"small wars", its focus on expensive next-generation weapon systems like the F-22, or the Air Force's resistance to the kind of transformation Secretary Gates is pushing through, I typically get a reply something like this: "Well, the military is going to regret sidelining the Air Force when the time comes to fight China." The concern with The Coming War Against China is not limited to the Air Force; a coming war is an unquestioned assumption for many military officers.
The United States needs to keep its strategic edge in war, but I'm convinced that this entire mindset towards China is fundamentally flawed. We don't fight and win wars for their own sakes. We fight and win wars to protect our national interests, which, according to the 2006 National Security Strategy, includes goals like championing aspirations for human dignity, igniting a new era of global economic growth, developing open societies, building democracy, and developing agendas for cooperative action with other main centers of global power. A war with China would be catastrophic for all of these goals. If we genuinely care about our national interests, if we genuinely care about building an international order that allows private freedom and economic enterprise to flourish, our nation should not just be preparing for a war with China; it should be working with all its might to build an international order that ensures a war with China will never need to happen.
I'm not the only person who thinks this. On November 26th the Boston Globe ran a story titled "Ex-commander: US needs new China plan." It an interview, retired Admiral William J. Fallon--who commanded both US Central Command US Pacific Command in recent years, and was one of the top strategic minds in the military before his retirement--said that that "the United States desperately needs to come up with a strategy for dealing peacefully with a rising China." He told The Globe, "There were people who warned me that you'd better get ready for the shoot 'em up here because sooner or later we're going be at war with China... I don't think that's where we want to go. And so I set about challenging all the assumptions." He recalls meeting with Pentagon hawks in 2005, during a chill in American-Chinese relations, and telling them, "What are the priorities, guys? Do you want to have a war? We can probably have one. But is that what you really want? Is that really in our interest? Because I don't think so."
What would a war with China mean? Regardless of whether we fight China directly or in proxy wars, it would mean untold expenditures of blood and treasure. It would mean a radical disruption to the global order, as the US collides with an entire constellation of countries in Asia. A war would threaten our relationships with many allies who would resist a war. It would unleash devastating consequences on the global economy. America's trade volume with China exceeded $386 billion in 2007. As of September 2008, China's holdings of US treasury securities amounted to $585 billion. The US-China relationship underpins the entire global economy; threatening that relationship would wreck both economies and cause far-reaching damage around the world. The human suffering wreaked by an American-Chinese war would be dreadful.
There are times when war is still necessary, when the costs of not fighting are even higher than the dreadful costs of war. But China does not fall in this category, at least for now, and war is hardly a foregone conclusion. International relations is seldom a zero-sum game. China's rise does not necessarily equate to America's downfall. The US and China have both profited from their economic relationship, and can continue to do so if the leaders of both countries pursue wise policies. This does not mean the US needs to be soft. The West, led by the US, should still push for China to behave responsibly as an international actor and expand domestic political freedoms. But the US should pursue these objectives within a broader strategic context, which seeks to peacefully integrate a rising China into the international order. This is our major national interest with China. Our military needs to train and prepare for wars anywhere, including China--that is a core part of its job--but we should not mistake these preparations for a strategy. In my view, if we need to fight a war with China someday, it will probably be because the political leaders of both countries have failed us.
How do we integrate China into the international order and forestall a war? Democratic Peace Theory claims that democracies (usually liberal democracies) almost never go to war with each other. Why this is true is a matter of speculation and debate, but most explanations revolve around the power of globalization to weave liberal democracies together. As countries become more economically intertwined, the costs of war and the incentives for peace both increase. An expanding volume of trade between the US and China, for example, gives more Americans and more Chinese a vested interest in ensuring the continuity of the relationship. The globalization of people--through immigration, study-abroad programs, and international work programs--builds even more linkages between countries. The globalization of ideas, through communications technology and media, strengthens the sense of international community and narrows the gulf of understanding between countries. The growth of civil society makes governments more accountable to their citizens, and generally provides a check on aggression.
The US should do everything it can to help China build these linkages with the rest of the international community. This is largely an economic matter. My biggest concern right now is the growing protectionist sentiment in the US. As long as the US keeps trading with China, the costs of war will be high, and China will have economic incentives to pursue a "peaceful rise." The subsequent economic growth in China will result in a larger middle class, more education, and more robust civic society. China's economic interests will also give the West leverage. On the other hand, protectionist policies will harm overall economic growth in both countries, dismantle the linkages between China and the US, and create economic rivalry that could eventually blow up into something worse.
Our economic policy around the world also matters. The global trading system is in tatters now. The failure of the Doha Round of trade negotiations has put the world in jeopardy, and exacerbated a rift between the global North and South. More and more countries are turning away from global trade and towards Preferential Trade Agreements, which economist Jagdish Bhagwati calls "termites in the trading system." Without strong economic leadership, the global trading system will give way to regional economic organizations, accelerating the global transition to a multipolar system and increasing the danger of war.
In "Once an Eagle", we follow the soldier Sam Damon for 1300 pages, from one gruesome war to another. Interestingly, the climax of the novel is not about Damon's brave heroics in yet another war. The climax is about Damon's efforts to prevent a costly and stupid war from happening: an invasion of China. This unexpected twist of storytelling shows the subtle and complex responsibilities of a military officer. I hope, for the sake of the entire world, that there are enough Sam Damons out there to save us from a war that I never want to fight.