Document created: 6 December 01
Published Aerospace Power Journal - Winter  2001

Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.


Thinking about China and War

Dr. Jeffrey Record

Editorial Abstract: The current focus on international terrorism does not mean that China has gone away. This thought-provoking piece by Dr. Record not only reminds us that China remains an area of potential future conflict but also uses the perspective of past conflict to paint a picture of what a future war with China might look like. China’s leaders aren’t as naïve as Saddam Hussein in their appreciation of America’s high-tech capabilities.

CHINA'S XENOPHOBIC AND increasingly strident nationalism reinforces the argument that it is destined to become America’s next great strategic rival and, therefore, that the United States should begin to think seriously about the possibility of war with that country.1 The combination of continued autocracy in Beijing, China’s militant assertiveness across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea, and the growing influence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “in the development of China’s national identity and security policy” all point to a determination to displace American power in East Asia and the Western Pacific.2

The new Bush administration is certainly prepared to take a harder line than its predecessor on the noneconomic dimensions of the Sino-American relationship, including Beijing’s myriad human-rights abuses and military bullying of its neighbors. The administration has rejected the illusion of strategic partnership with China, has been explicit on US protection of Taiwan against an attack from the mainland, and is openly reorienting America’s primary strategic focus from Europe to Asia. It is, in short, moving to contain China even while it embraces expanded trade with that country. Indeed, for the Bush administration, trade serves as a means of containment; trade promotes economic democratization, which, in turn—or so it is believed— will undermine the very autocracy that has embraced extreme nationalism as a legitimizing substitute for failed communist ideology. The Bush administration sees eye to eye with its predecessor on the attractiveness of attempting to subvert China politically via trade-assisted economic democratization.

A policy of containing Communist Chinese expansionism is hardly new. It began in 1950, when the Truman administration ordered the interposition of the Seventh Fleet between the mainland and what was then known as Formosa as a means of preventing Mao Ze-dong’s takeover of that island. The administration subsequently fought Chinese forces to a standstill in Korea. Containment continued during the 1960s, when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations escalated US military intervention against the advance of Vietnamese communism, which they believed was a stalking-horse for Chinese imperialism in Southeast Asia. Even during the era of Sino-American tacit strategic alignment against the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s, the United States insisted on a nonviolent resolution of Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland.

But the China that the United States sought to contain during the Cold War was poor and preindustrial and, under Mao Ze-dong, periodically plunged into domestic political upheaval. For Mao, political purification was always more important than wealth creation, and his notions of industrialization were idiotic. Accordingly, the Chinese economy remained a shambles until the late 1980s. Moreover, for most of the Cold War’s last two decades, China’s military posture was defensive and focused northward on the Soviet Union.

Although the emergence of China as a qualified strategic rival is far from inevitable, it is time to think about a future war with China. Beijing’s core political values are hostile to everything America stands for; China is territorially unsatisfied; its military potential is impressive if only slowly mobilizable; and Sino-American flash points are present in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Moreover, history teaches that the relative power and influence the United States enjoys around the world today will inevitably decline at some point. That point may be 50 or even 200 years away, but it will come—because no great power remains so forever.

The history of both China and the international political system as a whole also suggests that an emergent Chinese hegemon is unlikely to be a cooperative state willing to accept a continued American-dominated international order.3 For most of its long history, the Middle Kingdom was the dominant power in its world; only recently, beginning with the Opium Wars of the midnineteenth century, did China fall victim to over a century of Western and, later, Japanese intrusion and humiliation. China, notes Henry Kissinger, “has rarely had the experience of dealing with other societies on the basis of equality.”4 Even unburdened of its profound sense of victimization by the West, China as a rising power is likely to insist on an international order that reflects its power growth relative to that of the United States.

Precautionary thinking about a war with China must address at least four issues: the economic, political, military, and foreign-policy ingredients of China as a qualified strategic rival; the likely causes of a Sino-American war; the strengths and weaknesses each side would bring to the conflict; and the likely scope of combat. Thinking about a war with China also profits from an examination of the Korean War—the one and only Sino-American war to date and a marathon of mutual incomprehension and miscalculation.

China as the Next Strategic Rival

Postulation of China as the next functional equivalent of the Soviet Union rests on several necessarily speculative assumptions. The first is that China will continue to sustain high growth rates in gross national product. China’s economic growth in the late 1980s and 1990s was impressive, to be sure, although it has slowed over the past several years. But the economic boom started from a very low base and has been jarringly uneven between the coastal provinces and the still-backward interior.5 Much of China’s industrial production remains economically worthless, state-owned goods. Corruption is rampant throughout the economy, and levels of unemployment and underemployment are staggering and potentially destabilizing.6 Even if China’s official statistics were reliable, no basis exists for a simple extrapolation of past growth rates into the future.

