During the Cold War, the possibility of any form of direct attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, or vice versa, was reduced to near zero by the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Each country had the capability to absorb even a nuclear first strike and thereafter inflict unacceptable damage on the other.
This knowledge kept the peace. Indeed, the Soviet Union was so intimidated by the U.S. nuclear arsenal that the Communist Party lacked the courage to mount even a conventional challenge, not only against the United States and its NATO allies, but also against countries such as Pakistan that were openly being used by Washington to conduct a proxy war against Moscow.
When, in the early 1990s, I pointed to China as being a replacement for the fallen Soviet Union in the demonology of NATO, all but a few strategic experts saw such an outcome as fanciful. Today, though, they may well have changed their views. Certainly the Barack Obama administration is aware of the challenge, specifically noting in last year’s Defense Department strategic vision document that China and Iran pose a threat to the United States.
Although he has been condemned on the campaign trail as being weak on national security, the reality is that it was Obama who saw off Osama bin Laden, and it is his administration that has accelerated drone attacks on terrorist hideouts in Pakistan. Indeed, while the Bush administration reportedly gave a free pass to the most deadly elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban by permitting their evacuation from Kunduz and other locations within Afghanistan, Obama has understood that while military power can win territory from a conventional enemy, it can’t hold this territory without inflicting civilian casualties on a scale made unacceptable by today’s 24 hour media coverage.
That China People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the U.S. military consider themselves rivals is no secret. Indeed, Afghanistan has become the first significant theater of confrontation between the two, with China adopting the 1980s U.S. strategy of using Pakistan to drain and ultimately defeat the military of a rival. While in the 1980s, the target of Pakistan was the Soviet Union, today it’s the United States itself.
Since 2003 at the latest, the PLA has arguably had greater influence over the Pakistan military than the Pentagon, despite public perceptions and statements to the contrary. Since 2007, the PLA’s influence – and therefore that of China – has been dominant to a degree that has enabled Pakistan to challenge NATO, including by cutting off supplies to its forces across the Durand Line. The preferred outcome for many in the PLA is undoubtedly a complete withdrawal of all NATO forces from Afghanistan (and Pakistan), followed by the takeover of the former country by a Taliban affiliate of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence. Across the world, from Iran to Sudan to Venezuela, China has been boosting the military and other capabilities of forces hostile to the NATO powers, principally the United States.
The PLA is no match for the U.S. armed forces, just as U.S. conventional forces in Europe were no match for the Soviet Union. So what prevents a sufficiently robust response from Washington to the increasing number of challenges from Beijing? The explanation may rest in what could be described as the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction of Economy (or MADE). While China lacks the capacity to inflict equivalent damage to the United States through military means, it has reached a stage of economic interlinking with the United States that would make a direct conflict between the two unacceptably costly for Washington.
Given the absence of an overt and existential threat, such as that posed by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) by its aggression against Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s, populations in a democracy are reluctant to endure the hardships and uncertainties of war. Such an outlook helped shape the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain, which changed only after the public began to better understand the reality of Hitler's rule. Public opinion played a significant role in French acquiescence in the 1936 occupation of the Rhineland by the German army.
Given the importance of economic issues in the matrix of public opinion, states with an elected government are wary of committing their military to conflicts where the economic costs are massive. The relative lack of domestic opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States at the time is explainable in large part by the fact that the public didn’t know how expensive the war was going to become. Now that the figures have come in, both for Iraq and Afghanistan, getting domestic support for another major war would be impossible, unless there’s a direct and existential threat to the United States itself. By keeping the threshold of aggression below this (high) level, a country determined to challenge the United States can do so with relative impunity.
Unlike Libya and other states that have pursued policies antithetical to perceived NATO strategic interests, China has thus far escaped retaliation. The reason for this is the dense web of interconnectedness between the Chinese economy and that of the United States and the EU. While the U.S. economy may be able to withstand the shock of the stoppage of commercial relations with China that would follow a conflict, the EU would find such an outcome terminal. And in a domino effect, once the EU goes under economically, a weakened United States may as well. Given the core importance of economics to voters within the NATO bloc, China remains immune from significant NATO retaliation, despite Beijing challenging the alliance's strategic interests worldwide.
Apart from assistance to regimes considered “rogue” by NATO, would such immunity extend to a conflict between China and Taiwan?
Interestingly, the island has a similar defense vis-a-vis the China as Beijing itself has vis-a-vis NATO, despite being much smaller. This is, again, Mutually Assured Destruction of Economy (MADE). So closely enmeshed are the economies of China and Taiwan now that a conflict would also lead to significant damage to the former. In particular, advances in high-technology items needs the willing participation of brainpower. Should the Taiwanese see China as an occupier they would surely be unwilling to allow their own R&D skills to mesh with those of China. It needs to be remembered that it is the Taiwan Dividend that has most enabled China to leapfrog several technological stages in its efforts at matching the NATO countries in high technology.
In a globalizing word, the transition from MAD to MADE is inevitable. And the consequences remain the same: immunity from attack by either party. The only “anti-missile” defense against MADE would be a significant dilution in the economic linkages binding the NATO countries with China, an outcome that seems distant.
Madhav Das Nalapat is a contributor to The Diplomat and holds the UNESCO Peace Chair and is Director of the Department of Geopolitics at Manipal University in southern India. Nalapat is a former Coordinating Editor of the Times of India and writes extensively on security, policy and international affairs.