as well as study each other. Just like knowledge of spies is tolerated and accepted because spies can act as the ultimate “back door” communications method. Realpolitik youngster.

        • friendo

          Your resentment of Kevin’s education is very, very telling, goatboy.

        • Even though you cease to flesh out your actual argument, yangrouchuan, I am going to assume that you are arguing that joint military exercises don’t necessitate peace, right?

          Let’s start with the following questions (for you to answer with evidence): 1) When was the last time two armies had joint military exercises followed by a war with one another? 2) If/when you find this example, please tell me how long was the time between the cooperation and the war.

          Final note: patronizing me as a lackluster scholar while you continually forget/resist providing evidence for your arguments is a decidedly weak position for you.

          • yangrouchuan

            Ok Mr. China writer:

            1. The IJN was trained and equipped by the US Navy and spent decades training with them. Didn’t stop Pearl Harbor from happening did it smart guy?

            2. The foreign powers in China trained with and equipped the Qing army, even put down the Taiping Rebellion for the Qing, and got the Boxer Rebellion in return.

            3. India and China have held joint exercises in the past and now stand toe to toe over one Indian state.

            4. Korea, Japan and China have held joint naval exercises, now China routinely harasses their ships and aircraft, sometimes in territorial waters.

            5. Greece and Turkey have mixed joint exercises with skirmishes over Crete.

            6. The US and USSR have traded blows many times amid joint exercises, including the sinking of the USS Scorpion, incursions on the Aleutian islands and the US sabotaging USSR C4 facilities.

            How’s them apples?

            @ friendo, Kevin’s education is narrow in scope and lacks many perspectives.

          • yangrouchuan, I’m flattered that you care so much about me and my education.

            Now as for your responses, if this were a Lincoln-Douglas debate, you’d be sitting down in the back of the room, red-faced and beaten. Of course, it’s not, but my point is that your ability to stay on target with your responses is sadly inaccurate.

            First let me restate my argument: joint military exercises and war between the same two countries do not exist in the same time frame. I’m not talking about joint exercises on year and war ten years later; a lot can happen in ten years. Time is an important factor.

            And although I haven’t researched this relationship formally, I know of no counter-examples, even after your woeful response. Thus, I am open for a revision of the concept, but I need worthy evidence.

            I’ll take them in kind.

            1) Let me see the evidence that the US trained and equipped the IJN anytime after WWI. If you can’t prove it, then it doesn’t challenge my point in the least; they didn’t fight a war until two decades later.

            2) These are pretty specific claims that are not readily apparent. Let me see the evidence that this extensive training and equipping existed. (In fact, the Qing army could have used such training and equipment because they were evidently incapable to fight foreign militaries at the time.)

            3) Now you’re considering territorial disagreements as the same level as war? This isn’t even logically sound. They haven’t fought a war in almost 50 years. This is like saying that US-China disagreements over Taiwan constitutes a current war.

            4) Just like above, your claiming that “harassment” = war. No! Stick to the argument at hand.

            5) When were the exercises? And then when was the bloodshed? (And do you mean Cyprus or Crete?) Details, details! You’re losing credibility even as I type this.

            6) First, what joint military exercises? Second, it was called the Cold War for a reason; namely because they never fought one!

            “How’s them apples”? Are you that confident in your infallibility?

        • PS – The joint ROK and Japanese exercises happened this year (along with the US, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia).

  3. Jones

    ::yawn:: More China/US war? You guys are obsessed with it as much as…well, actually I’ve never heard anyone go on about a China/US war as much as you guys. Yes, right here, one foot in Texas and the other in Arkansas, surrounded by misguided rednecks and the Christians that Custer loves so much, I have yet to hear anyone talk about or suggest war with China. Hell, the Korean War barely gets mentioned in history class.

    Regardless, there is some branching out of China’s military. It’s not just random columnists in magazines and newspapers. Ask the Vietnamese about the Chinese military. Hell, more obviously, the Taiwanese. And this is just spit-balling here, but I wonder if a stronger Chinese military might embolden their North Korean allies a little more? Not that I’m saying any of these places are going to definitely duke it out with China. Just saying, it’s not just those columnists you guys spend 50% of the time writing about.

    • Jones

      “Super Conservative Christians” is what I meant to say. Because that does make a difference. Because they’re pretty damn ignorant. You know?

    • This sounds like a loose association of ideas about China’s military rather than a coherent argument. What are you suggesting?

      And as for “people talking about war” in the US, that was hardly the point of my post. I was discussing the structural issues associated with a US-China armed conflict, not specifically the opinions of people in Texas and Arkansas.

      • Jones

        It was an association of a large amount of articles about war between China and the US. That’s why I mentioned “you guys” rather than just “you”.

        The point about “people in the US” has to do with the generalization that soon follows these articles about Americans and some random fear of Chinese that seems to get applied to people here, even though it’s really pretty rare. Nope, didn’t say you said it or anything.

        You asked the question: “So, why aren’t the Chi nese and Indi ans on a crash course?”. The comments I made about other nationalities’ opinions of Chinese military buildup (Vietnam and Taiwan) were on topic in that there ARE others talking about it in a non “ok we trust them” manner, other than just a couple of columnists in the US.

        The Texas/Arkansas thing…haha, ok. You see, the point of that was pretty much to reassure you sensitive “how DARE they even talk about US/China war” types that no one here really listens to them. Being in the deep south…Texas, a place commonly and usually wrongly associated with militant rednecks and Arkansas, a place usually associated with more peaceful yet ignorant rednecks (also usually wrong), one would think that this is where the big fear of China or any other foreign threat would be. So, the point of that was to illustrate that you have nothing to worry about with this journalist. If we’re trying to bridge a divide between China and the US (read: The West), then why don’t we bridge it somewhere where there is a divide.

