Will World War III be between the U.S. and China?
By Max Hastings
Last updated at 1:11 AM on 26th November 2011
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China's vast military
machine grows by the day. America's sending troops to Australia in response. As
tension between the two superpowers escalates, Max Hastings warns of a
terrifying threat to world peace.
Mass hysteria: The armies of Mao Tse-tung stunned the
world by intervening in the Korean War
On the evening of November 1, 1950,
22-year-old Private Carl Simon of the U.S. 8th Cavalry lay shivering with his
comrades in the icy mountains of North Korea.
A patrol had just reported itself ‘under
attack from unidentified troops’, which bemused and dismayed the Americans,
because their campaign to occupy North Korea seemed all but
Suddenly, through the darkness came sounds of
bugle calls, gunfire, shouts in a language that the 8th Cavalry’s Korean
interpreters could not understand. A few minutes later, waves of attackers
charged into the American positions, screaming, firing and throwing
‘There was just mass hysteria,’ Simon told me
long afterwards. ‘It was every man for himself. I didn’t know which way to go.
In the end, I just ran with the crowd. We ran and ran until the bugles grew
This was the moment, of course, when the
armies of Mao Tse-tung stunned the world by intervening in the Korean War. It
had begun in June, when Communist North Korean forces invaded the South.
U.S. and British forces repelled the
communists, fighting in the name of the United Nations, then pushed deep into
North Korea. Seeing their ally on the brink of defeat, the Chinese determined to
take a hand.
In barren mountains just a few miles south of
their own border, in the winter of 1950 their troops achieved a stunning
surprise. The Chinese drove the American interlopers hundreds of miles south
before they themselves were pushed back. Eventually a front was stabilised and
the situation sank into stalemate.
Three years later, the United States was
thankful to get out of its unwanted war with China by accepting a compromise
peace, along the armistice line which still divides the two Koreas
For most of the succeeding 58 years the U.S.,
even while suffering defeat in Vietnam, has sustained strategic dominance of the
Indo-Pacific region, home to half the world’s population.
Yet suddenly, everything is changing. China’s
new economic power is being matched by a military build-up which deeply alarms
its Asian neighbours, and Washington. The spectre of armed conflict between the
superpowers, unknown since the Korean War ended in 1953, looms once
American strategy guru Paul Stares says: ‘If
past experience is any guide, the United States and China will find themselves
embroiled in a serious crisis at some point in the future.’
The Chinese navy is growing fast, acquiring
aircraft-carriers and sophisticated missile systems. Beijing makes no secret of
its determination to rule the oil-rich South China Sea, heedless of the claims
of others such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
Expansion: The Chinese navy is growing fast, acquiring
sophisticated missile systems
The Chinese foreign minister recently gave a
speech in which he reminded the nations of South-East Asia that they are small,
while China is very big.
Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise
Institute described these remarks as the diplomatic equivalent of the town bully
saying to the neighbours: ‘We really hope nothing happens to your nice new
This year, China has refused stormbound U.S.
Navy vessels admission to its ports, and in January chose the occasion of a
visit from the U.S. defence secretary to show off its new, sophisticated J-20
stealth combat aircraft.
Michael Auslin, like many other Americans, is
infuriated by the brutishness with which the dragon is now flexing its military
muscles: ‘We have a China that is undermining the global system that allowed it
to get rich and powerful, a China that now feels a sense of grievance every time
it is called to account for its disruptive behaviour.’
Washington was angered by Beijing’s careless
response to North Korea’s unprovoked sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan
a year ago, followed by its shelling of Yeonpyeong island, a South Korean
Wreckage: Washington was angered by Beijing's careless
response to North Korea's sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan
When the U.S. Navy deployed warships in the
Yellow Sea in a show of support for the South Korean government, Beijing
denounced America, blandly denying North Korea’s guilt. The Chinese claimed that
they were merely displaying even-handedness and restraint, but an exasperated
President Obama said: ‘There’s a difference between restraint and wilful
blindness to consistent problems.’
Washington is increasingly sensitive to the
fact that its bases in the western Pacific have become vulnerable to Chinese
missiles. This is one reason why last week the U.S. made a historic agreement
with Australia to station up to 2,500 U.S. Marines in the north of the country.
Beijing denounced the deal, saying it was not
‘appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the
interests of countries within this region’.
Even within Australia, the agreement for the
U.S. base has provoked controversy.
HASTINGS: United States of Paralysis
Hugh White of the Australian National
University calls it ‘a potentially risky move’. He argues that, in the new
world, America should gracefully back down from its claims to exercise
Indo-Pacific hegemony, ‘relinquish primacy in the region and share power with
China and others’.
But Richard Haas, chairman of the U.S. Council
on Foreign Relations, says: ‘U.S. policy must create a climate in which a rising
China is never tempted to use its growing power coercively within or outside the
To put the matter more bluntly, leading
Americans fear that once the current big expansion of Chinese armed forces
reaches maturity, within a decade or so, Beijing will have no bourgeois scruples
about using force to get its way in the world — unless America and its allies
are militarily strong enough to deter them.
Meanwhile, in Beijing’s corridors of power
there is a fissure between the political and financial leadership, and the
generals and admirals.
On the one hand, Chinese economic bosses are
appalled by the current turmoil in the West’s financial system, which threatens
the buying power of their biggest customers.
