Skip to main content

Rarely have relations between China and the United States been so cordial. On Wednesday, the superpowers agreed to an impressive slate of measures to fight climate change by cutting emissions. Last month's summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping saw the leaders finally agree on an approach to North Korea. China is allowing its currency to rise in value, reducing the danger of global imbalances. And while spying and dirty tricks are rife, recent revelations about U.S. Internet surveillance have placed the countries on a level playing field. It's a period of peaceful cohabitation.

So why are the two countries' militaries preparing to do battle with each other?

Both the Pentagon and the People's Liberation Army are arming for an all-out war and pursuing enormously expensive master strategies that assume that such a war will occur.

In the case of the United States, this appears to be taking place without any authorization or approval from the White House or Congress. The Pentagon is now basing its global strategy on a detailed plan known as the AirSea Battle concept, in which the U.S. Army and Air Force defend the presence of 320,000 U.S. troops in the area by readying themselves for a full-scale land and air assault on China in the event of a threat in the South China Sea or its surroundings.

In a detailed analysis paper in this summer's issue of the Yale Journal of International Affairs, the famed sociologist and military-policy expert Amitai Etzioni asks, "Who authorized preparations for war with China?" His answer is stark: Mr. Obama has spoken of a "pivot to Asia," but there has been no political intent or desire to have such an active military confrontation with China – in fact, the politics and diplomacy have been moving in the opposite direction.

"The United States is preparing for a war with China, a momentous decision that so far has failed to receive a thorough review from elected officials, namely the White House and Congress," Prof. Etzioni writes. "In the public sphere there was no debate – led by either think tanks or public intellectuals – like that which is ongoing over whether or not to use the military option against Iran's nuclear program, or the debate surrounding the 2009 surge of troops in Afghanistan."

But the AirSea Battle plan has far more expensive and dangerous implications. "The imagined result of ASB is the ability to end a conflict with China in much the same way the United States ended WWII: The U.S. military defeats China and dictates the surrender terms." This is a drastic change from Cold War approaches, where nuclear-scale conflict was carefully avoided.

The plan scares the heck out of many military figures. "AirSea Battle is demonizing China," James Cartwright, the former vice-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned last year. "That's not in anybody's interest." A Marine Corps assessment warned that the concept is "preposterously expensive to build in peace time" and, if used as intended, would "cause incalculable human and economic destruction," in good part because it makes escalation to nuclear war far more likely.

And the Chinese have responded in kind: "If the U.S. military develops AirSea Battle to deal with the [People's Liberation Army]," Col. Gauyue Fan warned, "the PLA will be forced to develop anti-AirSea Battle."

And that is now taking place. Soon after assuming power last year, Mr. Xi abandoned his predecessor's commitment to "peaceful rise," took direct command of the Central Military Commission and commanded the military to focus on "real combat" and "fighting and winning wars."

As Jeremy Page of The Wall Street Journal noted recently, Mr. Xi has rehabilitated a group of ultra-hawkish generals and military advisers who have advocated a military strategy based on preparing for direct confrontation with the United States. He has particularly embraced Col. Liu Mingfu, whose calls for direct China-U.S. military competition had led his books to be banned, but are now back on the bookstore shelves in droves. Also widely published now is air force Col. Dai Xu, who wrote last year, according to Reuters, that China's neighbours are "running dogs of the United States in Asia" and "we only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel."

So we are in the absurd position of having the two superpowers at peace with one another while their armies prepare for total war. It is a dangerous state of affairs – something we ought to remember as we approach the centenary of 1914, when just such a mismatch led the world to war.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe