War with China is inevitable. The only question is when. We’ve previously discussed victory conditions in a Chinese war and the need for a military strategy to achieve the desired victory conditions (see, "China War - Setting the Stage"). Most observer’s and commentator’s idea of strategy and victory conditions involve containing China within the first island chain. If we can push them back to pre-war boundaries then we’ve ‘won’ in the sense that we will have achieved the specified victory conditions: in essence, a return to status-quo (see, "China War Strategy - Blockade").
The problem with this approach and this set of victory conditions is that it raises the nagging question of whether this is actually a long term victory.
Before we go any further, let’s ask ourselves what ‘victory’ is? The truest and most desirable ‘victory’ is when you never have to fight that enemy again. Any other result is not really a victory, just a temporary cessation of hostilities during which the enemy can rebuild and rearm.
Will ‘victory’ that returns China to pre-war boundaries and status quo (assuming we can achieve it!) assure that we won’t have to fight China again? I ask because a ‘victory’ that results in having to refight the war again is not really a victory, is it?
Does history support this set of victory conditions (return to pre-war boundaries and status quo) as being an actual victory?
Let’s look at the historical record of wars in modern times (since the 1900’s) that ended with the losing side intact and essentially returned to pre-war boundaries and status quo and see whether the ‘winners’ really won in the long term.
Russo-Japanese War 1904-5 – Japan won a significant victory but left an intact Russia. . What was the long term result? Within 40 years Japan had to fight Russia again in WWII. So, the war wasn’t really a victory for Japan, was it?
WWI – Germany was ‘defeated’ and returned to pre-war boundaries. What was the long term result? Within 20 years we had to fight Germany again. So, WWI wasn’t really a victory, was it?
Korean War – NKorea was ‘defeated’ and returned to pre-war boundaries. What was the long term result? We’ve been fighting NKorea ever since. They’ve developed atomic weapons, conducted vast cyber attacks against the US, torpedoed SKorean warships, brutally oppressed their people, developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, launched ballistic missiles into Japanese territorial waters, and forced the US to tie up significant military forces in SKorea. So, the Korean War wasn’t really a victory, was it?
Cold War – While not an overtly kinetic war, the Soviet Union was ‘defeated’ and returned to pre-war boundaries, more or less. What was the long term result? The Soviet Union, now called Russia, is once again threatening Europe, annexing and invading countries, and threatening the US with new nuclear weapons. Now, 20 years later, we’re engaged in a repeat of the Cold War. So, the Cold War wasn’t really a victory, was it?
Arab-Israeli War (Six Day War 1967) – Israel defeated a coalition of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. While Egypt lost the Sinai territory, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria remained intact military and political entities with their pre-war boundaries more or less intact. What was the long term result? Israel was nearly destroyed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War just six years later. So, the Six Day War wasn’t really a victory for Israel, was it?
Israeli-Palestinian/Hamas War – Israel has repeatedly engaged and defeated Hamas while allowing the Hamas ‘country’ to return to its pre-war boundaries each time. What has been the long term result? Israel has had to repeat the war over and over again. So, the Israeli victories haven’t really been victories, have they?
Gulf War / Desert Storm – Iraq and Sadaam Hussein were ‘defeated’ and returned to pre-war boundaries. What was the long term result? Within 12 years we had to refight Iraq and Hussein. So, Desert Storm wasn’t really a victory, was it?
India – Pakistan War of 1965 – Though technically a stalemate, India had the clear upper hand but both countries returned to their pre-war boundaries. What has been the long term result? The countries have engaged in numerous clashes over the subsequent years. So, there was no victory, was there?
I considered including the 1982 Falklands War but it wasn’t a war in the sense that we’re discussing here. It was a sovereignty dispute that resulted in combat but was conducted as a very limited battle with neither side attempting to attack the other’s homeland or non-disputed territories and, outside the narrow point of disagreement, neither side harbored any particular animosity towards the other.
What’s the common theme in these historical examples? The losing side retained its boundaries and political existence, more or less unchanged and, in every case, the winner had to refight the war within a shockingly short time. To put it bluntly, the winning side, in each case, lacked the will to decisively and permanently destroy its enemy which ensured that the war would be refought.
The Korean War represents a slight deviation from this conclusion in the sense that we haven’t had to engage in actual combat with NKorea again but we have, in every other way, been continually engaged with NKorea since the end of active hostilities. Given the required commitment of massive military resources on an on-going basis, it might as well be war.
Now, let’s look at examples where the losing side ceased to exist as a military and political entity.
WWII – The Allies defeated Germany and Japan and occupied the countries, completely disarmed the military, and replaced the leadership and government. The pre-war military, government, and leadership ceased to exist. What was the long term result? There has been no repeat of war with either country and both have become strong, peaceful, productive world contributors. So, victory produced a permanent improvement for all parties.
Vietnam War – NVietnam defeated SVietnam and the US, occupied the country, disarmed the military, and replaced the leadership and government. What was the long term result? There has been no repeat of war and Vietnam has become a productive member of the world community with, astoundingly, improving relations with the US of late! So, victory produced a permanent improvement for all parties.
Iraq War / Operation Iraqi Freedom – The US defeated Iraq, occupied the country, disarmed the military, and removed the leadership and government. What was the long term result? There has been no repeat war with Iraq. So, victory produced a permanent improvement for all parties.
While ending a war as soon as possible often seems like a good thing, at the time, the sad reality is that it is always unwise. Prematurely ending a war is appealing from economic, humanitarian, and other aspects but ultimately costs more than following through and establishing complete and total victory.
A war that leaves the losing side intact is all but guaranteed to recur in a shockingly short time.
We need to consider this as we formulate our geopolitical and military strategy towards China.
Note: I’ve used the phrase, ‘returned to pre-war boundaries’. I’m using it as an approximate statement. I will not entertain any irrelevant comments debating the exact boundaries. That’s not the point of the post.
Note: There may be an isolated example somewhere in history that runs counter to the proffered premise but that doesn’t alter the general validity of the premise. I’ll take a dim view of comments along these lines. You’ll also note that I limited the analysis to modern times. Earlier times had different conditions regarding war due to lack of modern transportation/mobility, communications, global economies, etc.