        But hey, sarcasm is fine, too. Reawr.

  4. chewy

    -Korean War or Vietnam War don’t get mentioned in class because we lost and its the truth- Americans tend to focus on the positive side of things – never the negative which is in ways is a sad thing-

    • Not sure I agree with this. I think the both the Korean and Vietnam War are solidly part of the general American social consciousness (though more for the Vietnam War).

    • Jones

      ::yawn:: The reason I mentioned the Korean War not being mentioned was to put a little emphasis on no one giving two shits about the idea of China and the US fighting. It was a little ironic humor seeing as how, during the Korean War, Americans and Chinese did actually shoot guns at each other. See?

  5. I read the article in the New York Times on Saturday and thought it was extremely good PR for US arms manufacturing businesses; Americans tax payers will only be happy for their taxes to pay for arms if there’s an ‘enemy’ to be fearful of.
    Sadly, many Americans aren’t educated enough to know the difference between an enemy dreamt up to increase profits for a few companies and a real enemy.

  6. I am coming to believe that WWII was the last global war for some time to come; major regional conflicts like in Iraq will lesson also as power is more widely shared, i.e. China. On the other hand, what just may impede a worldwide conflict are global disasters that consume enormous amounts of surplus energies and finances, thereby causing war to be rather impractical.

  7. Bryan

    I would argue that “want” and “inevitable” are quite different. China doesn’t want a war (for the obvious reasons) yet they are sitting in the middle of a very uncertain part of the world. The region is incredibly rife with historical and ethnic tensions, mistrust, corrupt governments and rampant 19th century nationalism.

    Unpredictable would be a conservative word.

  8. Bin Wang

    No doubt most Americans would sleep better at night if China only had swords and spears. The public can’t handle casualties and they know a 10 to 1 inferiority in numbers can easily be negated by superior technology. What scares them is a 10 to 1 inferiority in numbers, wherein the 10 also have matching or only slightly inferior technology. We, therefore, need not only better toys, but MUCH MUCH better toys. Hence the paranoia.

    Also, war as we knew it will no longer exist. There will no longer be a “front” or a “rear.” The army is focused now on counter-insurgency, urban warfare, etc. where the enemy is not front of you, but amongst you–this tends to negate technology as Americans distain losses due to friendly-fire. The “chair” force (or air “farce”) and the navy are becoming less strategic, but more supportive (see Navy trend toward littoral warfare, conversion of SSBNs to carriers of mini-subs and delivery of SEAL teams, etc.). Brown water, and not blue water, is the focus now.

    War in the future will be amongst the people, there will be no “lines” to speak of.

    All this is NOT to say there is going to be war between the U.S. and China. Simply, it is only, IF there should be war (READ: IF), Americans would like to believe that they’d win easily, single-handedly, at minimal losses, while inflicting crippling blows on the enemy with superior technology. When potential enemies acquire new toys, it’s troubling.

    It’s, of course, hypocritical to go around saying, well, we get to have the BEST toys, and well, not only do you NOT get to have matching toys, or even slightly worse toys, but we have to make sure you have MUCH worse toys, just for our own peace of mind. Of course, it would enable the US to impose her geo-political will with greater ease. It’s natural (sarcasm) of course to see US carrier battle groups in the South China Sea (half way around the world) and US bases on Okinawa … and, gosh, we sure wish the Chinese had nothing but ancient junks to toss up against that. No wonder that new sub-pen at Hainan is so troubling!

    Maybe this all boils down to what is the best way to avoid war … (1) a cold war type mexican stand-off where there is parity such that it would be insane for either side to actually squeeze the trigger; or (2) such a vast superiority of one over the other such that it would be insane for the weaker side to bring battle.

    To Americans, (1) is distasteful because, after all, there is at least some risk to American lives (if the other side is insane and does pull the trigger) when the other side has parity where as (2) eliminates all risk, even if the other side is insane enough to fight. To (the rest of the world?), (2) is distasteful because it allows American will to be imposed world-wide at will. Doesn’t absolute power corrupt absolutely? Isn’t that an American saying? Yet I have no doubt, the US would prefer the absolute ability to engage in unilateral action on the world stage, if it could get away with it. It can’t … yet.

    If I read some of the arguments here correctly, the notion is that the US is upper management, which acts benevolently to prevent middle management (China) from abusing the working bees (China’s neighbors in Asia). So the question is, which is the greater fear? That without the US as upper management, middle management will, in fact, abuse the worker bees? Or that the US is upper management of the world with no challengers whatsoever? (Absolute power corrupts absolutely right?)

    OK, I’ve babbled on long enough.

    Frankly, I think this is a natural, normal, thing and won’t necessarily implicate war in the long or short terms. What SHOULD trouble Americans more, is the fact that in the desire for security and need to make sure our toys are MUCH better than anyone else’s, we seriously risk spending ourselves into bankruptcy. As the technology of others increases, the U.S. will face diminishing returns as exponentially more funds are necessary to maintain the same technological edge.

    For example, if the U.S. is at an 8 and China is at a 2 in terms of military technology, it will cost China far less to bring that 2 to a 4, than it would cost the U.S. to bring that 8 to a 10 in order to maintain the same edge. Diminishing returns.

    In this economy, or another other for that matter, this approach is INSANE. But that won’t stop certain politicians in this country from putting enough fear and loathing and phobia into the hearts of the gullible and patriotic segments of the American populace such that such “defense” spending continues, and in fact, increases.

    As a tax-paying American who will already NEVER see the money I toss into social security again, it is THIS road to madness, and not the PLA’s modernization, that prevents me from sleeping at night!

