Warmongering is the encouragement of aggression toward other countries. There is certainly no shortage of it blaring from both China and the US regarding the South China Sea. Indeed, a recent public tit-for-tat illustrates both the danger of such public advocacy and of taking it seriously. In China several People’s Liberation Army academicians called for attacks on US Navy ships operating provocatively in the South China Sea.
Based on these statements and a series of actions, Kerry Gershaneck and James Fanell, two retired US military officers turned pundits, alleged China “appears to be calling for war”. They responded in kind with a catchy title and a clever construct — “How China Began World War III (WWIII) Using South China Sea”. Their piece demonizes China and hypes the “China threat.” It is so blatantly one-sided that it loses its effect and begs a response.
This is not to pick nits with the piece’s litany of China’s alleged sins that they use to build the scenario leading to an imagined WWIII. This author has done this elsewhere. Nor is it to argue with its final step precipitating it. But it is to say that the general construct could easily be applied to the US — and in that perspective — the US would at least share the blame for starting a hypothetical WWIII.
First of all, the particular Chinese military officers quoted as advocating attacking US assets are well known for their over-the top rhetoric. There is no evidence that they represent the government’s view. In that sense they are much less dangerous than infamous warmongers in recent American history like Curtis Le May. As Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, Le May called for the bombing of Cuban missile sites during the Cuban missile crisis and sought — in his own words — to bomb North Vietnam “back to the stone age”.
He clashed with then President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who fortunately outmaneuvered him, probably preventing WWIII. The Chinese outbursts pale in comparison. To imply otherwise is to disingenuously hype the significance of such atypical statements by relatively low level officers.
Nevertheless, such exaggerated fears and frustration are not surprising, given the “in your face” US official policy, rhetoric and actions flaunting its military dominance and essentially daring China to do something about it while the leadership remains patient. China’s military leaders see China as hemmed in by US bases and rotational “assets” in US allies and strategic partners stretching across a wide swath of Asia from Japan and South Korea in the east to the Philippines and Australia in the south and Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand in the southwest. Now the US is trying to make military inroads with China’s neighbors Vietnam and India in its obvious efforts to further hem it in and maintain its continued hegemony in Asia. It appears to China’s increasingly politically-aware public that the US is stepping up its asymmetric “provocations” in China’s near seas. As one leading US analyst put it, from Beijing’s perspective these “threats” could eventually bring into question the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party — and this is indeed dangerous for the leadership if not properly addressed.
Most observers think that China’s naval and air force capabilities are still considerably inferior to those of the US and that both China and the US well know this. This diminishes the possibility of any WWIII — at least for the near future.
Moreover, from the vantage point of China’s leaders, rhetoric concerning China from both pundits and policy makers has become increasingly shrill and belligerent. Over the past few years, bashing China has become quite common in the US foreign policy community — even for some supposed objective and balanced think tanks, analysts and opinion writers for the media. More recently, the opprobrium and prescriptions by pundits has become more strident, in some instances bordering on “yellow journalism” — which in the past has prodded the US into war. A good example is another piece by Fanell — one of the co-authors of this latest alarmist diatribe — that warns that “Beijing will actively seek a near-term military confrontation in the South China Sea. The confrontation would be designed to bloody the nose of the US and remind the region that it is now China’s navy and air force that rule the region.” This WWIII article is just another example. There are many others.
To China’s leaders, it must appear that these pundits are following the lead of the US government. It seems to them that there is a coordinated campaign of condemnation of its conduct — and of warning others of its wicked intentions — in general, and in the South China Sea in particular. It has publicly called China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist” nation and declared that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region”. If there were any doubts as to the US mindset vis a vis China, the October 4, 2018 speech by US Vice President Michael Pence must have dispelled them. Using unusually sharp rhetoric, he criticized China across the board and essentially cast the situation as a choice between “us and them”. He highlighted the recent “unsafe” challenge by a Chinese destroyer to the USS Decatur as it was undertaking a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) against China’s claims in the South China Sea and added belligerently, “We will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down.”
The US has also declared that it will not accept China’s militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea. US National Security Adviser John Bolton has made it clear that the US is preparing to build up its forces in the region and in particular its patrols in the South China Sea. Indeed, on February 12, 2019, Phil Davidson, the Indo-Pacific Commander told a US Senate panel that “Pacific forces … are being repositioned to better respond to conflicts … in the South China Sea”.
The US has already increased the frequency and aggressiveness of its FONOPs there. To Chinese military leaders, it appears that some of the US actions are “illegal” threats to use force. To them, the US is flaunting its superior military power and daring China to take the political and military risk of confrontation and possible conflict. Reinforcing the notion of a “US threat”, the US has markedly stepped up its nuclear capable B52 over flights of the East and South China Seas as well as its naval transits of the Taiwan Straits. To China, these are not expressions of “legality” but clear threats. The recent near collision between a Chinese warship and the Decatur that Gershaneck and Fanell hype as “attempted murder” may have been China’s response to this latest constellation of provocations.
In the article’s scenario, the initiating act of WWIII is a miscalculation by a Chinese warship. Regardless of who is to “blame” for the situation getting to this point, the authors know that this is indeed quite possible because the US Navy is better trained and more disciplined. Knowing this, why are they essentially advocating continued provocations by the US — unless they want war? Perhaps they are militarists who believe a state should use its military capability aggressively to achieve its national interests. For such, the solution is always more power and provocations. Compromise and power sharing are anathema.
Most observers think that China’s naval and air force capabilities are still considerably inferior to those of the US and that both China and the US well know this. This diminishes the possibility of any WWIII — at least for the near future. But if the US keeps pushing, the Gershaneck-Fanell scenario of a miscalculation is an increasing possibility.