Nonetheless, even the most conservatively estimated growth rates still significantly surpass those of the United States and reaffirm the strategic wisdom of Deng Xiaoping’s momentous decision to unleash capitalism in China. Unlike his politically dreamy and romantic predecessor, the realist Deng understood that security could not be had without power and that the foundation of national power was wealth creation. Economic success remains a prerequisite for China’s military competitiveness. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War because it became a one-dimensional superpower whose declining economic performance could not sustain its imperial ambitions.

A second assumption is continued autocracy in Beijing. During the past two decades, dictatorial rule has taken a beating around the world, including East Asia, and both the history of Europe and recent political change in Taiwan and South Korea suggest that economic democratization can indeed exert a powerful and ultimately irresistible pressure for political democratization. Thus, prospects for a democratic China cannot be dismissed, and the evidence suggests that democracies are much less warlike toward one another than are autocracies to each other and to democracies. (This certainly does not mean a peaceful transition; more often than not, the road from autocracy to democracy is a violent one because autocrats are not disposed to relinquishing power without a fight.)

Yet, even if Adam Smith and James Madison beat Lenin in China, the question remains whether a democratic China would be less fervently nationalist. The present regime in Beijing has both excited and curbed the expression of popular nationalist passions: witness the encouragement of street demonstrations after the accidental US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the subsequent suppression of such demonstrations following the Chinese ramming of a US electronic-surveillance aircraft. Could not a democratic regime become more a prisoner of nationalist passions than a dictatorial one?

A third assumption is that China remains unified. Its long history has been one of cyclical alternation between effective central political control and degeneration into warlordism.7 Though ethnically homogeneous (except along its northern and western peripheries), China has always been difficult to govern, even in the absence of significant social and economic change. Post-Marxist China, however, has invited enormous change; never before has any regime tried to move so many people so quickly into economic modernity, and it is far from certain that Beijing’s rulers can pull it off without revolutionary upheaval, which was the norm for China in the twentieth century. The ongoing crackdown on the seemingly harmless Falun Gong spiritual movement underscores the regime’s insecurity and its preoccupation with preserving its own legitimacy, which in the post-Marxist period has rested heavily on economic progress as well as nationalism. Richard Betts and Thomas Christensen properly caution that “before one laments the rise of Chinese power, one should consider an even more uncertain alternative: Chinese weakness and collapse. Nothing ordains that China’s march to great power status cannot be derailed.”8

A fourth assumption is that China has imperial ambitions whose realization would compromise fundamental American security interests. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has no pretensions to a global imperium. Its ambitions are neither global nor ideological but national and regional in scope, including the assertion of sovereignty over Taiwan and the South China Sea. The real issue is whether China is prepared to act on those ambitions in a way that would elicit a violent US response. The United States could hardly object to a peaceful incorporation of Taiwan on terms satisfactory to both the Chinese and Taiwanese, even though it would significantly increase China’s economic and latent military power. American interest lies in the manner—not the fact—of China’s reunification. As for the South China Sea, China has seized small bits of disputed rock there, but it has not challenged international freedom of navigation through the sea.

Beyond Taiwan and the South China Sea are those territories over which Imperial China held sway at one time or another. They include much of Central Asia and the Russian Far East (RFE) as well as northern and central Vietnam (which China ruled for a millennium). Will China seek to recover these “lost” territories, and will it be prepared to use force to do so? Or has it come to understand, as do most modern industrial and postindustrial states, that extent of territory per se is not a key ingredient of modern national power? The scope of China’s ultimate territorial and other ambitions in Asia is simply not evident at this juncture in history—probably not even to China itself.

US security interests in East Asia are also subject to change. Indeed, they could evolve over the coming decade to the point where one could come to regard the present robust, forward American military presence as unnecessary. The bottom-line justifications for that presence today are deterrence of North Korean aggression against South Korea, any attack on Japan, and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Yet, these justifications would be hard to sustain in the event of Korean reunification, a Sino-Japanese rapprochement, or Taiwan’s willing return to governance by mainland China. Even in the absence of such events, there remains the possible emergence of irresistible domestic political pressure for US military retrenchment overseas. The American people have never lusted for the costly burdens of being a great power.

War Starters

The most obvious war starter would be a mainland assault on Taiwan in the form of either an overt military invasion or an attempt to wreck Taiwan’s economy by blockade and other acts of intimidation of the kind Beijing employed in 1996 to influence Taiwan’s first genuine presidential election. A forcible take-over of a democratic and economically vibrant Taiwan would be strategically unacceptable to the United States. Another casus belli would be Chinese attempts to challenge freedom of navigation in the South China Sea (or anywhere else in the western Pacific). Freedom of navigation is a bedrock principle of American statecraft, and through the South China Sea move oil and other commerce critical to the economies of Japan and other US allies and friends.