    • Jones

      Yeah man, my family and I are awake all night usually. We’ve had to start taking sleeping pills and see a psychiatrist. We’re just so incredibly worried about the Chinese army.

      I mean, somehow the focus on Muslim extremists that has gripped the country (and other countries) for years was trumped by a fear of China’s army. It seemed to have happened overnight. All of a sudden, national security was to make sure no PLA paratroopers dropped in rather than making sure no suicide bombs were taken aboard planes. In fact, last time I was at the airport, I was held for questioning because I wore a piece of clothing that said “made in China” on the tag. Can you believe that? SO SCARED!

      Seriously, how often do you actually see anything about the Chinese military on the news in the US? No, I’m being serious. How many times do you see it? Because I freaking search for news about China any time I look on it to see what’s going on in the place and I am waiting for up to a day, at least, to get a new one. And I can’t remember when the last time they mentioned the PLA was.

      • To part I: hahaha.

        To part II: that’s an interesting question. Particularly given that, before 9/11, Bush officials had been ratcheting up the rhetoric on the China threat. (After 9/11, the Pentagon remained anxious, but most of the NSC and White House, more generally, had refocused on the Middle East and South Asia.) But with the propensity of broadcast media to through reasonable analysis out the window, I’m hesitantly optimistic on the lack of PLA(N) coverage in US broadcast media.

  9. Sam

    Self-fulfilling prophecy at its best. No wonder Iran and North Korea want the nukes.

  10. Why don’t you just abandon this blog and start writing for the China Daily? At least you’d be getting paid.

  11. Christine

    One of the widespread urban myths I always found it hard to believe is the expectation and fear that capability will lead to conflict. The assumption is that if we are on a par in terms of scientific capability or purchasing power, this will lead to conflict of interests and eventually an act of violence.

    In a vulgar analogy, if a pathetic dude lifts weights, gets big, gets a fancy car, this will lead to tension with other guys in the quest for the chicks.

    In a more personal example, I’ve been told that American grad schools are now dominated by Chinese students (and to some extents Indian too, but we Chinese are particularly screwed) because we collectively cheated on GRE verbal or we attached our photos in our grad application packages to seduce the lonely lab director for a place in his lab with 10 guys. Ok, I digressed in the second example, but it was meant to lead up to the following congressional archive on US-China conflict I want to share:

    According to the California senator Rohrabacher,

    “Already we are seeing a flow of technology and of capital assets to China, which is a major adversary, maybe not an energy now, but perhaps someday an enemy. Our schools are filled with graduate students from China and elsewhere, and they are learning the secrets that cost us billions of dollars of research to come up with. We are not watching out for the American people.”

    This line of argument is particularly well received by an uneducated to averagely educated joe. It is the same excuse the Chinese leaders use in any attempted foreign intervention: hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.

    Notwithstanding the nationalistic sentiment, the formula of capability causes conflict is premised on 1) a zero-sum game notion on the management of (natural/human) resources, and 2) pessimistic outlook of the human races. The foregoing vulgar examples are invoked to show the fundamental insecurity within our inner selves. At the very core, we know that our existence, attractive appearances, domination, and basically everything we ever achieved are merely transient, so we panic. We don’t want others to get a chance to be as good as we are, we want to be the one, the only one in this lifetime in this universe. On the personal level, we see catty fights among women, jealousy on international students community, and then we pray–on a national level–hoping that god will always bless America and help us kick our enemy’s butts.

    IMO, this paranoia applies as much to the American psyche as to the Chinese national personality. As a good mentor once advised me, “get on with your own life and stop worrying about stuff you cannot control.” This is my two cents worth to Walt and the Chinese blog community.

    • pug_ster

      Totally agreed. Fear Mongering is what drives people to think and act irrationally. Somehow Americans are sold ideas attacking Korea, Vietnam, and eventually, Iraq and Afghanistan will protect America’s sovereignty when it does not. First with communism, then with 9/11.

    • Fransisco

      “because we collectively cheated on GRE verbal”

      Not that I want to perpetuate a stereotype but,

      My friend took an exam in Beijing University once and she recounted with horror that

      1. No photo IDs were checked
      2. Exams were given before designated time
      3. Students talked with exam in hand
      4. Flipped through exam before time
      5. Talked about exam during break etc…
      (this was a few years back so perhaps things have changed now)

      Im not saying they cheated but it was mighty easy for people to do so…and this situation was at the supposedly best university in China.

  12. Fransisco

    I think that you are too america-centric in your approach:

    1. China is building a stronger military
    2. There is little chance of China engaging in direct war with the US.
    3. The end.

    1. is a fact, 2 is pretty obvious. Why not focus on the impact of a stronger China military on American presence in Asia? US is in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Japan, and South Korea, is buddies with India and a host of other nations surrounding China. One reason why the US is considered a global leader is because unlike European nations, its physically presence can alter bilateral relations in Asia. With a stronger Chinese military, these nations will want a stronger US presence in Asia. Are you saying there is little chance that unstable asian countries won’t try to pit one side against the other? I think that scenario is increasingly seen in places INCLUDING north korea (yeah, according to nyt, even north korean officials try to strategize against their only economic support) Any anti-Chinese statements would need covert / explicit US backing…all we need is one unstable asian state to take the wrong decision…

    • You argument seems to lack some clarity. First you present a logical proof where 1, 2, and 3 don’t follow from one another (i.e., an unsound argument) — and 3 isn’t meaningful!

      Then you make some observations on regional tensions and geopolitics without a central contention. That is, are you saying that there will be major armed conflict in Asia involving China? If so, then how severe? Will it drag in the US? How?

      Looking forward to the clarification …

      • Fransisco

        The 1,2,3 wasnt a logical argument. I was simply summarizing the two main points of your article. My main contention was
        “Why not focus on the impact of a stronger China military on American presence in Asia?”

        Then I presented some regional tensions as examples that there is an increasing likelihood that China’s increasing military strength would have a direct impact on the nature of US military presence in Asia. Exploring this strategic angle would be more realistic when wondering if US and China would ever come to blows over something. I mean, it has already happened in the past…(hope this explanation clarifies things)

        • I see what you’re saying now. It is similar to the argument made by Walt and others who foresee a US-China armed conflict. That is, they say that one likely starting place is East Asia because of the heavy US presence and interests.

          However, as I’ve said, this underplays the trade-off either nation has to make over economic vs. political vs. territorial gains (and losses). First, I would ask you to specify a place where a tension would lead to armed conflict (including the countries involved and purported cause for firing). Only when you do this can we have a more grounded discussion.

          Broad claims that tensions will lead to conflict ignore the details that spark conflict. I’m not saying that your wrong or “crazy” for arguing it, but I *am* saying that I can’t have a substantive discussion without specifics.

          Also, as for N. Korea pitting the US and China against one another, the evidence seems lacking. Indeed, in the past 10 years, the Six-Party process has been created and has deepened, which is a mechanism that explicitly puts the US and China closer together in interests, not further apart. Moreover, talk among Chinese policymakers is becoming increasing impatient with DPRK, which is decidely *not* away from the US position.

          It’s obvious that the US and China have different interests in regards to Korea, but N. Korea is hardly controlling them. DPRK is like a sick (if not moody) child hanging on the whims of China — hardly a position of power.

          • Jones

            Sometimes nations are drawn into war with each other when one made an attack on someone else. Just because China doesn’t see any benefit with fighting the US, it might see benefit with fighting say, Taiwan, of which the US may or may not help with defense. Or it could be blown up from some fight over an island. Or perhaps some overly zealous Admiral with a brand new fleet and a chip on his shoulder.

          • Okay. And is a war with Taiwan more or less likely for China based on the trend of the past 60 years? Or even the past 20 years. Indeed, today, President Ma himself said “that the risk to the United States of a conflict between China and Taiwan is the lowest in 60 years” in his interview on CNN:

            The headline above, by the way, is that Ma wouldn’t ask the US to fight “on its behalf”. Whatever that means in political rhetoric is less important than the tone — hardly a brewing hot spot that will pull the US into a great power war with China. If Ma himself doesn’t feel the heat, how could you justify this as a legitimate near-term cause for armed conflict?

            If you still feel that you know better than Ma, then give me the specifics of this. What will/could cause it? How would that benefit China compared to the deep economic losses it would suffer in a war with Taiwan (much less America). $100 billion in trade over the Strait annually is not a marginal loss for businesses (particularly in China’s south) that depend on such relations.

          • Jones

            Thought we were on the topic of building up the military? China’s biggest problem in taking it in the past was lack of decent technology. It takes a bit of technology to transport that many troops and supplies to a place quickly and under fire, especially with the landscape and few beach-head capable areas Taiwan has.

            Not saying I “know better than Ma”, nor did I ever say it. Not sure where you got that from. Regardless, there’s several cases when things happen that, well let’s just say an army shows up that wasn’t “invited”.

            In the end, the assumption of yours is that there is no chance of military confrontation between China and the US, even with increased capability on the Chinese part. I’m not arguing that there is going to be or that there’s a high chance of there being a conflict. I’m just saying that there’s more than just China and the US going at it just for shits ‘n giggles. It’s not like the old days where people meet on the field of battle at an arranged time and everything is glorious and chess-like. There are interests at stake around the world, and what draws one army into a fight may draw a few more. You know this.

          • Jones

            And, I forgot to mention one important factor that I think everyone should know: Taiwan has elections. Yes, Taiwan has elections. That means that one day, Ma will be up for reassignment or heading back to his apartment in Taipei or Kaohsiung or wherever the hell he was from. This election situation leaves the chance for one of those hardliners who piss China off and speak of declaring independence. They might be less likely to forgo asking for US military support.

            So maybe I don’t “feel that I know better than Ma”, but in a less passive-aggressive tone, I do feel like I know that there’s always a chance that the “failsafe” you consider Ma to be could end up not leading Taiwan.

          • “Thought we were on the topic of build ing up the military?”

            No! This is the opposite of my original argument above. Did you even read it?

            In a nutshell: military capabilities neither necessarily beget intentions nor military conflict. Arguments made from the capability view alone, like most of yours, are insufficient.

            So if you want to convince me and others, then flesh out some intent by China to use that capability. Moreover, and relatedly, show that any such use would betray a big trade-off in economics or political gains.

            For example, you speak nonchalantly of conflict with Taiwan. But now, more than ever, the gains of a military confrontation with Taiwan is *less* beneficial than in the past 60 years. Forget the warm Ma relations. Trade is huge. And the political backlash domestically and internationally is a high bar to overcome in terms of cost-benefit analyses that lead to military conflict.

            So on Taiwan: When will this conflict potentially happen? What will convince China to make such a decision? These are the specific intentions questions you need to start answering for a reasonable discussion.

            Finally, on Taiwan’s elections, I agree with you. It is *possible* that a indepedence hardliner like Chen Sui-bian could be back in office in the next decade. But this, like the intentions problem above, ignores other details. The possibility exists, but it ignores the public sentiment. Indeed, Taiwanese are increasingly moving *away* from “independence” attitudes. Rather, they prefer stability, which they know will not result from unilateral declarations of independence. Current public support for both the cross-Strait dialogue and the status quo is pretty resounding, 65% and 88%, respectively:

          • Jones

            “Did you even read it?”

            haha…yes, Kevin, I did. It says “modernization” right in the title, even. Modernizing your army is building it up, as in building up capabilities. If China just keeps adding unequipped, untrained cannon fodder to their military and not updating it from 1950s standards, then I doubt we’re going to be having this debate. Come on, man.

