The Washington foreign policy establishment, a.k.a. the Blob, and the Congressional-Military-Industrial Complex (COMIC) have decreed that our new “pacing threat” is China. That is a fundamental misreading of the grand strategic situation. The greatest threat we, China, and Russia, face is state disintegration and the spread of stateless chaos throughout the world. By remaining trapped in an obsolete grand strategic paradigm, the Blob and the COMIC may generate a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The more we focus on a possible war with China, the greater the likelihood both countries could sleepwalk their way into such a conflict. In effect, war with China, not China itself, becomes our greatest danger.
Because both the U.S. and China are nuclear powers, such a war could obliterate both countries. Avoiding that outcome requires a two-pronged approach: first, not puffing the dragon; second, adopting a military strategy through which, should an incident occur, we avoid escalation.
An example of puffing the dragon is the recent “discovery” that China may be building silos for hundreds more nuclear-tipped ICBMs, missiles which can reach the United States. The implication is another “missile gap,” like that cooked up for the 1960 election. Conservatives should say, “Not so fast.”
First, it is not clear what the Chinese plan to put in these holes. We can afford to wait and see. The common-law marriage of bad intelligence and threat inflation has birthed many a stillborn child.
Second, once a country has a minimum nuclear deterrent, as China already does, building it bigger offers little strategic advantage. More Chinese ICBMs would not enable China to launch a disarming first strike against the U.S., nor would they more effectively prevent us from doing the same. At the margin, they might allow China to use its conventional forces, especially its navy, somewhat more boldly.
That points to the second element of our two-pronged approach: In planning for a conflict with China, we must recognize that the greatest danger is escalation. No one can guarantee that one or both countries will not blunder into a clash between their armed forces, probably their navies. But we can plan how to handle such an incident in a manner that deescalates it so it does not go nuclear. How? By basing our military strategy on a distant blockade.
Let us say China invades Taiwan, and Washington decides it must respond. Or some American and Chinese warships get into a game of chicken in the South China Sea and a U.S. cruiser is sunk. The Pentagon will want to escalate, hoping to hand China’s new and untried navy a major defeat. Both in Washington and Beijing the military leadership that sees itself losing will press the politicians to redeem the situation by going “just one more step” up the escalatory ladder—a ladder that ends in nuclear war.
The U.S. need not go there. By responding to China with a distant blockade, we can put Beijing in an increasingly uncomfortable strategic position without firing a shot. A distant blockade would stop ships carrying raw materials to China, but do so outside the range of China’s armed forces. China depends on vast seaborne imports of oil, food, iron ore, etc. The U.S. Navy can stop and inspect ships carrying such cargoes and turn back those hauling anything we label contraband. We can add to the contraband list as needed to ratchet up the economic pressure on Beijing.
For example, if we were to stop tankers carrying oil to China as they emerge from the Persian Gulf, what could China do about it? Her only option at that range would be to deploy her nuclear attack submarines. But she only has six. How many does she want to risk that far from home?
A distant blockade won World War I for the Allies. Germany expected that in a war with Britain, she would be blockaded. But Germany also expected the blockade would be near her own ports, where she could attack the blockading ships with U-boats, torpedo boats, and the like, whittling down Britain’s strength without risking her own outnumbered dreadnoughts. Instead, Britain imposed a distant blockade at the entrances to the North Sea, where the Germans could not attack the blockading ships without risking their battlefleet. The result was that Germany starved.
Today, with satellites that can track every ship from where it picks up cargo to where it discharges it, a distant blockade can be very distant indeed. Stopping ships, whether Chinese or not, should not require violence. U.S. Marines have non-lethal weapons and techniques so no one need get hurt when they board a vessel. China’s strategic situation would worsen, but gradually, allowing plenty of time to negotiate an end to the conflict.
Russell Kirk wrote that the most important conservative political virtue is prudence. In America’s relationship with China, prudence dictates that we not go to war. Throughout the whole of the Cold War, both Washington and Moscow were sufficiently prudent that their conventional armed forces did not openly fight each other. Both knew the risk of escalation to the nuclear level was too great.
That should now be the rule for both the U.S. and China.
At the same time, prudence also suggests we have a plan in the file just in case, a plan that ramps up strategic pressure on Beijing without firing a shot. A distant blockade fills that bill. Without such a plan, the hotheads could easily take over, and we, like the European great powers of 1914, could find ourselves in a war no one wanted that ends with a continent in ruins. Or, in this case, two.
William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Lind’s most recent book is Retroculture: Taking America Back.