Chinese military action against Asian mainland states not allied with the United States probably would not occasion a direct, armed US response. Sino-Russian, -Indian, and -Vietnamese war scenarios of the kind that transpired in 1962, 1969, and 1979, respectively, would not directly engage the vital interests of the United States—unless they spilled over into attacks on US forces and allies. Why would the United States intervene in such conflicts? To be sure, it has a general interest in peace and stability on the Asian mainland and a specific interest in deterring nuclear war between other states. But would it go to war to prevent a nuclear exchange between, say, Russia and China? It was certainly not prepared to do so to deter an Indo-Pakistani exchange during the South Asian nuclear-war scare of 1999.

What if China began absorbing the RFE? This prospect is certainly plausible. Moscow’s control over the RFE has steadily weakened since the Soviet Union’s demise; the RFE’s economy is fast becoming a subsidiary of China’s; and Chinese demographic infiltration of the RFE could eventually raise the issue of the RFE’s self-determination in China’s favor.

Yet, on what basis would the United States intervene against even an overt Chinese invasion of the RFE, and could it intervene effectively? To be sure, China’s assumption of control over the RFE’s littoral and Siberia’s vast, if hard to extract, resources would call for a fundamental reassessment of Chinese intentions and capabilities in Asia—perhaps leading to the creation of new security alliances in South and Southeast Asia and major increases in defense expenditure. But it is difficult to imagine an American war on behalf of Russian attempts to hold on to nineteenth-century czarist territorial gains in the Far East. But for its long-range nuclear missiles, one could consider Russia finished as a great power; in any event, it is highly doubtful that US airpower alone could overturn a Chinese invasion of the RFE. During the Cold War, the United States and its Pacific allies lived with a hostile East Asian mainland littoral stretching from the Bering Sea to the South China Sea. Why should the United States fear Chinese nuclear missiles in the RFE more than it did Soviet missiles there?

A Sino-Indian war, which for reasons of geography would be waged largely in the air (and potentially in space) and perhaps at sea, also would not engage US war-fighting interests. The same may be said of Chinese aggression against Vietnam, which has recurred throughout Vietnam’s history—most recently in 1979.

Obviously, a Chinese attack on Japan (or any other US treaty ally) would be an automatic war starter. Such an attack could be preventive, aimed at thwarting the resurrection of a militarist Japan. China is hardly the only victim of past Japanese aggression that is upset by a still unalterably racist Japan whose leaders and citizen inhabitants are in an increasingly disturbing state of denial of their nation’s behavior in Asia from 1895 to 1945. In a Sino-American crisis, Japan might also invite attack, or at least armed intimidation, because of the access it provides US military power in Northeast Asia. Attempted coalition busting is a must for most American adversaries because the United States relies heavily on coalitions for political legitimacy and logistical access. Peeling off Japan from the United States in the middle of a Sino-American military confrontation in Asia would be an enormous coup for Beijing.

One should not forget that the emergence of Japan as a great power in the first half of the twentieth century came largely at China’s expense: first, the extraction of economic concessions, then the conversion of Manchuria into a Japanese puppet state, and finally the invasion and brutal occupation of much of China proper. Although China has only minor territorial disputes with Japan, the emergence of China as a great power will inevitably come in part at Japan’s expense in terms of its economic and political clout in Asia. This will be especially the case if Japan’s economic and demographic stagnation continues.

Comparative Advantages
and Disadvantages

Primary Sino-American war starters seem to be Chinese aggression against Taiwan and in the South China Sea. Yet, a US defense of Taiwan and of freedom of navigation in the western Pacific would play greatly to America’s traditional military strengths while at the same time exploit long-standing Chinese weaknesses.

Historically, China’s sole strategically impressive war-fighting suit has been the quantity of its ground forces, which counts for little in the pursuit of offshore imperial ambitions. Asserting and maintaining dominance over Taiwan and the South China Sea require mastery of air and naval power—arenas in which the United States is peerless and likely to remain so for decades (assuming no retreat to isolationism plus a determination to maintain both conventional military supremacy and a forward military presence in East Asia—neither to be taken for granted). Chinese naval and air forces are rudimentary by US standards, but perhaps an even greater deficiency is the absence of any modern combat experience. China has not fought a major war since Korea (where US airpower pummeled the PLA), whereas the United States has had a virtual cornucopia of such experience since the end of the Cold War. Practice may not make perfect, but it is surely better than sitting on the military bench for almost half a century. (China’s brief and highly restricted invasion of Vietnam in 1979 pitted masses of poorly armed and trained Chinese troops against better-equipped North Vietnamese combat veterans.)