            “Argu ments made from the capa bil ity view alone, like most of yours, are insufficient.”
            Actually, my argument was that there’s more to the equation than just US starting a fight with China, or vice versa. My argument is more along the lines of China could get into it with someone else and therefore draw the US into it. Like in support of Taiwan. Something you acknowledged by bringing up the recent statement by President Ma. My reply was that he could very possibly be replaced by a more conservative, very declare-independence-y person. Sure a Taiwanese declaration might not get China to fight them, but then again if we’re going to trust leaders’ words, well, then I guess we could suspect that such an incident would merit a Chinese military response.

            I’m speaking nonchalantly about war with Taiwan because I don’t really consider it to be garnishing any conflict any time soon. I was merely throwing out hypothetical situations. You can’t get on to me about hypothetical situations, because suggesting that there’d never be a fight because of a change in military powers is also hypothetical. As in it’s not based in any fact, because it hasn’t completely happened yet.

            “So on Tai wan: When will this con flict poten tially hap pen?”
            Already answered that. Not entirely sure why you don’t get it yet. However: If Taiwan were to have a leader that were to go all out with the declaration of independence. If it were to get enough support from the rest of the government and the people there. That could possibly lead to a conflict. I say this could possibly lead to a conflict because regardless of the benefits that a good trade relationship with Taiwan, leadership has somewhat recently (as in the last time it was talked about not long ago) threatened military action against Taiwan should they move forward with the declaration. Again, maybe they’re just bluffing, but then again maybe Ma was bluffing earlier when he said he wouldn’t ask for US military assistance. It’s just leaders’ words.

            But yes, all arguments for “there will definitely be no war ever”, “there’s always a possibility for war”, and “there will definitely be war” are all hypothetical. We can listen to leaders’ declarations of peaceful intentions and diplomacy-centric strategies, but we all know how that sort of thing goes in real life.

            And I agree that it’s nothing like 40 years ago, but there’s two sides to that. China could barely invade Taiwan 40 years ago. It had the manpower, but it didn’t have the logistical means of transporting that much men and equipment over there. I mean, if there were no US ships sitting out there and Taiwan only wielded pistols and knives, then they could. But under combat conditions, no. Now, today, it’s switched. The means technologically to move all their stuff over there, but less of the same urge they had 40 years ago.

          • Good stuff. But on Taiwan, you remain delinquent on two issues:

            1) The likelihood of such Strait tensions given the attitude of the public (whom will, obviously, be voting for the next leader) which I highlighted above.

            2) In a cost-benefit analysis to invade/attack Taiwan, do you genuinely believe that the benefits to China — what are they? — would outweigh the list of costs — like destroying a $100 bil trade relationship and alienating every country in East Asia.

          • Jones

            Yeah, the public support, I agree with you. I mentioned it in the equation for the move for a formal declaration. I don’t see there being overwhelming support in Taiwan if there’s the risk of war involved. But for the sake of hypothetical suggestions, I figured I should include it. There’s no way to know…maybe that same nationalistic leader would happen to be really good at propaganda and independence-movement-inspiration. A Taiwanese Thomas Paine of sorts.

            As far as the cost benefit of such an attack/invasion, I don’t really see that as such an issue in any such event. I mean, sure it keeps them from doing it now (if they had any other reason to). But in the sake of saving face in front of the people, or just being overwhelmingly nationalist…those things can lead to stupid mistakes. Not saying that it’d be enough to do such a thing. I just know that there’s a lot of wars found in history, and definitely today, that far outweigh any benefit the attacking nation(s) might have thought they could gain from it. It’s dumb to do such a thing, I know, but these are governments and the military we’re talking about here. They’re not always a beacon of decent, rational choices.

          • It seems that we can conclude on a couple cords of agreement, then. The second, your final point above, is that despite trends and likelihoods, which all point away from an armed conflict, perception and human error make miscalculation a constant possibility. Here’s hoping their isn’t any dangerous, cascading anomalies in macro-trends in the next 30 years! (Ha.)

        • Excuse me. I forget to mention one final note.

          Moreover, even if a pro-independence candidate got elected, that person, in degree, would be *nothing* compared to 40 years ago. You have to put it into perspective. When war was most likely, during the first couple decades of Zhong Zheng’s rule in Taiwan, he was actively planning to take *back* the mainland through war. Compare that to pro-independence candidates today who usually want recognitions in int’l organizations, not war.

          • However, the PRC has not ever, and still does not have, the ability to invade Taiwan with any guarantee in the face of ROC/US forces. Whether or not an ROC invasion of the PRC was likely during the martial law period is irrelevant to whether or not an invasion of Taiwan becomes more likely if the PRC finally gains the ability to pull it off.

            Simple logic dictates that an invasion does become more likely if the chance of it being carried out successfully increases, nor have Ma’s various moves actually reduced the likelihood of conflict. Rather, they have simply eliminated some of the absurdities created during the martial law period.

            Really, this piece , and the piece it responds to, are, I’m afraid, ridiculous self-congratulatory faux-academic hogwash posing as informed commentary. Take for example your definition of the term ‘realism’ as it pertains to China policy:

            “As it per­tains to China, in a nut­shell, real­ists say that China and the US are headed for great con­flict because his­tory and the dynam­ics of inter­na­tional power say so.”

            The quote itself is perhaps forgiveable because Steve Walt is the one who refers to his point of view as ‘realist’, but really you should have just pointed out what nonsense this is as an actual proposition. Instead the ‘realistic’ view of China policy is that, given it impressive record of growth, China’s emergence as a super power is very likely, and as such policies should be crafted to take note of that fact.

