Will there be war?

Howard W. French

  • China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement by Nicola Horsburgh
    Oxford, 256 pp, £55.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870611 3
  • China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities by Roger Cliff
    Cambridge, 378 pp, £21.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 50295 6
  • China’s Coming War with Asia by Jonathan Holslag
    Polity, 176 pp, £14.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7456 8825 1

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace to proclaim the victory of his revolution, and told the world that the long-suffering Chinese people had finally ‘stood up’. After decades of tremendous violence and turmoil, China was going to relaunch itself into the arduous and disorienting task of embracing modernity. This project had begun in the late 19th century, near the end of the thousands-year-long imperial era under the Qing dynasty, and continued at the start of the republican period in the early 20th century. But it was cut short by chaotic warlordism, followed by Japan’s vicious attempted conquest of China and finally by brutal infighting between Communists and Nationalists. It was Mao’s armies’ outmanoeuvring of the forces of his longtime rival, Chiang Kai-Shek, that landed him triumphantly in Tiananmen Square that day in 1949. What set China apart from almost every other people whose lands were subjugated by European imperialism, then thrown into chaos by the turmoil that followed its collapse, is that through all the violence the nation suffered, one ambition remained constant: to restore to China what those who aspired to lead it believed was its civilisational birthright and heritage – a position of pre-eminence in world affairs.

Self-belief of this sort has always been a feature of Chinese thinking. But during Mao’s early years in power, the notion that China could make progress only by adopting imported ideas was still a relatively new and radical concept. As recently as the late 18th century, China was still displaying utter disdain for the ideas and innovations coming from Europe. When George Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China, arrived at the head of a delegation in 1793, the Qing Emperor Qianlong refused his request to establish a permanent embassy in Beijing. Qianlong also spurned Macartney’s gifts, which had been carefully selected to demonstrate British progress and greatness. ‘Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders,’ Qianlong wrote. ‘Therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’ There are few better examples of how pride precedes a fall. Among Macartney’s gifts were several brass cannons capable of firing seven shots a minute – an astounding feat at that time. Britain even proposed to export them to China, but the Qing declined. A half-century later, Britain would return to the country with cannons blazing, humiliating China and its technologically backward armies in the first Opium War.

The country that Mao inherited was poor and economically devastated. Its situation compared to the major powers was arguably worse than it had been when the Europeans made their scramble for China a hundred years earlier. Mao knew this and had no intention of repeating the errors of Qianlong – this was no time for false pride. Beijing aligned itself closely with the USSR, believing that Marxism-Leninism offered the best chance of reordering Chinese society and allowing it rapidly to make up lost ground in economic and geopolitical power. Barely two months after taking power he made a pilgrimage by train to Moscow, spending two months holed up in a dacha awaiting infrequent audiences with Stalin in order to plead his case for assistance on an unheard-of scale. Mao asked for factories of all sorts to be dismantled and shipped off to China; he wanted the Soviets to accept huge numbers of Chinese students into their universities and technical institutes; and he requested that the Soviets send thousands of advisers to China to help oversee the country’s economic take-off.

From the outset, however, Mao had something more ambitious in mind than creating modern industries and generating economic growth. Having ‘liberated’ China at the beginning of the nuclear age, there was one Western gadget he coveted more than any other: the bomb. Though it conspicuously lacked this ultimate symbol of great power status, China fought the US to a standstill on the Korean peninsula and began to project its ambitions into other parts of the world. During this period, Mao publicly affected disdain for weapons of mass destruction, arguing that against the immensity of China they counted for little. ‘The atom bomb is a paper tiger … it looks terrible but in fact it is not … the outcome of war is decided by the people, not … weapons,’ he said in the late 1940s, as Nicola Horsburgh recounts in China and Global Nuclear Order. Privately, though, atomic weapons were an early obsession of his, so much so that his eagerness to acquire an arsenal of his own drove a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and was one of the factors that led to the termination of their alliance in the early 1960s. In 1949, Liu Shaoqi was sent to Moscow, where he sought and was denied access to Soviet nuclear facilities. By 1954, however, Moscow had acquiesced, enabling China rapidly to master the nuclear fuel cycle. The following year, the two countries signed the Sino-Soviet Atomic Co-operation Treaty, which led to the creation of 39 atomic research centres in China. But by 1957, there were signs of trouble in the relationship. A new technical accord signed that year seemed to promise that the USSR would supply China with a blueprint for an atomic weapon, or even a prototype – but in the end no device was provided. Horsburgh says that Moscow had demanded joint military control, a loss of sovereignty that Mao rejected as intolerable.