Crucial to sound thinking about war with China is recognition that to shift America’s primary strategic focus from Europe to Asia is to shift from a predominantly ground-air to a predominantly air-sea theater of operations. Why? Because of the asymmetrical distributions of wealth and power between the two regions. Most of Asia’s wealth and power still lies in offshore and peninsular states, whereas in Europe it is concentrated ashore. Thus, maintaining a balance of power in Europe (i.e., preventing Europe’s domination by a hostile power) mandated a willingness and capacity to wage ground warfare deeply inland. In contrast, maintaining an Asian balance of power requires performing the simpler task of keeping offshore and peninsular Asia outside a continental hegemon’s grasp.9 Large land-warfare operations in the Asian interior are not just unnecessary; they are to be avoided at all costs because they would pit US weaknesses against a continental hegemon’s strengths. Even Gen Douglas MacArthur, who in 1951 wanted to expand the Korean War into an air and sea assault on China, declared that “it would be a master folly to contemplate the use of United States ground troops in China,” adding that “I can conceive of no strategic or tactical position where I would put in . . . units of American ground troops in continental China.”10

In addition to naval and air inferiority, China would approach war with the United States with significant strategic disadvantages. Regionwide suspicion of China’s imperial ambitions has deprived Beijing of significant allies and even friends in East Asia, whereas the United States is rich in both. India remains a strategic competitor, and Chinese behavior in the South China Sea has alienated most of Southeast Asia. The post–Cold War rapprochement between China and Russia has not eliminated centuries-old national and racial animosities between the two countries, animosities that can be heightened only by the growth of Chinese economic influence and demographic “aggression” in the RFE. In any event, Russian military power has virtually evaporated in Asia. A robust, land-based strategic nuclear deterrent is the only real asset that Moscow could make available to China in a Sino-American war, but it staggers the mind to imagine that Russia would invite its own destruction on behalf of promoting Chinese interests in East Asia.

Finally, a war with the United States could be economically and even politically catastrophic for the communist rulers in Beijing. Unlike the defunct Soviet Union, China has an enormous stake in the international capitalist trading order. Indeed, China’s whopping annual trade surpluses with the United States have been indispensable to sustaining China’s remarkable economic growth and have provided large amounts of hard currency with which to finance its selective military modernization. A war with the United States would destroy Sino-American commerce (as well as China’s lucrative trade with and investment from Taiwan). China’s attractiveness as a magnet for foreign capital would cease. The consequent effects of collapsed growth would not be just economic. Because the post-Marxist regime in Beijing has staked so much of its legitimacy on its ability to deliver higher living standards, a war-caused economic depression could topple the government itself.

Over time, of course, China’s stake in the international trading order could diminish if China shifted its primary focus from expanding its export markets to developing internal markets. The historic Middle Kingdom was more or less economically self-sufficient, and a future China bent on displacing an American-dominated international political and economic system would have a powerful interest in reducing its dependence on that system. Indeed, it is critical to distinguish between economic growth as an end in itself and economic growth as a means to a political end. Clearly, China has opted in the near term and midterm for the primacy of economic growth and its attendant dependency on the American- dominated international economic order. But to what end? For its own sake? Or for the purpose of putting China in a position some decades hence to assert political and military primacy in Asia?

A recent RAND Corporation assessment of these questions concludes that a policy of assertiveness is likely for two reasons: “First, the unique and long-standing Chinese experience of geopolitical primacy and the association of that primacy with good order, civilization, virtue, and justice, may make the pursuit of geopolitical centrality through assertive behavior again attractive.” Second, “an assertive China is likely to appear over the long haul . . . precisely because the United States, the established hegemon, will—if the historical record pertaining to previous declining hegemons holds—prepare to arrest its own gradual loss of relative power and influence.”11 Both history and ideology inform the Chinese that the United States cannot avoid decline, and many people involved in managing Chinese security believe that the United States is already in military decline—a recipe for miscalculation if there ever was one.12

Hope that China’s participation in a globalizing economy will alter its approach to security issues may be misplaced. David Lampton believes that while “it is easy to assume that globalization will slowly erode Beijing’s dedication to its narrow national interest and practice of realpolitik” and while “there is plenty of evidence of increasing Chinese cooperation and conformity with international norms, there is little evidence that considerations of national interest and realpolitik figure any less prominently in Chinese thinking than they always have.”13

