China and Vietnam are facing off in a naval Nerf war over the Paracel and Spratly island groups:
There’s a long tradition of this sort of madness among up’n’coming naval powers — and both China and Vietnam have big, powerful navies, both of which are accusing each other of “ramming” their ships as they play this giant game of parking-lot chicken near the island chains.
It’s as if 21st century naval vessels had no better way of attacking an enemy ship than by whipping the galley slaves up to ramming speed, Ben-Hur style. This is the lowest possible setting you can get for offensive military action, one step up from making faces or spraying a hostile ship with a water cannon — which Chinese ships have also done, spraying Vietnamese ships near the Paracel Islands.
And it’s not as if China has no better ways of destroying enemy ships. With more than 200 nuclear warheads, China could wipe out the entire country of Vietnam, never mind its navy, using land-based ICBMs. If the Chinese navy wanted to show its latest capabilities, it could use the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile to obliterate any Vietnamese naval force in the South China Sea without ever showing the flag above water.
And yet the Chinese Navy, this massive, powerful force, is playing bumper-car ramming games and having squirt-gun water fights instead of using its real power.
This is a feature of 21st century war most war gamers are very reluctant to face. They’re more comfortable with the Stalingrad model: all-out, total war, use every shell you’ve got. That model is actually very rare, especially in East Asian war. What we’re seeing in the South China Sea is war dialed down so low it barely registers at all — stylized war, pantomime war.
And the US is actually very lucky that naval war in the 21st century has been dialed down to ramming speed, because if we ever encountered the all-out naval war Stalingrad gamers dream about, America’s aircraft carriers — a mid-twentieth-century weapon and twenty-first-century death-trap — would vanish in a radioactive mist, thanks to another weapon China has but isn’t using, the Dong Feng 21 — a nuclear-armed ballistic missile specifically designed to erase the US carrier fleet.
Naval war has a long tradition of this. “Showing the flag” meant sending a warship or two into disputed waters so that the rival power could literally see your flag waving from the topmast. Shows of force like that are a little easier to modulate than armies; if the neighboring country sees your army massed on its border, it may tend to panic, but naval vessels can make the point without triggering what you might call an overreaction.
Of course naval visits can also be used to provoke an overreaction, or fake one, if that’s what you want. Remember the Maine?
Stalingrad is what happens when you have friggin’ nutcases running your war for you. The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese is what happens when you have a family problem between two factions that think long-term and have superb political discipline.