By the late 1950s, after several years of an unrestrained arms race, Moscow and Washington had begun to take their nuclear competition seriously. The US had installed tactical atomic weapons at bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, and had hinted at the possibility of their use during crises in Indochina in 1954 and over Taiwan in 1955. When Mao confronted Taiwan over the small, Taiwanese-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, risking war with the US, Moscow got spooked by its ally’s seeming recklessness – some in Moscow began asking whether Mao was crazy. Unlike the USSR, China also insisted on supporting wars of national liberation in other parts of the world – a principle that Mao regarded as sacrosanct.

China’s frustration at the Soviets’ foot-dragging over the sharing of atomic weapons technology, combined with Mao’s disapproval of Khrushchev’s posthumous attack on Stalin and his cult of personality in the secret speech of 1956, destroyed any remaining allegiance to the USSR. In Mao’s view, Khrushchev was legitimising challengers to his own rule. The Soviets were denounced as ‘revisionists’, which in this instance meant that they were willing to make accommodations with the US in order to avoid war. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which Beijing read as Soviet capitulation, this had become the mainstream view in China.

In June 1959, Khrushchev abrogated the USSR’s two-year-old treaty with Beijing, declaring that no nuclear weapon prototype would be provided to China after all because of his country’s commitment to the recently negotiated Partial Test Ban Treaty with the US. A year later, Moscow withdrew all of its nearly three thousand technical advisers from China. Until this point, Beijing had stuck closely to Moscow’s line on atomic weapons, endorsing Soviet calls for arms control, even disarmament. Speaking in Geneva in 1954, for example, Mao’s number two, Zhou Enlai, said: ‘The arms race must be halted, universal disarmament be carried out and atomic and hydrogen weapons and weapons of mass destruction be prohibited.’

When Soviet assistance was cut off, and the relationship between the two communist powers became increasingly hostile, China’s position on nuclear weapons changed. Mao’s administration took to arguing that arms control was a scam designed to perpetuate the global hegemony of the two rival superpowers, the US and the USSR. It also began to claim that the spread of nuclear weapons beyond this cartel could have a stabilising influence, and for a time promoted what it called ‘socialist proliferation’. Horsburgh quotes Zhou Enlai: ‘If all countries have nuclear weapons,’ he said in 1961, ‘the possibility of nuclear wars would decrease.’

What all this was really about was situational advantage. China needed the new bombs, and fast, and it needed them to be seen as Chinese bombs. This was a matter of national security, of course, but it was also crucial to the great Chinese civilisational task of reclaiming past glory and overcoming victimisation by foreign powers. As Chen Yi, China’s foreign minister, put it in 1963: ‘A-bombs, missiles … all these are reflective of the technical level of a nation’s industry. China will have to resolve this issue … otherwise it will degenerate into a second or third-class nation.’ On 16 October 1964 China successfully exploded its first atomic weapon.

With this success, Beijing’s priorities shifted again. China wanted to maximise its deterrent capabilities against far more heavily armed nuclear powers, at minimum cost. This meant building small numbers of high-quality weapons of its own and supporting international arms control efforts in case its neighbours should go nuclear too. It embraced non-proliferation again, albeit inconsistently. When Mao died in 1976, China abandoned its support for national liberation struggles and, under Deng Xiaoping, tried to achieve an understanding with the US – the very thing it had denounced Moscow for.

