Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

No War With Eastasia

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 12, 2012 --  

America's military shift to the Pacific makes sense, for reasons that have nothing to do with China.

America's announcement earlier this month that it will shift 60 percent of its naval forces to the Pacific1 is one of several announced shifts in military power toward East Asia. Earlier this year, it began deploying 2500 Marines to a base on the north coast of Australia.2 China has responded by announcing plans to expand its anti-ship missile forces.3 Few discussions of this topic fail to mention the possibility of a future military confrontation between China and America.

In reality, fears of war between China and America are overblown. Today, it's hard to find a single point of international conflict between China and the United States that could justify a potential war.

The main candidate is Taiwan, the successor of Chiang Kai-shek's rump Republic of China. The U.S. has historically supplied it with arms and diplomatic support, despite threats by the mainland to take the island by force. This alliance is based on America's Cold War legacy of supporting anti-communist regimes. Given the outdated purpose of the Taiwanese alliance, it would be nothing short of foolhardy for America to intervene in what essentially would be a Chinese civil war.

Further south, America is merely a bystander in the next biggest regional dispute. The tiny and mostly uninhabited Spratly Islands, scattered throughout the South China Sea thousands of miles from mainland China, are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Because of their strategic, petroleum and fishing resources, nations like the Philippines would love to have America back them up in their sporadic island skirmishes with China. But if America isn't going to intervene in a war over Taiwan, it's hard to imagine it doing so over a few scattered rocks.

The remaining cases of international friction between America and China almost always stem from human rights issues: The American embassy periodically shelters Chinese dissidents. America frequently protests Chinese support for despotic regimes like Sudan (which it embraces for oil contracts), or its failure to join in punishing despotic regimes like Iran, North Korea, Syria or Ghaddafi's Libya.

Yet these latter cases hardly amount to some kind of Chinese Axis or anti-American alliance -- it's simply that as a despotic regime, the Chinese government opposes intervention to punish despotism. China and Russia use fancy words like "defending sovereignty" or opposing "meddling in internal affairs", but they are essentially looking out for their fellow despots' right to repress their subjects.

Such behavior is despicable, but it is no cause for war. Indeed, in most regional issues, the interests of America and China largely coincide. Given this relative alignment, does the realignment of American naval forces to Asia even make sense?

Yes. Retaining the bulk of American naval forces in the Atlantic Ocean is wasteful, given that there are no potential adversaries in the region. From Norway to Cape Horn, there is not a single threat or potential serious flashpoint along the Atlantic coasts. Rhetoric from anti-American governments in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua may be annoying, and drug running in the Caribbean may be a problem, but it's hard to imagine any of these annoyances requiring a naval response.

Despite the natural desire of people to see the realignment to the Pacific as an "us versus them" issue, the reality is that the Pacific is where the action is. It's not just China, but other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma which will drive future world economic growth. It's only natural that America's adjusts its forces accordingly.

The real threat of war comes not from the positioning of military forces, but from the decisions of world leaders. None of the aforementioned disagreements between China and America could justify a war. But nor did any dispute in Iraq justify the American invasion in 2003. Stupid decisions require no justification.

In the run up to the Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of American forces were transported halfway across the world. The same could happen in China should future leaders in either country be so stupid as to pick a fight. Where naval forces happen to be when these stupid decisions are made, is of relatively little consequence.


1. Washington Post, Panetta Reveals Plan Focused on Pacific, June 1, 2012

2. New York Times, As Part of Pact, U.S. Marines Arrive in Australia, in China's Strategic Backyard, April 4, 2012

2. Economic Times, Chinese Military Steps Up Conventional Missile Capability, June 11, 2012