How did you go bankrupt?” Bill Gorton asks Mike Campbell in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “Two ways,” Mike replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” So, with America’s inevitable war with the People’s Republic of China. It may be gradual or sudden. Yet, in neither instance would it be at the behest of Washington. 

China’s Military Is Rising

China, under General Secretary Xi Jinping, has been outwardly preparing for conflict for more than a decade. In 2012, as China’s economy began to slow, Xi and his Politburo accelerated China’s military modernization. That decision has resulted in the largest peacetime military build-up since the 1930s – the consequences of which are documented in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2023 China Military Power report. Beijing’s fortification along the first island chain, increased military recruitment, fewer external dependencies, and a growing aggressiveness towards Taiwan all point to a China that is, as Xi has urged, preparing for “stormy seas.” 

What Should America Do? 

For the United States, this leaves two paths – neither favorable. China’s slow march to Taiwan under Xi’s dream of national reunification may result in the U.S. opting to do nothing, or very little. In this scenario, American inaction would likely be due to a combination of factors, including the realization that such a war would likely not be won quickly or decisively. This would be all the more true if U.S. weapons stockpiles remain at their current depleted levels and shortcomings in its defense industrial base go unremedied.

Short-term, the U.S. would avoid conflict with Beijing, but the long-term repercussions of what would likely be a fallen Taiwan would be immense and would steadily lead America into war. For China’s global ambitions are not limited to Taiwan. Emboldened by any military success, Beijing would likely decide to move on other first island chain nations, many of which have defense treaties with the United States. This, in turn, would necessitate an American response, which could eventually result in the brutal island-to-island warfare of World War II. 

War, for America, could also come suddenly. Dual fronts now in Europe and the Middle East are part of a wider strategy on the part of America’s adversaries to bait it into conflict and usurp U.S. global leadership. So far, the U.S. has managed to avoid direct action in Ukraine. In the Middle East, increasing attacks on American troops could eventually elicit a belated U.S. response beyond “narrowly tailored strikes.” Should Xi soon decide to open a third front, the U.S. may rightly regard this as a critical tipping point and respond with force. Any less would see a major shift in the world order – in Beijing’s favor, and with America, then, as its subordinate.

War is always the last resort. It has, however, become abundantly clear that U.S. global deterrence is not working. The U.S. must, therefore, begin to ready itself for inevitable conflict, for the consequences of both action and inaction lead, ultimately – whether gradually or suddenly – to the same result. America may not seek conflict with China.

Yet, as one Secretary of Defense often remarked, “the enemy gets a vote.”