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Another Baseless 'Prediction' About War with China
There seems to be a competition going on in Washington to make the most irresponsible and ridiculous predictions about an impending war with China.
The general’s document won’t be remembered for subtlety. One of his suggestions is that airmen with weapons qualifications start doing target practice with “unrepentant lethality.” Another tells airmen to get their affairs in order. This candor seems to have alarmed higher-ups at the Pentagon, and NBC quoted an unidentified Defense official as saying the general’s “comments are not representative of the department’s view on China.”
But while Gen. Minihan’s words may be blunt, his concern is broadly shared, or ought to be.
Unfortunately, the general’s “concern” is shared by far too many people in important positions. The new Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, volunteered that he shared the general’s view and said that the odds of war with China are “very high.” This is a ludicrous assessment, and it confirms that McCaul’s judgment can’t be trusted. To the extent that many in Washington and in the military share Gen. Minihan’s assessment of the situation, that is a damning indictment of our political and military leadership.
There seems to be a competition going on in Washington to make the most irresponsible and ridiculous predictions about an impending war with China. In some cases, I suspect that these “predictions” are just being used to get more funding for the military by exaggerating the threat and making it seem extremely urgent. In others, it seems as if some China hawks are trying to will this war into existence so that they can have the direct conflict that they have been seeking sooner rather than later. There are also probably some that have jumped on the bandwagon for partisan reasons so they have something to use as a cudgel against Biden. All of these alarmist warnings have one thing in common: they are untethered from reality.
The rhetoric coming from some government officials over the last couple of years has been wildly irresponsible. Loose talk of an impending attack within the next few years not only misrepresents the likelihood of conflict in the near term, but it also stokes panic and provides an excuse for those that want an even bigger arms race with China. It also helps to drown out the signals coming from Beijing that suggest that the Chinese government may be interested in reducing tensions.
Gen. Minihan’s bizarre memo is not evidence of “honesty” or “candor,” as the WSJ editors put it. It is an example of what happens when a foreign threat is constantly hyped and blown out of proportion. It is what you get when Americans are exposed to increasingly unhinged propaganda about a potential adversary. Maybe the general genuinely believes what he claims his “gut” is telling him, but if anything that makes it much worse because it shows how warped his perceptions have become.
Great power rivalry usually warps how both sides see each other. There is a tendency in these rivalries to assume the worst about the intentions and capabilities of the rival and to imagine that one’s own side is always “behind” and in need of “catching up” to the other. The adversary is made out to be better organized and able to plan far in advance to achieve its supposedly maximalist ambitions. This has the effect of fueling arms races and producing crises that could have been avoided. Both governments usually overreact to each other and generate new fears on the opposing side, and this continues until they come to blows through proxies or in direct conflict.
The odds of war between the U.S. and China are not “very high” right now, but if U.S. officials keep talking and acting this way they will be making conflict more likely rather than less.