Through a combination of paranoia and incompetence, China unleashed a deadly, paralyzing pandemic on the world, and it’s making the most of it.
As the coronavirus outbreak began to suffocate Western economies, Beijing launched a soft-power offensive. China quickly began exporting protective medical equipment, and, though these often defective supplies came with many political strings attached, there was no shortage of takers. The Chinese Communist Party has leveraged its influence over international institutions to stifle formal criticism of its botched response to the virus, and it has committed to a full-court press propaganda campaign claiming the United States is responsible for the world’s dire circumstances.
But Beijing’s offensives are not diplomatic alone. The People’s Republic has used the cover of this outbreak to conduct provocative military actions in places such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Chinese ships have sunk and harassed Malaysian and Vietnamese vessels in recent weeks, raising the regional temperature and compelling the United States to accelerate the tempo of operations in the region.
For years, American policymakers focused on deterring near-peer competitors have seen China as tomorrow’s problem. As a rising power and with few indications that it was actively seeking to overturn the U.S.-led post-War order, China could be reckoned with at a later date. It’s been reckless revisionist powers such as Russia and Iran that have captured our focus. It is ironic that it was China’s insularity and risk aversion that contributed to this global crisis, hastening the need for a comprehensive strategy to deter Chinese aggression.
But the necessity of that mission has compelled American strategic planners to confront a terrible realization. In the event of hostilities between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, American victory is by no means assured. In a May 12 review of former Senate Armed Services Committee Director Christian Brose’s new book, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare, columnist David Ignatius outlines the nightmare scenario. When gaming out the prospect of a conventional conflict with China, the United States is defeated every time.
“Our spy and communications satellites would immediately be disabled,” Ignatius writes, “our forward bases in Guam and Japan would be ‘inundated’ by precise missiles; our aircraft carriers would have to sail away from China to escape attack; our F-35 fighter jets couldn’t reach their targets because the refueling tankers they need would be shot down.”
China would quickly deny access to its region and degrade the capacity of the United States and its allies to respond conventionally. American war-planners would quickly conclude that the United States could only continue to prosecute this conflict at the risk of unacceptably high costs. In sum, we lose.
For students of Cold War history, this is a familiar conundrum. It was one the United States confronted in the mid-1970s.
By the end of Gerald Ford’s administration, America’s cold warriors had become consumed with the notion of self-deterrence. An influential 1977 article published in COMMENTARY by the historian Richard Pipes captured the fears consuming policymakers: The Soviets believed, with good reason, that they could win a nuclear war.
Pipes’s thinking, which was later confirmed by a study conducted by the Pentagon’s director of the Nuclear Targeting Review, Leon Sloss, postulated that a limited Soviet ICBM strike on America’s ballistic-missile delivery systems would effectively paralyze the country. Though America’s second-strike capabilities remained intact, they would be insufficient to neutralize Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. What’s more, a retaliatory response would leave open the possibility that the Soviets could counter with a larger strike against U.S. conventional forces or even its “value” targets such as highly populated cities, which would compel the Western alliance to sue for peace. In one swift strike, the Soviets could theoretically win a nuclear war.
The Carter administration’s response to this existential conundrum was, in part, strategic—the development of more flexible war-fighting doctrines and weapons. But it was also paradigmatic. Washington had to communicate to the Soviets that a nuclear war was, by definition, not winnable. To do so, they had to reimagine the concept of deterrence from the perspective of the Soviet Union’s leadership. The Reagan administration concluded what their predecessors had begun, and the finished product was a doctrine designed to target what the Kremlin held dearest—not just Russian cities or armies but Soviet leaders’ very lives and their control over the citizenry (the loss of which would also likely cost them their lives). American strategic planners had to be willing to sacrifice some working relations with the Politburo by holding a gun to their heads, but that aggressive posture did impose some clarity on Soviet thinking.
If the United States is again confronting the problem of self-deterrence, the Cold War’s lessons are of objective importance. Deterring China will be predicated on holding hostage that which it regards as non-negotiable. Brose argues that the way out of this trap today is the same as it was in the late 1970s—relying on America’s technological advantages to out-innovate Beijing. Surely, the U.S. will need to invest heavily in cyber defense, information-warfare technology, and weapons platforms that can overcome Chinese defenses. It will also have to aggressively engage in an ideological campaign designed to counter the influence of Chinese investments in civilian infrastructure in both the developing and developed world. More important, American policymakers will have to steel themselves for a robust campaign to counter Chinese propaganda not just around the world but within the PRC itself. Chinese leadership will protest bitterly, even perhaps aggressively. But these are the value targets Beijing holds dearest.
Accusing observers of succumbing to a “Cold War mentality” has become something of an epithet in Washington, but there are critical lessons that period can teach us about how to effectively contain a revisionist power beholden to a very different concept of how societies should organize themselves. Foremost among them is the means by which Americans can escape the solipsistic self-deterrence trap. If we’re headed for that imprisonment of the mind once again, the Cold War teaches us how to escape.