One of Deng’s most famous phrases, often translated as ‘hide your capabilities and bide your time,’ was essentially an instruction to catch up. This meant minimising the expense of geostrategic competition, and the heavy armaments costs associated with it, and focusing instead on modernising China’s backward economy. China stuck with this approach until the early 1990s, though not consistently: in 1979 it launched a war against Vietnam aimed at punishing its former ally for getting too close to the Soviet Union and trying to eclipse Beijing as the regional hegemon in Southeast Asia. In fact, it was China that was taught a lesson by this brief but intense border conflict, namely that its armed forces were bloated and hopelessly ill-equipped. The pressure on China to invest heavily in military restructuring and armaments was relieved during the 1980s by the fast economic growth of the early reform era, during which the People’s Liberation Army was allowed to set up profitable business ventures, and by strategic co-operation with the US against the Soviet Union. As Horsburgh says, no one has ever fully explained how China and the USSR managed to pull back from the brink of nuclear war during the fierce border clashes of 1969. Twenty years after Beijing’s surprise turn to Washington in the 1970s, China’s most serious rival and adversary disappeared from the scene altogether.


In the 1990s, China was roused from military complacency by two dramatic events that gave renewed urgency to the idea of wholesale military modernisation and eventually defined the US as its principal rival and potential adversary. The first of these was the Gulf War in 1991. Beijing saw CNN’s footage of US smart bombs zeroing in on Iraqi targets, destroying tank columns and Saddam Hussein’s strategic emplacements with unprecedented accuracy. Early predictions of how the conflict would unfold, American estimates included, hadn’t adequately taken into account the US’s advantages in remote guidance systems, stealth aircraft and advanced command, communications and detection capabilities. The number of casualties among US and allied troops was an order of magnitude lower than many had forecast. China recognised that its military technology was stuck in the Dark Ages. But sustained, heavy investment aimed at making it competitive with the US didn’t begin until 1996, when Taiwan’s leader, Chen Shui-bian, began to flirt with declaring independence, and Washington looked as though it was about to upgrade its military ties with what China thinks of as a renegade province.

When Beijing warned Taiwan of the dire consequences of its actions by firing short-range ballistic missiles into the narrow strait that separates the two countries, the US responded by deploying two full aircraft carrier battle groups, including the Nimitz, which sailed through the strait. As Roger Cliff writes in China’s Military Power, this made clear ‘the PLA’s complete inability to successfully use force against Taiwan if the United States intervened’. Since then, the People’s Liberation Army’s budget has increased by roughly 11 per cent per year, allowing China to turn what Cliff says was a ‘junkyard army’, much of whose equipment was of Korean War vintage, into an increasingly formidable force. Cliff, a former US Defense Department official and Rand Corporation researcher, shows how this was accomplished: by gradually downsizing the PLA while sharply raising the level of education of its troops, and by building or buying numerous air, sea and space weapons systems, aimed mostly at boosting China’s power in the near seas of the Western Pacific.

In some respects, Cliff’s book has been overtaken by events. He imagines a day when Beijing may attempt to use its new muscle to alter the balance of power in the South China Sea. Since the book was published this has begun to happen: China has built artificial islands in areas of the sea contested by Vietnam and the Philippines, and equipped them for military use with long runways, sophisticated radar systems, naval-grade ports and, according to some reports, mobile missile systems. On 12 July, an international tribunal in The Hague issued a ruling under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in favour of the Philippines, rejecting China’s argument that it possessed ‘historic rights’ to the tiny, mostly submerged land formations in the waterway and stating that neither Chinese-held positions nor those of rival claimants in the disputed Spratly Islands were capable of generating 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones. China refused to participate in the court case and immediately denounced the judgment as ‘illegal’ and irrelevant.

