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Pentagon report hints at coming U.S.-China escalation

This is happening as some senior officials are stressing out over Trump's politicization of the military.

Military tanks and Nuclear missiles drive past the Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two on September 3, 2015 in Beijing, China. (CREDIT: Wang Qingqin/Getty Images)
Military tanks and Nuclear missiles drive past the Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two on September 3, 2015 in Beijing, China. (CREDIT: Wang Qingqin/Getty Images)

News coming out of the Pentagon in recent days points to some kind of coming conflict with China, with the risks being increased by the loose cannon that is President Donald Trump’s Twitter presence.

In a matter of days, the Pentagon issued a report saying that China might be prepared to militarily engage with the United States over Taiwan, Trump called for an expanded missile program, and several senior military officers told CNN they were experiencing “unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety” owing to Trump keeping them “out of the loop” and the politicization of the military.

That’s a lot to unpack, and none of it is great.

First, what is going on with Taiwan, and why are we hearing about this now?

Denny Roy, Senior Fellow at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, said there’s nothing new in how China views Taiwan.

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“This is more just China restating a position,” said Roy, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s new year’s address. In that speech, Xi spoke about a “peaceful unification” of China and Taiwan.

The Chinese government has been looking for ways to increase pressure on Taiwan’s Democratic Progress Party (the current ruling majority party) to start negotiating a political solution to the separation of Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China (PROC). Beijing wants Taipei to re-acknowledge the “One China” policy, which sees Taiwan as PROC territory.

“There is this kind of a general sense of a more reckless U.S. in the field.”

But another aspect of this is the Trump administration’s increasingly hostile approach towards China — on issues like Taiwan security in the South China Sea, and trade.

Xi’s speech was intended not only as a reminder to the United States that China is willing to fight Taiwan, but also to prompt the Trump administration to “reconsider whether they want to send American boys to die in Taiwan,” said Roy.

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But just as the Pentagon report was released, the United States and United Kingdom engaged in their first ever joint drill in the South China Sea, and on Thursday, Taiwan held live-fire air exercises.

“China, China, China”

China is viewed as a key military competitor (alongside Russia) by the Trump administration. Fresh on the job earlier this month, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told his staff to focus on “China, China, China.”

This week’s Pentagon’s unclassified report outlines China’s increased military spending, ostensibly intended to counter the United States (among others) with a range of “tailored military options against Taiwan and potential third-party military intervention.”

Here are three key points to note in the Pentagon report:
  • Much of China’s military readiness focuses on “long-distance mobility operations, and space and cyber operations. In other words, China expects that its future wars mostly will be fought outside its borders and will involve conflict in the maritime domain.”
  • Although China has long maintained a “no first use” (NFU) policy on nuclear weapons, “There is some ambiguity, however, over the conditions under which China’s NFU policy would apply.” Ambiguity is also part of the United State’s NFU strategy.
  • China could use cyber warfare capabilities to collect technical and operational intelligence; launch cyber attacks to “establish information dominance in the early stages of a conflict to constrain an adversary’s actions or slow mobilization and deployment;” and deploy cyber warfare that “can serve as a force multiplier when coupled with conventional capabilities during a conflict.”

So China, the Pentagon tells us, is preparing for a war of some kind, is being fuzzy with when it can use nuclear weapons, and is preparing a cyber component in its strategy. (The Pentagon, meanwhile, said last year that it won’t rule out a nuclear response to a cyber attack).

“What this means is unclear, but it doesn’t look good. You could very easily see either side going, ‘Right, we need to go after each other’s information capabilities,’ so satellites, early warning systems, and the possibility of hitting the wrong things, of escalating, of sending the wrong signals, is very worrying,” said Andrew Futter, associate professor of international politics at the University of Leicester.

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When it comes to the United States, China, and Taiwan, Roy said all three know how to avoid direct conflict, so long as Taiwan doesn’t “make a clear move toward independence,” which the current government is unlikely to do.

But tensions are rising, with Beijing feeling bolder and the growing sense that the United States and China are seeing each other primarily as adversaries.

China has dismissed the Pentagon report, claiming that the United States is trying to use it as an excuse to ramp up its military operations. It also issued a warning to the United States that it would defend its claim on Taiwan at “any cost.”

“On top of that if you add the inexperience on all sides with the idea of using cyber attacks as part of a military campaign, that injects a wildcard — we don’t have a clear understanding, a protocol, of how each side interprets a cyber attack, and which scale, and what each country’s idea of an appropriate response to a cyber attack on whatever level might be,” said Roy.

For instance, it’s possible that China could launch a cyber attack that causes unintended harm to infrastructure, maybe costing American lives. The United States could view that as an actual military attack and respond with actual weapons.

Misunderstanding signals

While he’s worried about something kicking off between India and Pakistan, neighboring nuclear states where the the timeline for formulating any kind of response (military or diplomatic) would be incredibly short, Futter is also really concerned about muddled messaging causing some kind of incident between the United States and China.

This, he said, does not even have to involve a deliberate calculation.

“It’s more some sort of induced mistake on some sort of reliance on false information at the same time as something else going wrong,” he said. For instance, imagine that the false missile alert that left people in Hawaii on edge for nearly 40 minutes last year happened at the same time as a U.S.-South Korea [military] exercise, or overlapped with another system failure. The United States, China, and North Korea would have minutes to calculate a response.

There also is now less predictability for an adversary or a competitor as to where to look for an official response from the United States, said Futter.

“You’ve now got things coming out on Twitter, you don’t know well what’s the real story, when Donald Trump says ‘I’ve got my finger on the button’ or whatever, and the State Department says something else and CNN says something else — this lack of understanding of where the message is coming from has changed, and that is dangerous,” said Futter.

Trump’s style of communication does not help.

“The big risk with Donald Trump is the fact that there’s this return to nuclear rhetoric, or talking about using nuclear weapons or having your finger on the button, and not realizing how dangerous this is. This is not something we should be making fun of,” said Futter.

“It’s deadly serious and why there are concerns [among American lawmakers] about how to increase time [of response] or change the launch process. … things have changed. There is this kind of a general sense of a more reckless U.S. in the field,” he added.

An attack doesn’t even have to involve a deliberate calculation.

“The fact that we’re relying so much on these systems that we don’t really understand, that can go wrong in so many different ways, is a massive concern,” said Futter.

That possibility, that things can just go wrong, is shared by science historian Alex Wellerstein, an assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Wellerstein, who specializes in the history of nuclear weapons, told ThinkProgress that he worries that a misunderstanding could prompt the United States “to use a tactical, low-yield nuclear weapon, not on a city, but perhaps on some kind of facility or to take out an adversary’s capabilities.”

Trump is someone for whom words are like water — they take the shape of whatever vessel he chooses for them (his definitions of “crime,” “shutdown,” and “wall” for instance, change), which increases the odds of a misunderstanding. Still, he has an awful lot of power, which is worrying to some.

“We’re in a situation now where most of the discourse about nuclear use is not about restraining the military from using it, but restraining the president from using it,” said Wellerstein, adding that this is unusual, given that the president is meant to be a civilian check on military power in the United States.

If the president wants to use a nuclear weapon, “the number of people involved who are likely to be a position where they can stop the order or slow it down or question it is actually very small,” said Wellerstein.

Also, expecting the military to push back against a nuclear strike would mean expecting it to play a very different role than the one it’s been trained for.

“I’m not saying this can’t happen…if you want to believe that the system will fail in that respect, more power to you, but that’s a very optimistic view,” said Wellerstein, adding, “I’m not super optimistic that these systems will fail.”