Allies: The U.S. made a historic agreement with Australia
to station up to 2,500 U.S. Marines in the north of the country
On the other, Chinese military chiefs gloat
without embarrassment at the spectacle of weakened Western nations.
As America announces its intention to cut back
defence spending, the Chinese armed forces see historic opportunities beckon.
Ever since Mao Tse-tung gained control of his country in 1949, China has been
striving to escape from what it sees as American containment.
The issue of Taiwan is a permanent open sore:
the U.S. is absolutely committed to protecting its independence and freedom.
Taiwan broke away from mainland China in 1949, when the rump of the defeated
Nationalists under their leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island, and
established their own government under an American security blanket.
China has never wavered in its view that the
island was ‘stolen’ by the capitalists, and is determined to get it
Beijing was infuriated by America’s recent
£4 billion arms deal with Taiwan which includes the sale of 114 Patriot
anti-ballistic missiles, 60 Blackhawk helicopters and two
When I last visited China, I was struck by how
strongly ordinary Chinese feel about Taiwan. They argue that the West’s refusal
to acknowledge their sovereignty reflects a wider lack of recognition of their
country’s new status in the world.
A young Beijinger named David Zhang says: ‘The
most important thing for Americans to do is to stop being arrogant and talk with
their counterparts in China on a basis of mutual respect.’ That is how many of
his contemporaries feel, as citizens of the proud, assertive new
But how is the West supposed to do business
with an Asian giant that is not merely utterly heedless of its own citizens’
human rights, but also supports some of the vilest regimes in the world, for its
own commercial purposes?
Burma’s tyrannical military rulers would have
been toppled years ago, but for the backing of the Chinese, who have huge
A million Chinese in Africa promote their
country’s massive commercial offensive, designed to secure an armlock on the
continent’s natural resources. To that end, following its declared policy of
‘non-interference’, China backs bloody tyrannies, foremost among them that of
Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
'Non-interference': China backs bloody tyrannies, foremost
among them that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe
China, like Russia, refuses to endorse more
stringent sanctions against Iran, in response to its nuclear weapons-building
programme, because Beijing wants Iranian oil. Indeed, Chinese foreign policy is
bleakly consistent: it dismisses pleas from the world’s democracies that, as a
new global force, it should play a part in sustaining world
If Chinese leaders — or indeed citizens — were
speaking frankly, they would reply to their country’s critics: ‘The West has
exploited the world order for centuries to suit itself. Now it is our turn to
exploit it to suit ourselves.’
A friend of ours has recently been working
closely with Chinese leaders in Hong Kong. I said to his wife that I could not
withhold a touch of sympathy for a rising nation which, in the past, was
mercilessly bullied by the West.
She responded: ‘Maybe, but when they are on
top I don’t think they will be very kind.’ I fear that she is right. It seems
hard to overstate the ruthlessness with which China is pursuing its purposes at
home and abroad.
China chose to make an example of Nobel Peace Prize winner
Liu by jailing him for 11 years
The country imprisons Nobel prizewinners such
as the political activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, steals intellectual property
and technological know-how from every nation with which it does business and
strives to deny its people access to information through internet
The people of Tibet suffer relentless
persecution from their Chinese occupiers, while Western leaders who meet the
Dalai Lama are snubbed in consequence.
Other Asian nations are appalled by China’s
campaign to dominate the Western Pacific. Japan’s fears of Chinese-North Korean
behaviour are becoming so acute that the country might even abandon decades of
eschewing nuclear weapons, to create a deterrent.
A few months ago, the Chinese party-controlled
newspaper Global Times carried a harshly bellicose editorial, warning other
nations not to frustrate Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea — Vietnam,
for example, is building schools and roads to assert its sovereignty on a series
of disputed islands also claimed by China.
The Beijing newspaper wrote: ‘If Vietnam
continues to provoke China, China will . . . if necessary strike back with naval
forces. If Vietnam wants to start a war, China has the confidence to destroy
invading Vietnam battleships.’
This sort of violent language was familiar in
the era of Mao Tse-tung, but jars painfully on Western susceptibilities in the
21st century. China’s official press has urged the government to boycott
American companies that sell arms to Taiwan.
The people of Tibet suffer relentless persecution from
their Chinese occupiers
The Global Times, again, demands retaliation
against the United States: ‘Let the Chinese people have the last
Beyond mere sabre-rattling, China is
conducting increasingly sophisticated cyber-warfare penetration of American
corporate, military and government computer systems. For now, their purpose
seems exploratory rather than destructive.
But the next time China and the United States
find themselves in confrontation, a cyber-conflict seems highly likely. The
potential impact of such action is devastating, in an era when computers control
It would be extravagant to suggest that the
United States and China are about to pick up a shooting war where they left off
in November 1950, when Private Carl Simon suffered the shock of his young life
on a North Korean hillside.
But we should be in no doubt, that China and
the United States are squaring off for a historic Indo-Pacific
Even if, for obvious economic reasons, China
does not want outright war, few military men of any nationality doubt that the
Pacific region is now the most plausible place in the world for a great power
Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise
Institute declares resoundingly: ‘America’s economic health and global
leadership in the next generation depend on maintaining our role in the world’s
most dynamic region.’
But the Chinese fiercely dissent from this
view. It is hard to exaggerate the threat which this clash of wills poses for
peace in Asia, and for us all, in the coming decades.
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