            The idea that conflict is ‘inevitable’ because of a historical dynamic is the exact opposite of realism, belonging more to the sort of inevitable historical dialectics found in Marxism.

            None of the classical realists (Hobbes, Grotius etc.) believed that great power conflict was inevitable, and even the German school of power politics sometimes referred to as ‘realist’, whereby the powerful prey on the weak, does not actually make conflict between great powers inevitable.

            In fact, I would challenge anyone to find anything in the works of the realist school where it says that great power conflict is actually inevitable.

          • “In fact, I would challenge any one to find any thing in the works of the realist school where it says that great power con flict is actually inevitable.”

            See: long cycle theory, hegemonic transition theory, and power cycle theory.

          • Thank you Wikipedia. However, I’m afraid that Long cycle theory, Hegemonic transfer etc. all actually omit the main tenant of realism – that the natural state of things is anarchy, instead actually junking realism for a cyclical/systemic world-view.

            By the way, did you notice that Walt also wrote that China-US war wasn’t inevitable? Why then the main drive of this piece? Why didn’t you at least recognise that you and Walt agree on this, since all he was talking about was strategic competition – not war, and why the title of this article: “PLA Modernization ≠ US-China War”?

          • Ha. Your certainty is humorous, as if you knew anything about these theories.

            You have a similar argument to King Tubby below, so I’ll rewrite what I wrote to him. Below is an article I wrote on the topic of realism and its various sects.

            Most of the below arti­cle was on the con­cept of int’l author­ity, but see p.20, “Impli­ca­tions of a Weak­en­ing Hege­mony”, for a dis­cus­sion of some mod­ern real­ist the­ory and what they say about the con­flict that ensues when a ris­ing power approaches the posi­tion of a cur­rent hege­mon.

          • “as if . . . ”

            Yeah, and your knowledge of this subject is such that you cannot actually explain in your own words what it is that you’re actually trying to say, or come up with arguments to counter what I’ve written.

            The is a joke posing as informed commentary.

          • The report I linked *is* in my own words; I wrote it. But if you’re too unwilling or unable to read and understand the information therein, then I’ll let the contention rest.

  13. Bai Ren

    Capability is an issue in Military rivalry, however resourses are also important. Wars today are not fought to extend national boarders so much as to assert economic control and stability. China has announced plans that it wants to build a highspped railway from bejing to london. In these plans it is mentioned that the central asain etc countries this railway would corss would only be asked to give CHina preferential treatment for access to their resourses. The central asain area is very important, as most economic development rests upon securing resourses for manufacturing (or at least lowering the costs of manufacturing) and has not been definitively claimed buy any of the major powers. China, with a ‘modernized’ army would be better apt to protect this asset and any following company expansions. Byond this, the aircraft carrier recently launched by CHina served two main publicized purposes. 1. its development aided electronic research and development in the country which can be used to extend the nation’s commerical powers. 2. to protect their overseas cargo. while pirates recieve a lot of attention they arent the big threat, rather asserting nationality and extending power over a few of the south east asain straights is, and this, like the opening of the northwest passage for the US and Russia is viewed as a means to ensure economic strength.
    As far as a us china war. I will stick with my current economic theme and quote a chinese commentator whose lecture made it onto a univercity of chicago webcast THE WORLD BYOND THE HEADLINES (i forget his name or that of the podcast) who likened the US and CHina to 2 mountian climbers. They are tied together, and if one should fall the other must struggle to hold her partner up or fall along with her. As it stands, the US and China both rely upon the other for their current economic stability, a war would end this and make way for others to gain financially

  14. Terry

    Christine, I really liked your comment…

    One thing nobody has seemed to mention is oil and the South China Sea… and all the many different claims on that patch of water…. and leverage over Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc. in regard to sea lanes as well……

    and with that I will you leave you with lovely piece on the US military by one of my favorite irreverent and always beautifully PI (politically incorrect) commentators: Fred Reed…

    • Christine


      Glad that my comment resonates with you. Thanks for the link, I learn more about the the importance of being egoistic and fun in military policy. Zing!

  15. King Tubby

    See: long cycle the­ory, hege­monic tran­si­tion the­ory, and power cycle theory.

    Grotius, Hobbes I know about.
    What are these theories you write of Kevin????
    I’ve never heard of them.
    Are you trying to slide one past us dumb punters??
    How about we compare publications. I’m for real here.
    Dead serious, Kevin.

    • Because I may be in mortal danger (based on your misplaced tone), I will oblige. Most of this article was on the concept of int’l authority, but see p.20, “Implications of a Weakening Hegemony”, for a discussion of some modern realist theory and what they say about the conflict that ensues when a rising power approaches the position of a current hegemon.

      • King Tubby

        Nah Kevin. I am pretty relaxed here. Publications you have written. I visit the Carnegie site about every three weeks and it is an okay read. I want to know about these theories in your own words. Don’t be flip about about my request.

        Myself, I avoid links and state my views based upon prior research and levels of academic maturity. And I seem to get pretty consistent +s.

        • Flip? In my own words? Your Highness, the publication *was* written in my own words, and much more thoroughly than I can do in this space. If you haven’t the time or will to educate yourself on various sects of realist theory, then fair enough, but don’t act as if I didn’t do my part. I put in plenty of time for the linked research; it is you who needs to put in a little legwork to actually read the work if you want to continue this line of discussion.

  16. yangrouchuan

    @ FOARP

    1. The PRC can starve Taiwan into submission. Its ability to control the sea/air space would depend on how much the US wants to engage China directly and how much it is willing to lose (including up to two carriers). The situation is complicated by the fact that civilian and military PRC officials have stated that any US forces based in SK or Japan that participated could open a conventional missile attack on the US bases in SK and Japan.

    2. “In fact, I would chal­lenge any­one to find any­thing in the works of the real­ist school where it says that great power con­flict is actu­ally inevitable.”

    You could say that Iran is definitely a sign of conflict between the US and China, look at their stances. NK is obviously a conflict between the US and China.

    The two have too much at stake to risk a head to head confrontation unless there is something truly worth fighting over (like SLOC). But they will lock up in a cold war while fighting proxy wars via smaller players as the USSR and US did, as well as the UK, France and Spain hundreds of years earlier.

  17. lolz

    Let’s pretend that the US and China are not part of the Nuke club for one moment, can those who think that US/Sino war is inevitable tell me just what does China/US has to gain in fighting a war? Long before an actual war there would be mutual economic destruction for both parties, and the politicians would just stop it right there because despite the nationalists from both sides, most people would simply revolt.

    The fact is that Americans and Chinese don’t hate each other nearly as much as Free-Tibet/Free Taiwan folks hope.

    • LOLZ, in regards to your last line, I’m in agreement with a caveat or two:

      1) People share less animosity when they are simply ignorant of anything outside of their own country (or, for that matter, their own city). There are plenty of these people everywhere in the world. They choose not or haven’t had the opportunity to look beyond their locale.

      2) Of those who know something about the world, those that never take or have the opportunity to know an American or Chinese (which ever the case may be) are more likely to think that American or Chinese are heartless monsters.

  18. lolz

    Just read this really long foreign policy article arguing that China is on a collision course with India/Russia and that SE Asia looks for the US to act against the expending Chinese influence. A good amount of the article stresses the important of naval power, something which the US will continue to lead over the China.

    The end of the article sums up everything nicely: “Still, the very fact of China’s rising economic and military power will exacerbate U.S.-Chinese tensions in the years ahead. To paraphrase Mearsheimer, the United States, the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, will try to prevent China from becoming the hegemon of much of the Eastern Hemisphere”.
    Most don’t think there will be war at least in the foreseeable future, but the military arms of each nation must prepare themselves just in case there is a war.

    • lolz

      Here is another view that supports the inevitable US/China conflict. I think it’s pretty clear that the US will do whatever it needs to do to prevent China’s rise because that’s what a hegemon does. However the question is how far will US/China go in order to achieve their goals (China to become a regional hegemon and the US to prevent China from becoming one). The good news is that we are dealing with nuclear states so a real war is extremely unlikely.

      • Just reading from Mearsheimer alone, LOLZ, is a decidedly skewed way of gaining info on this issue. Mearsheimer is a leading realist and would be likely to hold such views. To balance out the realist perspective, see Robert Keohane and Steve Krasner (in the liberal school) and Alex Wendt (in the constructivist school). There is a lot more out there, of course, but pulling conclusions from the arguments of one perspective only might leave you wanting more perspective.

        Also, as some of the scholars above will argue, many realists base their predictions on patterns of state behavior that occurred during decidely less globalized periods in history, and some contend that the current system in fundamentally different. Thus, the old pattern of a hegemon’s anxiety causing conflict may not be as applicable. Today, unlike 100 years ago, a hegemon that is declining may not be facing such a stark trade-off in power because a global economy disperses power.

        • lolz

          Yes, I don’t agree completely with the hardcore realists for the exact reason that you listed (the world had changed a lot in the last 100 years and thus the old patterns may not be applicable here). To me, nukes alone changed the game.

          Nonethless my guess is that the realists do dominate the military ranks in both the US and China. So their views are often reflected by the mass media which often use them as commentators when something major happens (riots, earth quakes, stock market crashes, etc).

          If the goal is to understand why do some people think a US Sino war is inevitable, then it’s also important to list their reasonings.

          • You make a good point about the perception of the public based on the commentators selected by media. My two bits on your thoughts:

            1) Indeed, the Pentagon is realist-heavy. Not only does it attract realist-minded individuals, but it has the further effect of making people *more* realist in their conceptions because they are surrounded with “security anxieties” every day. Moreover, without security threats, the military becomes more irrelevant; this creates a compelling reason to continue highlighting security threats!

            2) In my (brief) experience working for a think tank (who are well-integrated into the ups and downs of daily news cycles), I’m not convinced that military commentators make up most of the news commentary. Rather, my concern is a bit different: I think that generalists, with only minimal understandings of Asian regional dynamics and various policy perspectives, end up talking — or bullshiting — the most on popular news shows.

  19. yangrouchuan

    @ Kevin,

    Ah, the last refuge of the weak, parsing words.
    “joint mil­i­tary exer­cises and war between the same two coun­tries do not exist in the same time frame. I’m not talk­ing about joint exer­cises on year and war ten years later; a lot can hap­pen in ten years. Time is an impor­tant factor.”

    So basically what you are saying is two countries would not hold joint exercises and go to war at the same time? That is like saying something like the absence of conflict is peace. You are already becoming a China consultant, good at spewing meaningless jargon.

    “Let me see the evi­dence that the US trained and equipped the IJN any­time after WWI. If you can’t prove it, then it doesn’t chal­lenge my point in the least; they didn’t fight a war until two decades later.”

    Where do you think the IJN got their steel and learn carrier operations? Their officers attended the US Naval Academy and the UK equivalent as partners against the axis during and after WW1, right up until Japan invaded Manchuria.

    “(In fact, the Qing army could have used such train­ing and equip­ment because they were evi­dently inca­pable to fight for­eign mil­i­taries at the time.)”