At the heart of Cliff’s book is an assessment of who would win if a war broke out between the US and China in this region. The US has been a guarantor of Taiwan’s security for a long time, and has defence treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines that Washington has been working to strengthen, under what the Obama administration has called a ‘rebalance’ of American strength towards Asia. Beijing has denounced these efforts, claiming they are aimed at containment of China. Cliff assumes, as the European analyst Jonathan Holslag does in China’s Coming War with Asia, that as China’s strength continues to grow, so does the possibility of conflict with the US, the dominant power in the Western Pacific since the Second World War.

Cliff limits himself to two scenarios: a Chinese-American war over Taiwan and a war in the Spratly Islands. As befits his background as a defence analyst, the scenarios Cliff presents are complex and highly detailed; they weigh many variables and include probabilistic calculations of how, for example, the improving accuracy radius of China’s ballistic missiles affects its ability to disable American airbases in places like Guam. A conflict between what are now the world’s two most powerful countries would be hugely destructive, but Cliff concludes that, despite all its recent investment, China would not prevail under either scenario. This is partly because of the Americans’ superior technology, especially its fighter aircraft and naval vessels, but also because of the advantages the US derives from its alliances in the region. Cliff also seems to believe that China concentrated too much on the lessons of the 1990s concerning its technological backwardness and not enough on the importance of organisational and cultural reforms in its armed forces. When it comes to training, or developing specialised units, or getting different corps to mesh together during complex operations (‘jointness’ in military jargon), Cliff concludes that China still lags far behind the US.

Holslag argues, with grim geopolitical realism, that Washington and Beijing can’t avoid seeking to dominate the Western Pacific, home to several of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies. He also suggests that there’s an element of cultural determinism about China’s need to reign supreme in Asia: each new generation of Chinese leaders, he claims, will be compelled to push for this outcome, just as Mao could not bear to play second fiddle to Stalin. The old story about overcoming the humiliations of the past is, in Holslag’s view, little more than a device for channelling public opinion: ‘China has to maximise its power, to become the largest economy in Asia, and to build the most capable military force. That in turn implies that China will end the supremacy of the United States and tower above its neighbours as it did in the times of empire.’

Holslag stops just short of the claim that war is inevitable, setting out a possible alternative outcome in which ‘revisionism would thrive on economic power politics, keeping military force as the feared tool of last resort.’ This is the essence of China’s current economic diplomacy, with its huge infrastructure and finance schemes, such as the awkwardly named One Belt One Road and the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which aim to bind together Asia, Europe and the Indian Ocean:

The economy would be more efficient and thrive largely on domestic demand. That demand would gradually raise up the development of neighbouring countries. China’s new international champions would have tied them to the motherland by means of roads, railways, pipelines and endless flows of visitors. They would control most of the production chain, from the mines to the retail chains, and trade mostly in Chinese currency. Russia’s fate is obvious. Japan’s would be comparable to a depopulating version of the United Kingdom, quietly musing on its great imperial past. Southeast Asia, China’s Italy, would be vibrant and enthralling, yet heavily penetrated by Chinese companies, banks and high-livers. The stretch from Bangladesh to Kazakhstan could well be China’s Northern Africa and Middle East … At the same time, a modus vivendi will have been developed with the United States, which allows China to establish de facto control over the disputed parts of its maritime margins and to turn Taiwan into another autonomous region, like Tibet and Xinjiang.

There is room for other possibilities. China’s present mood, which marries sky-high ambition with impatience, may stem from its leaders’ awareness that the country is not about to take over the world, or even directly challenge the US for leadership, and that the extraordinary run of good fortune that began with Deng’s economic reforms will soon be over. After decades of double-digit performances, China’s economic growth looks to be reverting to the mean. More worryingly still, productivity growth is slowing. The country will soon begin ageing at a rate scarcely matched in history. By 2050, China will have more than 329 million people aged 65 or older, and this will create huge costs in as yet unbuilt social security systems. China will have to cover these while still stuck at a level of per capita wealth far below that of rich Western countries. If it pursues exorbitant military development too exuberantly instead, the interests of national glory will collide with the fortunes of hundreds of millions of poorly cared-for pensioners.