China and US Caught in ‘Dilemma’ of Military Escalation: Experts

China and US Caught in ‘Dilemma’ of Military Escalation: Experts
Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers taking part in military training at Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, northwestern China's Xinjiang region, on Jan. 4, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Andrew Thornebrooke

The United States and communist China are caught in a dynamic of increasing military escalation that could result in overt conflict, according to security experts.

Despite the United States’ overarching goal of deterring military conflict, Chinese communist authorities’ dedication to reaching military parity with the United States and their belief that the United States is in terminal decline could pressure both sides into a standoff, according to Sean Monaghan, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Monaghan said that the increasing commitment of both sides to arming against the other could spark a new conflict over the future of democratic Taiwan, which China’s communist regime claims as its own.

“The most dangerous scenario is a cycle of commitment where both sides feel they have to prove their credibility,” Monaghan said during a March 6 CSIS panel.

“When you combine this with [China’s] seeming belief in military parity and deterrence erosion, the belief that U.S. deterrence policy is actually more about coercion and looking to force the issue at some point, this adds up to a worrying mix.”

Monaghan compared the situation to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, which took place in 1995 and 1996. That incident ended with the Chinese regime firing several missiles into Taiwan’s waters as part of a wider effort to intimidate Taiwan from maintaining informal relations with the United States.

“This is kind of the dynamic before the crisis,” Monaghan said of the current brinkmanship.

To that end, Monaghan said that U.S. leadership would need to do more than merely invest in military deterrence capabilities and focus also on long-term diplomatic engagement with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a single-party state.

“Deterrence is not a solution on its own,” Monaghan said.

“The literature on deterrence… tells us that deterrence, if it achieves anything, it achieves short-term solutions that then require longer-term diplomacy to solve the basic issues and tensions underneath.”

CCP Charging Toward Dilemma

The CCP’s commitment to expanding and modernizing its military forces for overseas operations was adding fuel to the fire of a potential crisis, said Mike Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

The regime’s dedication to expanding its nuclear arsenal would only encourage further military investments by the United States, effectively amounting to an arms race.

“The security dilemma dynamic is very real,” Mazarr said during the panel.

“China is building up its military capability, so we feel trapped in a situation where any action other than rapid military reinforcement and development of the military relationship with Taiwan is seen as weak.”

“As long as that dynamic persists, I think it will continue to undermine the basis for peace.”

Mazarr said that the situation was not helped by the CCP military leadership, whose writings often engaged in what he called “a continuing theme of strategic self-righteousness,” which fuse anti-U.S. propaganda with military doctrine.

The situation was such that Mazarr believed CCP leadership may fail to objectively calculate the United States’ position and goals during a new Taiwan crisis, and could opt for military action due to an assumption of U.S. hostility.

“In a crisis, for example, it wouldn’t be a calculation of what the military balance is,” Mazarr said. “Chinese leaders would just believe they’re right.”

To that end, Mazarr said that deterrence strategies often failed because one side or the other was committed to adhering to an ideology rather than calculating the risks and rewards present at the time.

“Oftentimes, almost always, when deterrence fails it’s not because one power got to a point on some magical objective sliding scale where it believed that it had overtaken its rival sufficiently that now it could launch a relatively cost-free attack,” Mazarr said.

“It’s because states get to a point where they believe they have to act, or they are so in the grip of some ideology.”

Andrew Thornebrooke is a national security correspondent for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.
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