    You mean during the time you were immersing yourself in geopolitics and history you never studied the Taiping Rebellion or how it was close to toppling the Qing government and disrupting the symbioses between the Qing and the foreign powers occupying eastern China? And there is that Taiping Rebellion movie coming out, illustrating such a shocking concept. The Taiping were christian taliban in Qing China.

    “Now you’re con­sid­er­ing ter­ri­to­r­ial dis­agree­ments as the same level as war? This isn’t even log­i­cally sound. They haven’t fought a war in almost 50 years. This is like say­ing that US-China dis­agree­ments over Tai­wan con­sti­tutes a cur­rent war.”

    Ah, here we go. India and China have in fact conducted naval and military joint rescue exercises and officer exchanges even while building up troops on their border west of Tibet. Do you even bother to keep up on current events?

    “Just like above, your claim­ing that “harass­ment” = war. No! Stick to the argu­ment at hand.”

    Harassment can equal bloodshed and armed conflict. Are you going to parse between whether a formal declaration of war is made and “police actions”?

    “First, what joint mil­i­tary exer­cises? Sec­ond, it was called the Cold War for a rea­son; namely because they never fought one!”

    The US and USSR had plenty of officer exchanges and later military exchanges. How do you think the “red phone” came into being? Because the military commanders on both sides realized how much trouble the politicians could get them in.

    And as for the US and USSR never trading shots? How about the USS Scorpion conflict:

    Or the active presence of SAS and Green Berets during the USSR invasion of Afganistan? Or the clashes between US and USSR pilots during the Korean and Vietnam wars? USSR incursions onto the Aleutian Islands? Open conflict between the US and China with no declaration of war during the Korean War? US and USSR special forces fighting in Vietnam?

    It is embarrassing that you are so in the dark about recent military history. It is even sadder that so many international people on this board can witness firsthand the sad state of modern American education.

    You should spend less time blogging and more time reading. My God you are an embarrassment to every American that actually pays attention.

    • Okay, yangrouchuan, I’m glad you know me so well. If you don’t mind, I’ll stick to the issue at hand because — honestly — you are irrelevant to this discussion and, thus, my life.

      I think what you call “parsing words” might be interpreted as “accuracy”. You might prefer broad strokes because it’s easier and requires less understanding, but in many cases, this accuracy is critical to making wise decisions.

      1. yes, I *am* saying that militaries would not cooperate and go to war at the same time. That’s the point! That is the foundation of this discussion. Yet it started going in other directions because of inaccuracy — which is fine, but I’m glad you’ve conceded my point, anyway.

      2. IJN re: I’m still waiting for the evidence. I’m willing to change my perception; are you willing to put evidence behind your claim?


      You mean during the time you were immersing your self in geopolitics and his tory you never studied the Taip ing Rebel­lion or how it was close to toppling the Qing gov ern ment and dis rupt ing the symbioses between the Qing and the for eign powers occu py ing east ern China? And there is that Taip ing Rebel lion movie com ing out, illustrating such a shocking con­cept. The Taiping were christian taliban in Qing China.

      Trying — and failing, again — to insult me is still not evidence. The burden of proof is on you …

      4. You say India and China are building up troops on their borders constitutes as conflict. This falls into the same rubric as claiming “harrassment = war”.

      Yes, I *am* “parsing concepts” here. Harasment and war and building up troops are all mutually exclusive concepts, and importantly so. Not are they important for intellectual understanding, they are important for diplomatic and military relations. If a formal war is declared, then the consequences are much more dire than limited diplomatic spats or border build-ups.

      This point in particular displays why “accuracy” is important, not simply “parsing”.

      5. USSR and US re: first, the Scorpion Down is a book based on one man’s theorizing of a real incident. He undoubtedly had worse access than the Navy, and the Navy’s owns conclusion was that it was a malfunction that took down the sub, not a Soviet attack. Moreover, even if it was an attack and the Navy suppressed it (though this is less likely), then the fact that the US didn’t try to fight a real war over this issue is evidence that, in fact, the US didn’t want war, thus this was even a “colder” war. Thank you for affirming my argument.

      Second, of the other evidence you provide for USSR and US conflict that actually consistutes armed conflict — for example, both being in Afghanistan at the same time doesn’t necessarily equal conflict– none of it was a USSR/US war! You are missing the point wholly, it seems. War is what destroys economies and takes generations. War is what fucks with demographic patterns. War is what usually spreads disease or famine widely and deeply. Limited or special forces conflicts do not.

      Few in the world are worried about US/China espionage — it’s been happening for decades. A more proper war between the giants, though, is terrifying and worth trying to prevent. Or at least I think it’s worth working against — how about you?

      6. Finally, you never provided evidence for your comments on Cyprus or Crete (for which you still need to provide evidence).

      Let me summarize all of this:

      a) We agree that if two countries are cooperating militarily, then it is much less likely that they are going to fight a war in the near-term. How long this “buffer” lasts would need a proper study. I would say at least a couple of years. Your thoughts?

      b) You need to account for whether you think war is the same as harassment or border build-ups or espionage. Are they in the same classification? Why?

      c) Where you still have yet to provide evidence for your claims above, then do so. If not, then I’ll assume you’re removing them as evidence for your argument.

      d) If you want to be respectful, then I certainly won’t mind.

  20. MRG2020

    Competition is the answer to the constructionist argument. To state that a realist looks at only the capability is simplistic. Additionally, a realist would say that China and India are on a crash course which is why the USA, Also on the crash course with China is courting India. If the EU politically can unify then it too would move into competion with the US. This does not look likely to happen. Russia is a declining power struggling to protect itself Geopolitically this puts it on the fence moving to where it stands to gain the most. China if it can maintain its growth is naturally moving into competition with the USA, India and Japan.