To be sure, by any rational calculation of interest, China—now and for the foreseeable future—would be foolish to risk war with the United States over the future of Taiwan and the South China Sea. Yet, states are motivated by fear and honor as well as by calculations of interest, and China’s hypernationalism could easily become an enemy of strategic prudence. The Chinese are exceptionally touchy about righting real and imagined wrongs visited upon them by Western, Japanese, and Russo-Soviet imperialism during the century stretching from the outbreak of the first Opium War to the consolidation of the Chinese Communist revolution. Betts and Christensen believe “there is little reason to assume that sober economic interest will necessarily override national honor in a crisis.”14 Were a crisis to occur, Beijing’s leaders could lose control of popular nationalist passions and find themselves facing the stark choice of making strategically reckless decisions or risking their own domestic political survival.15

Moreover, China would bring to war some important advantages over the United States that might encourage a decision for war in a Sino-American crisis. First and foremost of them, especially in a fight over Taiwan, would be a greater strength of interest and, therefore, a willingness to sacrifice. The future of Taiwan can never be as important to the United States as it is to China, and China could be expected—as was the case in Korea, where it felt directly threatened by Mac-Arthur’s advance to the Yalu River—to display a much higher tolerance of casualties than would the United States. The analogy most relevant here is the Vietnam War, in which superior American firepower and technology was defeated by an enemy whose greater strength of will to win manifested itself in a remarkable strategic patience and willingness to accept horrendous manpower losses.

The Chinese are not afraid to threaten or use force, even in circumstances in which the objective military balance is weighted heavily against them, as it was in Korea in 1950 and the Taiwan Strait in 1996. Indeed, the Chinese appear to believe that military weakness requires a superior will to use force. John Garver argues that “Chinese strategic thinking has often concluded that periods of weakness required forceful policies precisely because the enemy may be tempted to exploit China’s vulnerability.” Examples of this inverse relationship between bellicosity and strength in Chinese foreign policy include “the decision for war with the United States in October 1950; the decision to launch an intense political struggle against Khrushchev in 1960 just as China’s economy was collapsing; the 1962 decision for war with India when China was experiencing mass famine and its alliance with Moscow had collapsed; and the 1969 decision for military confrontation with the Soviets on the Ussuri River as the PLA was preoccupied with the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.”16

Nor do the Chinese confuse military success with casualty minimization. China has an excessive population and a long history of subordinating individual human lives to the imperatives of statecraft. Communist China has used force in Korea and Tibet; against islands held by the Nationalist Chinese off the mainland coast; and against India, Vietnam, and Soviet forces along the Ussuri River. China also accepts war as a continuation of politics rather than as a substitute for politics, and force as an indispensable companion to diplomacy with unfriendly states.

China’s geographic proximity to Taiwan and the South China Sea also works to its advantage. Chinese lines of communication are short compared to those separating East Asia from the United States. Even though Chinese naval and air forces would be no match for their American counterparts for the foreseeable future, China has an expanding missile force capable of striking Taiwan and targets in the South China Sea directly from mainland launch positions. Bringing Taiwan under sustained missile strikes could wreck Taiwan’s economy, to say nothing of complicating the island’s defense.

A third advantage is the high probability that the Chinese would avoid challenging American military power on its own terms. The Chinese have learned from the Gulf War that trying to beat the Americans at their own game is a recipe for disaster. The Chinese almost certainly would pursue an asymmetric war against the United States involving attempted preemption of US military access to the region; disruption of US sea and air lines of communication; and attacks on US command, control, and communications, possibly including satellites. The Jominian American military would be confronted with the deceptive warfare of Sun Tzu. The Chinese recognize their technological—including informational—inferiority, but they also represent a military tradition, as Gerald Segal points out, that places an “unusual emphasis” on “cunning stratagems” and “minimizing brute force.”17 They also have reoriented their strategic focus from continental defense to preparation for “local, limited war under high-tech conditions” (i.e., precisely the American threat they perceive).18

Limited War by Default?

Assuming the absence of mindless escalation to a general nuclear exchange, a war between China and the United States would be constrained by limited military capacity and political objectives. For openers, neither China nor the United States is capable of invading and subjugating the other, and even if the United States had the ability to do so, avoidance of a land war on the Asian mainland has long been an injunction of American strategy. The objectives of a Sino-American war over Taiwan or freedom of navigation in the South China Sea would be limited—just as they were in the Sino-American war in Korea. And since the outcome in either case would be decided by naval and air forces, with regular ground forces relegated to a distinctly secondary role, a war over Taiwan or the South China Sea would also be limited in terms of the type of force employed. This was not the case in the Korean War, in which ground combat dominated. (To be sure, the US position on the ground would have been untenable without air dominance.)

During the Korean War, however, the United States refrained from attacking targets in China. (The Truman administration was feverishly rearming the United States and did not wish to escalate a war in Asia at a time when Europe remained defenseless against a possible Soviet invasion. Thus, it rejected MacArthur’s call for what amounted to a limited war against China itself in place of the limited war being waged against Chinese forces in Korea.) Could an effective defense of Taiwan or freedom of navigation be mounted without attacks on mainland targets? Obviously, Chinese naval and air units approaching Taiwan or operating in the South China Sea could be attacked separately. But what about their operating bases on the mainland? And what about missile launch sites, especially in the absence of effective Taiwanese theater missile defenses? In circumstances of air and missile attacks on Taiwan, military and political pressures for counterattacks against associated targets on the mainland would likely prove irresistible. But such counterattacks, in turn, would invite Chinese escalation against US bases in the western Pacific and perhaps even terrorist assaults on population targets in the United States itself. How would an American president respond to a Chinese-suspected-but-not-provable biological or chemical attack on an American city?

The Last Sino-American War

China and the United States last warred in Korea from 1950 to 1953, and although each country’s knowledge of the other has greatly expanded since then, cultural and historical barriers to effective communication remain formidable enough to provide grist for war via miscalculation. Henry Kissinger’s depiction of the two countries’ differing approaches to policy bears quoting at length:

China’s approach to policy is skeptical and prudent, America’s optimistic and missionary. China’s sense of time beats to a different rhythm from America’s. When an American is asked to date a historical event, he refers to a specific day on the calendar; when a Chinese describes an event, he places it within a dynasty. And of the fourteen imperial dynasties, ten have lasted longer than the entire history of the United States.

Americans think in terms of concrete solutions to specific problems. The Chinese think in terms of stages in a process that has no precise culmination. Americans believe that international disputes result either from misunderstandings or ill will; the remedy for the former is persuasion—occasionally quite insistent—and, for the latter, defeat or destruction for the evildoer. The Chinese approach is impersonal, patient, and aloof; the Middle Kingdom has a horror of appearing to be a supplicant. Where Washington looks to good faith and good will as the lubricant of international relations, Beijing assumes that statesmen have done their homework and will understand subtle indirections; insistence is therefore treated as a sign of weakness, and good personal relations are not themselves considered a lubricant of serious dialogue. To Americans, Chinese leaders seem polite but aloof and condescending. To the Chinese, Americans appear erratic and somewhat frivolous.19

The Korean War stands as a case study in miscalculation by both Washington and Beijing, notwithstanding repeated attempts by both sides to signal intentions to each other. The United States grossly underestimated China’s willingness and ability to defend its strategic interests in Korea; indeed, the Truman administration had difficulty accepting the very presence of such interests. Max Has-tings observes that because the “United States was convinced that its policies . . . presented no threat to any legitimate Chinese interest[,] Washington therefore persuaded itself that Peking would reach the same conclusion.”20 As MacArthur’s forces crossed the 38th parallel and advanced toward the Yalu, the administration believed it sufficient simply to declare that it had no designs on Chinese territory; it apparently never occurred to President Truman or Secretary of State Dean Acheson that Beijing might regard the establishment of a reunified, anticommunist Korea adjacent to China’s industrial heartland as a strategic threat. (After all, had not the Japa-nese used Korea as a jumping-off point for their conquest of Manchuria?) This lack of imagination contributed in turn to the administration’s virtual deafness to Beijing’s numerous warnings that it was prepared to enter the war rather than accept an American client state along the Yalu. Even when first contact was made with Chinese forces, the administration refused to believe that it represented anything more than political posturing, a token intervention.21

The administration’s incomprehension of China’s motives—specifically, its failure to grasp that country’s strength of interest in Korea—was attended by disdain for China’s military capacity. MacArthur and the rest of the American military had nothing but contempt for Chinese fighting power; indeed, MacArthur assured Truman that he would make short work of the Chinese if they tried to intervene. At his meeting with Truman on Wake Island, he said there was “very little” chance of Chinese intervention. “They have no air force. Now that we have bases for our Air Force in Korea, if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang, there would be the greatest slaughter.”22 From an American perspective, an army of simple peasants armed with bolt-action rifles and lacking air cover was no match for US forces, and if this fact was self-evident to the Americans, then obviously it would also be to the Chinese. MacArthur’s pet corps commander, Gen Edward Almond, exhorted his Yalu-bound troops, “Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you.”23 There was no appreciation of the strengths of the PLA—its superb discipline, tenacity, and capacity to endure hardship—or the degree to which terrain in northern Korea could be exploited by guerrilla tactics at the expense of a conventional, roadbound army.

