The Perils of Threat Inflation

Monday, June 27th, 2011

When we hear about the military threat posed by China, we need to remember the perils of threat inflation, which William S. Lind discussed a few years ago:

China is, to coin a Rumsfeldism, the threat we want, not the threat we face. By dint of much puffery, China can be made into the devoutly prayed for “peer competitor,” an opponent against whom our “transformed,” hi-tech, video-game future military can employ its toys, or more importantly, justify their acquisition. Our real enemy, the thousand faces of the Fourth Generation, fails to meet that all-important test and is therefore deflated into “rejectionists” and “bad guys.”

In fact, China’s conventional forces are a long way from being able to take the United States on, especially at sea or in the air. The issue is not less equipment — not that China has much of it — but personnel. Chinese ships spend little time at sea, its fighter pilots get few flight hours, and one can hardly speak of a Chinese “navy”: it’s really just a collection of ships. In a naval and air war with the United States, China would have little choice but to go nuclear from the outset, which is what I suspect it would do.

Taiwan, a small island of no strategic importance to the United States, is somehow pushing the US into a strategic rivalry with China:

Taiwan is vastly important to China, because the great threat to China throughout its history has been internal division. If one province, Taiwan, can secure its independence, why cannot other provinces do the same? It is the spectre of internal break-up that forces China to prevent Taiwanese independence at any cost, including war with America.

But America has no corresponding interest. A war with China over Taiwan would be, for the U.S., another “war of choice,” not of strategic necessity. We are currently fighting two other “wars of choice,” and neither is going particularly well.

A strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China points to an obvious parallel, the strategic rivalry between England and Germany before World War I. That parallel should give Washington pause. If the rivalry — completely unnecessary in both cases — leads to war, as it then did, the war will have no victor. Germany and Britain destroyed each other. While Britain finally won, the British Empire died in the mud of Flanders.

A war between China and the United States could easily result in a similar fatal weakening of the U.S. (perhaps after a strategic nuclear exchange), while a defeated Chinese state may dissolve, with China becoming a vast region of stateless, Fourth Generation instability. Is Taiwan worth risking such an outcome? Was Belgian neutrality worth the Somme, Bolshevism and Hitler?

Leave a Reply