China and the Element of Surprise

By  George Friedman* –  Geopolitical Futures

A war between China and the United States would be a war between peer powers. That’s not to say they are identical powers; all nations differ in terms of geography, strategy, manpower, weaponry and so on. But they are peers in that at least on the surface each appears perfectly capable of defeating the other. Planning before war becomes all the more important as each side seeks to identify the weakness of its enemy and deploy the force needed to rapidly defeat him. The desire of the attacking power is to strike a blow so powerful and so damaging that the enemy will either capitulate or negotiate a satisfactory settlement. First strike is critical.

Central to striking a successful first blow is the element of surprise. If one side is aware of the intent and the plan of its enemy, a peer power will alert its forces and concentrate them to defeat or deflect the blow. During the 20th century, most major peer conflicts were cloaked in surprise. The German invasion of France through Belgium in World War I was unanticipated by the French, as was the German strike into France through the Ardennes in World War II. The Japanese hid their intent to strike Pearl Harbor operationally and diplomatically, carrying out peace talks with the United States in the hours before the attack. The Germans hid their intention of invading the Soviet Union in 1941, even as they massed their forces. The United States and Britain managed to confuse Germany as to the site of the invasion of France, even though it was clear to everyone that an attack was coming.

Securing the element of surprise does not guarantee final victory, of course, but in these instances, surprise assured that the initial attack did not end before the war began. When Russia opened its war with Japan in 1905, Moscow sent a fleet from St. Petersburg to Japan to defeat its navy and compel a political settlement. Russia hid neither the departure nor its destination. The Japanese navy was deployed and crushed the Russian fleet. So while surprise does not guarantee anything, the absence of surprise makes the victory in the initial thrust extremely difficult.

The Chinese and American positions in the Western Pacific give a sense of a near-war condition. The United States is unlikely to initiate war. Its interest is to retain the option of blocking shipping through China’s eastern ports. It is satisfied to hold that position. The Chinese face a situation where the United States has an option to harm China, and they cannot count on American restraint. The circumstances are such that China has to either reach a political agreement with the United States, accept its vulnerability or initiate hostilities.

There are two strategies it can choose to retain the element of surprise. Shielding the intention to wage war is always best, while shielding the opening move of a war known to be likely is second. The latter can be very effective if the attacker is ready to exploit success.

China has not made its intentions known, but it has created an atmosphere in which a war initiated by it is a real possibility if the United States does not shift its diplomatic position or military posture. The creation of such a posture costs China a dimension of surprise. The U.S. has focused its substantial military force on China, making initiation by China more difficult. On the other hand, the U.S. was already deployed in a posture dangerous to China, and whatever the U.S. might think its intentions are, China cannot take for granted that the U.S. is not intending hostile actions. China has had to deploy force anyway, so the possibility of war is not alien from either side. The war indicators are valuable diplomatically. They might convince the United States to shift its military posture and its position on economic relations, not so much out of fear of China but because the issues might not matter so much to the U.S. War fever can force reevaluation, and the U.S. has more room for maneuver than China has.

China has done something strange. It has indicated the point of war initiation – Taiwan – and has put in place a force that could theoretically take Taiwan. Announcing the specific target is as dangerous as the Japanese letting the U.S. fleet know that Pearl Harbor was the target. Attacking Taiwan entails an amphibious operation requiring a force limited by the capacity of amphibious craft (always inadequate, as seen at Normandy), and then leaving that force to engage the enemy while reinforcements and a continual shuttle of supplies cross 100 miles of water under possible U.S. missile and air attack.

It is very odd to reveal the location of war initiation, and odder still because this location is as vulnerable to enemy action as Normandy was. Indeed, the allies undertook Operation Fortitude, which was designed to convince Germany that the invasion was coming anywhere but where it came. They did not name the location of the invasion, as China has, but risked everything to keep the location secret.

China’s constant restatement of its intentions toward Taiwan, including on occasion details of how such an invasion might be executed, are bizarre at face value. It is not bizarre, however, if it supposes the United States won’t fight a war over it. In this case, Beijing’s obsession with Taiwan is simply part of the general strategy of convincing the United States that war is likely unless the United States changes its position. In that role, Taiwan makes perfect sense.

It makes sense in another way, too. China feels constrained to initiate conflict, but the point of it isn’t Taiwan itself, which is dangled as a red herring. Taking Taiwan would not solve China’s strategic problem. The problem is that a string of islands from Japan to Singapore, and including India, Vietnam and Australia, are either formally aligned with the United States or share informal cooperation out of hostility to China. That string creates a line of chokepoints that block China’s access to global oceans. Holding Taiwan would create a broader gap in one location, but in conditions of war, it would be a dangerous passage for merchant vessels.

It is, however, difficult to imagine another point that would solve China’s strategic problem without incurring all the problems an invasion of Taiwan would. If it could pull Indonesia and the Philippines into an alliance, a gap would be opened that the U.S. would be hard-pressed to block, and could not be blocked without a war that would involve ground combat. Neither country has indicated an interest in falling into the Chinese sphere of influence.

An invasion of Taiwan makes little sense, above all, because the possibility of failure is great. The idea that the focus in Taiwan is designed to divert the United States’ attention doesn’t work. The preparations for a large-scale amphibious assault are massive, require a good deal of time, and are hard to miss by U.S. reconnaissance capabilities.

From this we can deduce that the focus on Taiwan is meant to increase the sense of imminent war and shape the calculations of the U.S. and those of its allies. It is possible that China intends instead a widescale conflict covering the entire Western Pacific in which China bets everything. But China does not need to bet everything.

The only remaining possibility is that China is preparing for a negotiation with the United States. The competition initially began because the U.S. demanded equal access to the Chinese market and an end to the manipulation of the yuan. China has not been able to agree to either, and the sense of hostility is likely as much for domestic consumption as American. The sense of war has been achieved, but the indications of war are hard to see even if you look closely. That leaves a political settlement.

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*George Friedman (Hungarian: Friedman György, Budapest, February 1, 1949) is  Hungarian-born U.S. geopolitical forecaster, and strategist on international affairs. He is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an online publication that analyzes and forecasts the course of global events.