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How We Would Fight China

The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was

For some time now no navy or air force has posed a threat to the United States. Our only competition has been armies, whether conventional forces or guerrilla insurgencies. This will soon change. The Chinese navy is poised to push out into the Pacific—and when it does, it will very quickly encounter a U.S. Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland. It's not hard to imagine the result: a replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe but, rather, among Pacific atolls that were last in the news when the Marines stormed them in World War II. In the coming decades China will play an asymmetric back-and-forth game with us in the Pacific, taking advantage not only of its vast coastline but also of its rear base—stretching far back into Central Asia—from which it may eventually be able to lob missiles accurately at moving ships in the Pacific.

In any naval encounter China will have distinct advantages over the United States, even if it lags in technological military prowess. It has the benefit, for one thing, of sheer proximity. Its military is an avid student of the competition, and a fast learner. It has growing increments of "soft" power that demonstrate a particular gift for adaptation. While stateless terrorists fill security vacuums, the Chinese fill economic ones. All over the globe, in such disparate places as the troubled Pacific Island states of Oceania, the Panama Canal zone, and out-of-the-way African nations, the Chinese are becoming masters of indirect influence—by establishing business communities and diplomatic outposts, by negotiating construction and trade agreements. Pulsing with consumer and martial energy, and boasting a peasantry that, unlike others in history, is overwhelmingly literate, China constitutes the principal conventional threat to America's liberal imperium.

How should the United States prepare to respond to challenges in the Pacific? To understand the dynamics of this second Cold War—which will link China and the United States in a future that may stretch over several generations—it is essential to understand certain things about the first Cold War, and about the current predicament of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the institution set up to fight that conflict. This is a story about military strategy and tactics, with some counterintuitive twists and turns.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Cold War, Part II?" (February 1997)
Atlantic articles discuss the history and possible future of NATO

The first thing to understand is that the alliance system of the latter half of the twentieth century is dead. Warfare by committee, as practiced by NATO, has simply become too cumbersome in an age that requires light and lethal strikes. During the fighting in Kosovo in 1999 (a limited air campaign against a toothless enemy during a time of Euro-American harmony; a campaign, in other words, that should have been easy to prosecute) dramatic fissures appeared in the then-nineteen-member NATO alliance. The organization's end effectively came with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, in the aftermath of which, despite talk of a broad-based coalition, European militaries have usually done little more than patrol and move into areas already pacified by U.S. soldiers and Marines—a job more suggestive of the United Nations. NATO today is a medium for the expansion of bilateral training missions between the United States and formerly communist countries and republics: the Marines in Bulgaria and Romania, the Navy in Albania, the Army in Poland and the Czech Republic, Special Operations Forces in Georgia—the list goes on and on. Much of NATO has become a farm system for the major-league U.S. military.

The second thing to understand is that the functional substitute for a NATO of the Pacific already exists, and is indeed up and running. It is the U.S. Pacific Command, known as PACOM. Unencumbered by a diplomatic bureaucracy, PACOM is a large but nimble construct, and its leaders understand what many in the media and the policy community do not: that the center of gravity of American strategic concern is already the Pacific, not the Middle East. PACOM will soon be a household name, as CENTCOM (the U.S. Central Command) has been in the current epoch of Middle Eastern conflict—an epoch that will start to wind down, as far as the U.S. military is concerned, during the second Bush administration.

The third thing to understand is that, ironically, the vitality of NATO itself, the Atlantic alliance, could be revived by the Cold War in the Pacific—and indeed the re-emergence of NATO as an indispensable war-fighting instrument should be America's unswerving aim. In its posture toward China the United States will look to Europe and NATO, whose help it will need as a strategic counterweight and, by the way, as a force to patrol seas more distant than the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic. That is why NATO's current commander, Marine General James L. Jones, emphasizes that NATO's future lies in amphibious, expeditionary warfare.

Let me describe our military organization in the Pacific—an area through which I have traveled extensively during the past three years. PACOM has always been the largest, most venerable, and most interesting of the U.S. military's area commands. (Its roots go back to the U.S. Pacific Army of the Philippines War, 1899-1902.) Its domain stretches from East Africa to beyond the International Date Line and includes the entire Pacific Rim, encompassing half the world's surface and more than half of its economy. The world's six largest militaries, two of which (America's and China's) are the most rapidly modernizing, all operate within PACOM's sphere of control. PACOM has—in addition to its many warships and submarines—far more dedicated troops than CENTCOM. Even though the military's area commands do not own troops today in the way they used to, these statistics matter, because they demonstrate that the United States has chosen to locate the bulk of its forces in the Pacific, not in the Middle East. CENTCOM fights wars with troops essentially borrowed from PACOM.

Quietly in recent years, by negotiating bilateral security agreements with countries that have few such arrangements with one another, the U.S. military has formed a Pacific military alliance of sorts at PACOM headquarters, in Honolulu. This is where the truly interesting meetings are being held today, rather than in Ditchley or Davos. The attendees at those meetings, who often travel on PACOM's dime, are military officers from such places as Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

Otto von Bismarck, the father of the Second Reich in continental Europe, would recognize the emerging Pacific system. In 2002 the German commentator Josef Joffe appreciated this in a remarkably perceptive article in The National Interest, in which he argued that in terms of political alliances, the United States has come to resemble Bismarck's Prussia. Britain, Russia, and Austria needed Prussia more than they needed one another, Joffe wrote, thus making them "spokes" to Berlin's "hub"; the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan exposed a world in which America can forge different coalitions for different crises. The world's other powers, he said, now need the United States more than they need one another.

Unfortunately, the United States did not immediately capitalize on this new power arrangement, because President George W. Bush lacked the nuance and attendant self-restraint of Bismarck, who understood that such a system could endure only so long as one didn't overwhelm it. The Bush administration did just that, of course, in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, which led France, Germany, Russia, and China, along with a host of lesser powers such as Turkey, Mexico, and Chile, to unite against us.

In the Pacific, however, a Bismarckian arrangement still prospers, helped along by the pragmatism of our Hawaii-based military officers, five time zones removed from the ideological hothouse of Washington, D.C. In fact, PACOM represents a much purer version of Bismarck's imperial superstructure than anything the Bush administration created prior to invading Iraq. As Henry Kissinger writes in Diplomacy (1994), Bismarck forged alliances in all directions from a point of seeming isolation, without the constraints of ideology. He brought peace and prosperity to Central Europe by recognizing that when power relationships are correctly calibrated, wars tend to be avoided.

Only a similarly pragmatic approach will allow us to accommodate China's inevitable re-emergence as a great power. The alternative will be to turn the earth of the twenty-first century into a battlefield. Whenever great powers have emerged or re-emerged on the scene (Germany and Japan in the early decades of the twentieth century, to cite two recent examples), they have tended to be particularly assertive—and therefore have thrown international affairs into violent turmoil. China will be no exception. Today the Chinese are investing in both diesel-powered and nuclear-powered submarines—a clear signal that they intend not only to protect their coastal shelves but also to expand their sphere of influence far out into the Pacific and beyond.

This is wholly legitimate. China's rulers may not be democrats in the literal sense, but they are seeking a liberated First World lifestyle for many of their 1.3 billion people—and doing so requires that they safeguard sea-lanes for the transport of energy resources from the Middle East and elsewhere. Naturally, they do not trust the United States and India to do this for them. Given the stakes, and given what history teaches us about the conflicts that emerge when great powers all pursue legitimate interests, the result is likely to be the defining military conflict of the twenty-first century: if not a big war with China, then a series of Cold War—style standoffs that stretch out over years and decades. And this will occur mostly within PACOM's area of responsibility.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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