History's Warning: A U.S.-China War Is Terrifyingly Possible

History's Warning: A U.S.-China War Is Terrifyingly Possible

The United States and Britain almost came to blows in 1861 over the Trent Affair. Yet, conflict was averted. What it says about the state of play between Beijing and Washington today—and for the chances of war—is striking.

Today’s strategic liability in contrast is dangerously expansive. Long-range, targetable long-range ballistic missiles put US forces and sovereign interests at risk throughout the Western Pacific. Moreover, the only path to effectively nullify the threat of Chinese long-range ballistic weapons is to knock out Peoples’ Liberation Army’s command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, which amounts to a first strike on the PRC’s strategic command and control. Inasmuch as the network for conventional weapons is the same network for nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and such a strike takes on potentially apocalyptic overtones.

Number 6—The Union Navy threatened the Royal Navy for only about 7 years. The US was lucky to steal a technology march on the World Navy. By the later 1860s the Royal Navy once again had a world-beating battleship package—restoring strategic stability. Had the US developed its monitor designs into the 1870s, they would have remained within the operational framework of coastal defense—and thus, still only a limited threat to the United Kingdom. Today the US, like Victorian Britain, has invested much of its naval power in very large capital platforms. These ships are already acutely vulnerable to submarines and ballistic missiles—and this vulnerability will only increase. Today there is no design solution for the aircraft carrier (CVN). Rather, platform vulnerabilities have driven the US —through Air-Sea Battle—to a network dominance strategy that only works if the enemy network is crippled first.

War that depends on network survival creates huge incentives to first strike. Technology is moving just as fast as the 1860s, but in ways that do not favor the US —unless our “tip of the spear” embraces an early, all-out first-strike strategy. But as PRC striking power grows, US power to overturn this power, even in first-strike mode, declines. Hence both USN and PLAN thinking will come to resolve on when Air-Sea Battle loses its presumptive edge. This notional moment will itself create a narrative of PLAN victory, even in the absence of war, and equally, an American fear of defeat, symbolically, the moment strategic utility ends.

Number 7—The US turned West after its bloodletting. It simply ceased to be a UK competitor, even economically—because it became instead the lucrative focus of British overseas investment. Being a demilitarized economic giant only helped promote strategic amity. In the 1870s there were still a number of UK strategic interests in the Americas, including Canada, Bermuda, the integrity of Cuba and Mexico, and others. However, post-civil war the US, once overly aggressive toward its neighbors, was taking historical time-off.

Yet we see the opposite today, where China, hot adrenaline in its near-sea claims, declares that dispute resolution can come only through your submission—and in turn, America’s military-industrial establishment sees a perfect partnership in bountiful conflict. Moreover, while technology shifts in the 1860s quickly came to favor UK industrial infrastructure over the US, technology shifts today do not favor the superpower. In fact, civilian high-tech shifts like 3D printing promise rapid military conversion—plus US defense secrets China steals promise are all part of a mix that encourages aggressive behavior.

Number 8—After the American Civil War Britain turned away too—to Europe. The Risorgimento and the Franco-Prussian War, and the resurgence of Russia against Turkey, meant a renewed focus on European strategic affairs. Britain “pivoted” back to the Continent. But today the US is “pivoting” away from 30 years of obsession with the Middle East. Its main adversary-strategy is now an official verb.

Number 9—Losing Canada would have ripped the British Empire apart. Remember that in the 1860s Canada, not India, was the lynchpin of empire, both in terms of British identity, and the Empire’s very strategic depth. Canada’s vastness, in an age where maps drove national imagination (especially in schoolrooms!), was a core meme of Imperial power. Canada anchored British Atlantic power all the way to World War II.

Canada was huge, hence Britain was huge, and hence the Empire was huge. Yet it was instantly, in the winter of 1861, at risk. Canada’s defenses in the winter of 1861 were so brittle that defending even Quebec was forlorn hope. Limiting risk was the order of the day. In contrast, our East Asian partners are feisty “tigers” primed to fight. The risk for us is not supporting their defense, but rather getting sucked into fights they start.

Number 10—British recognition of the Confederate States of America (CSA) would have doomed Lincoln—and the Federal’s strategic path to reunification. But Britain’s world position, equally, had an Atlantic vulnerability. As Lincoln’s Secretary of State Seward warned, British intervention risked a world war “between the European and the American branches of the British race.”

Does not the same fear stay our hand—both Chinese and American—making the reality of any combat between us, pure fantasy? Are not we both equally vulnerable in war, as we are equally intertwined in peace? Would not a Chinese-American war mean the collapse of globalization, of prosperity, of the very trajectory of humanity?

So then, a US-China war is actually impossible—right?

When I found the comparative template of Victorian Britain and the US in 1861, several years ago, it seemed the metaphor that gave the lie to any future US-China conflict. I felt confident it was.

Today, I have lost confidence. Why?

The comparison is still useful, but now more for truth-in-contrast than truth-in-similarity. Comparing the US and China today to Britain and the US in 1861 teases out the dynamics that make today’s naval face-off more critically unstable than the Trent Affair.

The US Navy wants a long-term adversary. On the face of it this does not seem like such a problem—after all we did this with the Soviets in the Cold War and it was quite a gift. But today we forget that the Soviets were satisfied by the post-1945 strategic arrangement: They were never a “revisionist” power. They sought security more passively than aggressively (for the most part).

Hence, US naval officers do not fear the Chinese super-duper carrier-killing ballistic missile—they welcome it. They see every PLAN move as a mission-gift. There is no comparison here to Brit night sweats over the Dahlgren 15” gun, circa 1861. Moreover, we have a plan to defeat China, and it is called Air-Sea Battle. “Naval persons” insist that this is only an “operational concept,” but no one I know in the world of the Navy actually believes that. But neither does anyone really believe that war will come either.

Yet war is now embedded in Washington Defense political life. Nowhere in DC elite discussions do I sense overriding concern over a US-China war: Chinese economic implosion following regime collapse; or a US hit by homeland strikes that cripple its critical infrastructure, economy, and its world position. Instead I attend polite “debates” in Navy circles about how best to fight the PLAN—talk so common as to be a kind of inside-the-beltway-norm. But is that how the Chinese see a war?

China wants a symbolic event. Like DC Machers, Chinese for their part also seem contemptuous of US military power. Engaging PRC government officials in Beijing just last year, my impression was not one of Chinese posturing, but rather of an authentic, steely resolve tied to a conviction of historical entitlement. Their body language, in every second of our two-week discussions, told me they are going to make it happen. Somewhere. Sometime. Someday—soon.

In 1861, Britain and the United States discovered, in the midst of existential crisis, that war was the surest path to mutual destruction.

In contrast, today, key elites in the US and China need conflict. This is conflict they may hope to fulfill only ritually and symbolically—but they desire it for very different reasons. Everything each wants is mismatched in both narrative and objective. But over so many centuries, so many of humanity’s wars in the end just needed the eager embrace: To fight. Today there are serious constituencies in both China and the United States devoted to the idea—if not yet the full reality—of a fight.


Michael Vlahos is a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins' Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. This idea was first presented at the East Asian Security Symposium, 2012, in Beijing. The views here are his own.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense/CC by-nc-nd 2.0