Daily we see reports of escalations, provocations, and tensions rising in the South China Sea, with U.S. and allied forces regularly crisscrossing the area to counter Chinese bullying and illegal claims to full ownership of the strategic waters. Based on China’s actions and increasing bellicosity, many analysts believe China’s communist leaders are itching for a fight.
But what if their actions are just blustering that they can’t help doing, and instead are painting themselves into a bad corner – making a significant strategic mistake?
Preparing for a fight, and even increasing the chances of a fight, don’t necessarily mean wanting a fight – and this distinction of CCP China’s goals, if accurate, requires a very different reaction from the U.S. and its allies.
James Holms, J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, argued in 2018 that: “CCP chieftains may be pursuing self-defeating policies and strategies in the South China Sea.” And the argument may still be valid.
His piece in The National Interest, “Take Note: China May Not Want to Fight in the South China Sea,” was recently reprinted, and worth reading.
At the time Holms was rebutting China hawk Gordon Chang, who maintains that “China Wants Confrontation in the South China Sea.” Holms wrote:
Gordon regards Chinese bombast as proof that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders are spoiling for a fight of some sort, rather than as yet more proof that bombast is encoded in Communist China’s political DNA.
Keyword: wants. It’s the job of all strategic leaders to prepare for confrontation. To do otherwise courts disaster should confrontation come. But few sane leaders crave strife.
That includes Chinese leaders. We make much of Chinese sage Sun Tzu’s maxim that winning without fighting constitutes the supreme excellence in statecraft. Short of that, Master Sun implores generals and sovereigns to take enemy states intact, and to wage short, sharp wars in order to avoid bankrupting the treasury and national manpower. Their paramount mission is to win.
Next most important is to hold down the expense in resources and lives for both combatants. Sun Tzu’s Art of War remains a staple of strategic discourses in China today, and justifiably so.
CCP chieftains may be pursuing self-defeating policies and strategies in the South China Sea. They may have resigned themselves to a rumble. And opportunism is their watchword: they will doubtless attempt to turn such encounters as do occur to diplomatic and strategic advantage.
But wanting to fight is another thing altogether—and would warrant different American and Asian countermeasures. An antagonist who stumbles into the arena of combat is different from one who strides into the arena.
Read the entire piece HERE.
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