BEIJING (Global Times) – In his report titled “Coping with Surprise in Great Power Conflicts” for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Mark F Cancian, a senior adviser at CSIS, tries to bridge Graham Allison’s thoughts on the Thucydides Trap and Ghost Fleet’s vivid description of future war.
The report gives vent to imaginary thinking about strategic, technological, doctrinal and political/diplomatic surprises in potential US conflicts with China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
Some scenarios are very dramatic. For example, China strikes the US homeland with cruise missiles to force Washington to withdraw its air defense and missile defense units back to the continental US from the West Pacific; China trying to assassinate top US leaders prior to an invasion of Taiwan. The report calls for the US military to get ready for contingencies by developing weapons and conducting more war games.
Unlike novelists, a think tank must be very cautious about what it writes. Andrew Marshall, former director of Pentagon’s Net Assessment office, warned against mirror imaging assumptions of other nations. I admire Mr Cancian’s wild imagination about the uncertain future and rich knowledge of war history, but it is a pity that some of his arguments ignore the difference between strategic thinking of the US and China, and fall into a so-called mirror imaging trap.
First, it is a typical US practice rather than a Chinese one to launch preemptive strikes. The report states that China has built up long-range precision weaponry to gain “distinct first mover advantages”. China is likely to use it for surprise attacks because “the strikes against an unprepared opponent will have greater effect than against a prepared opponent”.
The US has had preemption as a policy option for decades. The 2017 National Security Strategy requires development of missile defense capability to destroy enemy ICBMs before launch. Washington has tried to obfuscate its preemptive efforts by using such ambiguous terms as “left of launch” and “preventive war”.
By contrast, China sticks to the principle of “attacking only after being attacked”. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong said “when two boxers fight, the clever boxer usually gives a little ground at first, while the foolish one rushes in furiously and uses up all his resources at the very start, and in the end he is often beaten by the man who has given ground”. PLA holds that the principle helps it gain moral high ground and mobilise the people to fight the aggressor.
In the foreseeable future, Beijing is unlikely to launch American-style surprise strikes against the US.
Second, it is typical US practice to derail the leadership of a hostile government. During the 2003 Iraq War, the US military tried to kill Saddam Hussein at the beginning of the war. It is understandable that Mr Cancian, a former officer who had worked for the US marines for over three decades, presumes that China will assassinate the US leadership prior to a war.
But China does not believe in decapitating another country’s leadership. Since its establishment in the 1920s, the Communist Party of China has opposed assassination of leaders of hostile governments.
Third, the US, rather than China, tends to use nuclear force to offset adversaries’ nuclear and conventional military advantages. The report quotes the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ nuclear scenario, saying that China with stronger nationalism will multiply its nuclear power.
The US tends to regard nuclear power as a pillar of its hegemony. It has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. The Trump administration has tried to emphasize the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy and expand its use to deter space and cyber threats. In the Chinese perspective, it is unwise to accumulate a lot of nuclear weapons. The only purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks.
Mirror imaging makes some important conclusions of the report irrelevant to the real world. If the US military follows the report, it will be frightened to death by its own shadow and fail to prepare for the real threat.
Guo Xiaobing is deputy director/ research professor, Institute of Arms Control and Security Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.