Yet, if the Americans miscalculated in Korea, so did the Chinese leadership. Mao Zedong not only believed that Chinese intervention was imperative, he also believed that the PLA could sweep the Americans off the peninsula—a conviction strengthened after the PLA routed the Americans along the Yalu.24 If the Americans placed excessive faith in material superiority, Mao believed that human factors—superior will, discipline, and fighting skills—and, above all, a superior cause could defeat firepower-rich US forces. He regarded US troops as roadbound, creature- comforted softies who were fighting for the evil cause of imperialism—and, therefore, were incapable of mustering the capacity for sacrifice characteristic of seasoned PLA forces.25

The PLA’s actual performance against US forces was impressive, especially the massive surprise assault in late November 1950, which inflicted upon MacArthur the longest retreat in American military history. In this and in subsequent operations, the PLA displayed a mastery of march discipline, night-infiltration tactics, concealment, and camouflage that partially offset the US advantage in firepower. PLA commanders also displayed an insensitivity to casualties relative to that of their American counterparts. Yet, the PLA’s initial success along the Yalu owed much to MacArthur’s own recklessness and the Truman administration’s inability to control its vain Far Eastern commander. Moreover, US firepower, while unable to crush the Chinese, proved more than adequate to block any chance of a Chinese expulsion of US forces from Korea (only MacArthur was panicked into believing that US forces were headed for an Asian Dunkirk). By the spring of 1951, the combination of ceaseless aerial pounding of lengthy Chinese supply lines and the savage application of firepower against massed frontline Chinese forces had severely restricted the PLA’s ability to sustain offensive operations over both space and time. Unfortunately for many PLA soldiers, the Chinese commander in Korea recognized this unpleasant fact well before Mao, who continued to believe that will alone was the key to victory and ordered yet additional—and doomed—offensives aimed at sweeping the Eighth Army into the sea. US troops, especially with the arrival of Gen Matthew Ridgway as Eighth Army commander, also fought with a degree of skill and determination that belied Mao’s preintervention assumptions about the Americans’ fighting qualities.

Because the Korean War was fought to a military stalemate, neither side could claim a decisive victory. The United States restored South Korea’s territorial integrity but failed to reunite the Korean peninsula under an anticommunist government. Likewise, China saved North Korea but failed to reunite the peninsula under communist auspices. But China, by far the weaker side, was nonetheless the relative winner of the conflict. That the Chinese David had even stalemated the American Goliath greatly elevated Chinese prestige throughout Asia and emboldened communist revolutionary movements everywhere. The war established China as a tough risk-taker and a force henceforth to be reckoned with, quite a contrast to China’s prewar image as an object of contempt and a soft punching bag for the imperial powers. There would be no more talk of Chinese laundrymen.

China’s intervention and military perfor-mance in Korea also exerted a chilling effect on subsequent US military intervention in the Vietnam War. For fear of provoking a repetition of Chinese intervention, the Johnson administration limited the US war aim to the preservation of a noncommunist South Vietnam and placed significant restrictions on air operations against North Vietnam. As Premier Chou En-lai noted to President Nixon in 1972, “America [was] more careful about China in the Vietnam War than it had been in Korea.”26

The idiosyncrasies of the Korean War tell us nothing about how a future Sino-American war would come about and play out. But as distant as that war is, it remains an object lesson in cultural incomprehension and consequent political and military miscalculation. And while thinking about war with China is hardly predictive—China’s emergence as America’s next qualified strategic rival is not inevitable—ignoring the possibility of war would be a professional dereliction of duty.


1. See, for example, Steven W. Mosher, Hegemon: China’s Plan to Dominate Asia and the World (San Francisco,: Encounter Books, 2001); Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict with China (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997); and Robert Kagan, “What China Knows That We Don’t,” The Weekly Standard, 20 January 1997. For a more benign view of an emergent China’s implications for US security, see Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1997); Gerald Segal, “Does China Matter?” Foreign Affairs, September/October 1999, 24–36; and Nicholas Berry, “China Is Not an Imperialist Power,” Strategic Review, Winter 2001, 4–10.

2. Nan Li, From Revolutionary Internationalism to Conservative Nationalism: The Chinese Military’s Discourse on National Security and Identity in the Post-Mao Era (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute for Peace, 2001), 12. See also Koro Bessho, Identities and Security in East Asia, Adelphi Paper 325 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1999), 27–37.

3. See Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2000), especially pages 151–241.

4. Henry Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 139.

5. In 1997 gross domestic product per capita (in yuan) ranged from 25,750 in Shanghai Province to 2,215 in Guizhou Province. See Peter T. Y. Cheung and James T. H. Tang, “The External Relations of China’s Provinces,” in The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform, 1978–2000, ed. David M. Lampton (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001), 95.

