The ultimate clash between the United States and China in the Western Pacific – who’d come out on top? Well, it’s one of those head-scratchers that’d leave even Yogi Berra pondering. Predicting the unpredictable is akin to reading tea leaves.
And let’s not forget, Yogi had it cushy – the world of sports, a well-regulated and choreographed arena. When it comes to forecasting the outcome of future wars, it’s a whole new ball game. Wars aren’t played by the rules, and there sure aren’t many rules to start with. Wars are a chaotic tangle of ambition and strategy, wrapped in a fog of uncertainty, friction, and hot-headed passion. War, my friends, is anything but a straightforward affair. The great strategist Carl von Clausewitz once claimed that only a military genius on par with Sir Isaac Newton could navigate the unpredictable currents of war with confidence. Suffice it to say, we’re short on Newtons.
To put it bluntly, having foresight is crucial in war, but obtaining it? Now, that’s a different story.
If you’d prefer a dose of Orwell, George Orwell wasn’t shy about berating military pundits who claimed they could foresee how World War II would unfold. He reminded us that it’s easy to feel infallible if you don’t keep a journal. He admitted to his share of erroneous predictions, but even his worst blunders paled in comparison to the so-called military experts. They had a solid record of getting things wrong, over and over. Their predictions were about as reliable as an unsinkable battleship, which, as you know, isn’t too reliable at all.
So, when someone starts radiating confidence about the future, don’t buy it.
But, disclaimers aside, that doesn’t mean we should stick our heads in the sand. We’ve got to try and make some sense of what armed conflict in the Western Pacific might look like. It’s the only way to brace ourselves. So, let’s check out three keys to success for the United States, its buddies, and its partners. Maybe, just maybe, we can sharpen our powers of prediction.
1. The Buddy System: You can’t stress enough how crucial allies and partners are in a U.S.-led military gig in the region. But let’s not take it for granted that they’ll be raring to jump into the fray. Agreements like the one the United States has with Asian pals, including Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, are the gold standard for security commitments. They’re like the hall pass of the defense world. But there’s a catch – no treaty can force one ally to march to war for another, no matter how dire the situation. Alliances give allies a say in how they respond.
Their decisions, or lack thereof, can be game-changers.
As China’s dominance grows, the likelihood of the U.S. alliances sticking together increases. After all, self-preservation is the name of the game for human societies. Solidarity isn’t just about throwing more planes, ships, and ammo into the mix against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It’s also about geography. U.S. forces simply can’t maintain a superior fighting force in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, or East China Sea when they’re sitting in Guam or some far-off point. Geography and logistics say ‘no way.’ So, alliances are the name of the game.
And then there’s Taiwan. The folks in Taiwan have a big say in their fate, especially if China comes knocking. Their resolve to defend their de facto independence and the strategies they cook up will be make or break. If they don’t put up a fight, there’s not much anyone else can do. Their combat readiness and determination matter a lot.
In the Western Pacific, nothing works without alliances and partnerships, and everything could work with them. That’s why Beijing’s working hard to fracture American bonds in Asia. That’s why Washington is working just as hard to keep them strong.
2. It’s a Battle of Brains: War is just as much about ideas as it is about might. The party with the best ideas is often the one that comes out on top. Chinese commanders are fans of a quick, brutal win that keeps external powers at arm’s length. It makes life easier on multiple fronts. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been busy arming Fortress China with anti-access weaponry, including anti-ship missiles, combat aircraft, surface patrol craft, and submarines. But there’s more to it than hardware. When it comes to the face-off, the PLA is all about “systems-destruction warfare.” The idea is to break the enemy’s network of networks. It’s like dismantling a complex machine into smaller, useless parts. The enemy falls apart, and you
have the upper hand. This concept revolves around spreading military power across many smaller, less complex, and more affordable platforms that can still pack a punch. Drones are a big part of this mix. This reimagined military fleet would scatter across Western Pacific islands, waters, and skies to avoid getting hit while hitting back.
The thinking here is that a force made up of many units rather than just a few can endure losses better. Losing one piece doesn’t cripple the whole operation. A force that keeps its cool and refuses to be pushed out of the game denies the PLA its dream of a swift victory. It buys time for allies to muster enough force to win. The name of the game is putting up an active defense from day one.
3. Weapons and Warriors: The best-laid plans are worth squat if they can’t be put into action. Success in any battle is all about the quality and quantity of people and equipment. But gauging the quality of foreign weaponry is like trying to guess what’s inside a locked black box. Military gear is a well-guarded secret. And even if you know what’s inside, you can’t predict how it will perform under real combat conditions.
The performance of any weapon depends on the skill and motivation of the person wielding it. The best weapon is only as good as the person using it. Admiral Bradley Fiske, over a century ago, pointed out that it takes a skilled soldier, sailor, or airman to get the most out of equipment. But these individuals work within organizations with deep-rooted cultures that influence how they do things. The organization’s culture can either help or hinder their performance. So, the team with the better fighting culture and a can-do attitude has a leg up in a U.S.-China showdown.
So, when it comes down to a clash between the United States and China in the Western Pacific, the outcome is far from a sure bet. It’s a complex game of alliances, strategies, and human factors. The one who can pull all these elements together may just be the last one standing.
Predicting a future U.S.-China war? Well, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But one thing’s for sure – it’s a wild ride we should all be ready for.