Admiral Lou Yuan is China’s Curtis LeMay.
LeMay, the U.S. Air Force general who torched Japanese cities and later headed Strategic Air Command, was notorious for his bellicosity. In the 1950s and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he tried to get the U.S. to launch a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union: during the Vietnam War, he urged bombing North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.”
Now comes Lou Yuan, deputy chief of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences and a prolifically hawkish military commentator who supports a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Last month, Yuan told an audience at a Chinese military-industrial conference that China could solve tensions over the South East China Sea by sinking two U.S. aircraft carriers.
This would kill 10,000 American sailors. “What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” said Lou. “We’ll see how frightened America is.”
Lou has previously urged an invasion of Taiwan if the U.S. Navy uses the island, regarded by China as a renegade territory, as a naval base. “If the US naval fleet dares to stop in Taiwan, it is time for the People’s Liberation Army to deploy troops to promote national unity on the island,” he said.
LeMay was no fan of Communism, but he would have understood Lou’s sentiment.
Unfortunately, neither man seemed to know the difference between aggressiveness and foolhardiness. LeMay’s first strike on the Soviet Union would have triggered World War III against a nuclear-armed superpower: even if the U.S. had managed to destroy most Soviet nuclear weapons, it would only have taken a few bombs landing New York or Los Angeles to kill millions, not to mention a Soviet Army that would have wreaked vengeance on Western Europe.
Now comes Admiral Lou, who represents what seems to be a growing Chinese belief that America is too weak to fight. The Chinese are certainly not the first: the Germans and Japanese thought the same in 1941 (perhaps China should remember that the Japanese thought the Chinese were weaklings in the 1930s).
Lou says China’s anti-ship missiles are sufficient to destroy U.S. carriers and their escorts. Militarily, it may be true that hypersonic missiles, or ballistic missiles converted into anti-ship weapons, could do the job. Then again, they might not, because these weapons have not been tested in war.
Which brings up the real issue here: sinking U.S. carriers would be an act of war. Not a warning shot across the bows. Not a spy plane downed for crossing into Chinese territory. Not an accidental collision between an American patrol plane and a Chinese fighter.
Sinking an American carrier would be an act of war, period. If Chinese like Admiral Lou are right, then America is finished as a major power. If 10,000 dead American sailors aren’t worth fighting over, then neither will the U.S. defend Taiwan, or Japan, or Israel, or Western Europe.
But what if Lou is wrong, as he is almost certainly is? No U.S. president, no Senator or Congressman, could remain in office if they did not respond forcefully to the sinking of U.S. carriers, the very symbol of American power and prestige. To the American psyche, such an act would be equivalent to Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto said after Pearl Harbor. Admiral Lou would do well to heed the advice.