6. See Bruce Gilley, “People’s Republic of Cheats,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 21 June 2001, 59–60.

7. The “Chinese state has been united as a single entity under Chinese rule for only approximately one-half of the period since the end of the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D. During the other half of this period, China has been embroiled in domestic conflict, divided between Chinese and non-Chinese regimes, or entirely ruled by non-Han Chinese invaders.” Swaine and Tellis, 13.

8. Richard K. Betts and Thomas J. Christensen, “China: Getting the Questions Right,” The National Interest, Winter 2000/2001, 29.

9. Imperial Japan’s conquest of Manchuria and of coastal China proper did not pose a direct threat to core US security interests in Asia. That threat emerged only when Japan expanded its aggressive focus to offshore and peninsular Asia.

10. Senate, Testimony of General Douglas MacArthur before the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees of the United States Senate, 82d Cong., 1st sess., 103, 108 (3–5 May 1951; reprint, Pat-erson, N.J.: Hour-Glass Publishers, 1966).

11. Swaine and Tellis, 231, 233.

12. See Michael Pillsbury, China Debates the Future Security Environment (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2000), 63–105.

13. David M. Lampton, “China’s Foreign and National Security Policy-Making Process: Is It Changing and Does it matter?” in Lampton, 25.

14. Betts and Christensen, 22.

15. See James Miles, “Chinese Nationalism, U.S. Policy and Asian Security,” Survival, Winter 2000–2001, 51–57; and Joseph Fewsmith and Stanley Rosen, “The Domestic Context of Chinese Foreign Policy: Does ‘Public Opinion’ Matter?” in Lampton, 151–87.

16. John W. Garver, Face Off: China, the United States, and Taiwan’s Democratization (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 62–63. 

17. Gerald Segal, Defending China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 40.

18. See Paul H. B. Godwin, “The PLA Faces the Twenty-First Century: Reflections on Technology, Doctrine, Strategy, and Operations,” in China’s Military Faces the Future, ed. James R. Lilley and David L. Shambaugh (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1999), 39–63.

19. Kissinger, 137–38.

20. Max Hastings, The Korean War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 135.

21. Assessments of Chinese behavior and American miscalculations in the fall of 1950 appear in Allen S. Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War (New York: Macmillan, 1960); Chien Jian, China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); Hao Yufan and Zhai Zhihai, “China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited,” The China Quarterly, March 1990, 94–115; Thomas J. Christensen, “Threats, Assurances, and the Last Chance for Peace: The Lessons of Mao’s Korean War Telegrams,” International Security, Summer 1992, 122–54; Michael H. Hunt, “Beijing and the Korean Crisis, June 1950–June 1951,” Political Science Quarterly, Fall 1992, 453–78; H. A. DeWeerd, “Strategic Surprise in the Korean War,” Orbis, Fall 1962, 435–52; David S. McLellan, “Dean Acheson and the Korean War,” Political Science Quarterly, March 1968, 16–39; Eliot A. Cohen, “ ‘Only Half the Battle’: American Intelligence and the Chinese Intervention in Korea, 1950,” Intelligence and National Security, January 1990, 129–49; Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 140–234; and John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Clarendon Press, 1997), 54–84.

22. Quoted in Clay Blair, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953 (New York: Times Books, 1988), 348.

23. Quoted in Russell Spurr, Enter the Dragon: China’s Undeclared War against the U.S. in Korea, 1950–51 (New York: Newmarket Press, 1988), 260.

24. Ibid., 239.

25. For the best work on Mao’s excessive confidence in the PLA and incomprehension of the fighting power of American forces in Korea, see Shu Guang Zhang, Mao’s Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950–1953 (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1995). See also Memoirs of a Chinese Marshal: The Autobiographical Notes of Peng Dehuai (1898–1974), trans. Zheng Longpu, ed. Sara Grimes (English text) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984); Bin Yu, “What China Learned from Its ‘Forgotten War’ in Korea,” Strategic Review, Summer 1998, 4–16; and Xiaoming Zhang, “China and the Air War in Korea, 1950–1953,” Journal of Military History, April 1998, 335–70.

26. Quoted in James Mann, About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 45.


Dr. Jeffrey Record (BA, Occidental College; MA, PhD, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies) is professor of strategy and international security at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and senior research fellow at the Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia. He previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee; legislative assistant to Sen. Sam Nunn, Sen. Bob Krueger, and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen; senior fellow at BDM International, Hudson Institute, and Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis; advisor to Sen. William Cohen and Sen. Gary Hart; research associate and Rockefeller Younger Scholar at the Brookings Institution; and assistant province advisor in the Republic of Vietnam. Dr. Record is the author of The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998) and Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from Korea to Kosovo (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, forthcoming).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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