by Austin Bay
October 27, 2021
In July The National Interest published an essay entitled "Can America Lose to China?" written by Kishore Mahbubani, a fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute and a former Singapore UN Ambassador.
The essay focuses on the China-U.S. political, economic and social competition. Mahbubani begins with an observation: Americans believe "an open society like America has many natural advantages" over China's autocracy. By assuming inherent advantage, "Americans cannot even conceive of the possibility of losing out to China."
That may well be true, though not quite in the way he frames the problem.
I disagree with several of Mahbubani's subsequent points. He believes the U.S. should reintegrate its economy with China's. Sure, trade is beneficial, but U.S. overreliance on China is a strategic error. Fair trade does not exist when dictatorial whim rigs contracts and court decisions.
At times he portrays Beijing as relatively benign and misunderstood. He says the U.S. can get along with China as long as it "doesn't disrupt the world order."
Disruption is Beijing's business. China has encroached on the Philippines' maritime exclusive economic zone. (See the 2016 Hague Court of Arbitration ruling.) Vietnam has repeatedly confronted Chinese drilling rigs and "sea militia" boats invading internationally recognized Vietnamese waters. Indian and Chinese forces skirmish in the Himalayas and have since 1962.
Prominent Americans have contemplated losing the economic and political competition with China, with a resulting loss in wealth and diplomatic clout. Mahbubani clearly despises former President Donald Trump. Perhaps faculty club virtue-signaling blinds him to an obvious truth: Trump saw and still sees the possibility of losing to China.
Still, the ambassador deserves credit for recognizing a failure to contemplate uncomfortable alternative futures. I frame it this way: The majority of the American public and national leaders have yet to think about the consequences of losing a major war to China.
The Pentagon concentrates on military deterrence and, failing that, winning in combat. For seven decades U.S. and allied planners have conducted war games examining "what ifs" in a Taiwan Strait conflict and other east Asian scenarios.
In the last decade several games have examined a shooting (kinetic) war in the western Pacific and Asian littoral pitting the U.S. and allies against China. Occasionally Russian forces cooperate with China.
The Pentagon acknowledges conducting several classified war games in 2020. In March 2021 Yahoo News discussed one of them, a U.S. Air Force war game in the 2030 time frame. The scenario began with "a Chinese biological-weapon attack that swept through U.S. bases and warships in the Indo-Pacific region." A Chinese military exercise camouflaged "the deployment of a massive invasion force," which launched a lightning "assault on the island of Taiwan."
Chinese missiles struck "U.S. bases and warships" throughout the region.
Yahoo quoted U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote: "The (game's) definitive answer if the U.S. military doesn't change course is that we're going to lose fast." Hinote added "More than a decade ago, our war games indicated that the Chinese were doing a good job of investing in military capabilities that would make our preferred model of expeditionary warfare, where we push forces forward and operate out of relatively safe bases and sanctuaries, increasingly difficult."
Hinote didn't discuss America's loss in ships and planes and killed, wounded and captured personnel. But clearly America lost the simulated military campaign.
If China took Taiwan, then it would have achieved a major CCP goal, one with horrifying real-world military, diplomatic, economic and territorial consequences.
It is foolish to believe an intense war involving China and the U.S. would be confined to the Taiwan Strait and end with Taiwan's loss. In the scenario, missiles hit regional U.S. bases --meaning Japan, South Korea, Guam, perhaps Australia, Singapore and Hawaii.
Go a step farther. What keeps this western Pacific war from escalating to a war for national survival?
Next week's column will examine several very uncomfortable consequences of America losing a war to China. One scenario has war erupting before the 2024 U.S. national election.