Chinese academic: China will pay the price for underestimating the US

The US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was ugly and messy, but certainly not anywhere catastrophic enough to say that this marks the end of US hegemony. China should not underestimate the US’s strength. In fact, while the US flexes its muscles in conventional warfare and pledges a “no first use” nuclear stance, China should beef up its nuclear deterrence quotient for greater insurance against the US.
A visitor takes a photograph in front of an electronic American flag in the Times Square neighborhood of New York, US, on 4 September 2021. (Amir Hamja/Bloomberg)
A visitor takes a photograph in front of an electronic American flag in the Times Square neighborhood of New York, US, on 4 September 2021. (Amir Hamja/Bloomberg)

Recently, various articles have described the US’s defeat in Afghanistan as the end of American hegemony. However, I believe recent events in Afghanistan signal neither the US’s defeat nor the end of American hegemony.

The Taliban captured Kabul quickly because the Ashraf Ghani administration failed to put up a fight and gave up as the US troops were withdrawing. While the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was embarrassing and hasty, the US did not lose a war — withdrawing from Afghanistan was its choice. Hence, it is unconvincing to conclude that American hegemony is ending based simply on a hasty withdrawal. 

The US has suffered disgrace, but no damage has been inflicted on its national strength. Losing face does not equate to the end of American hegemony.   

The US’s troop pullout from Afghanistan does not mark the end of American hegemony. On the contrary, there will be a price to pay for underestimating the US.   

Afghanistan merely proves folly of prolonged occupation

On the contrary, the episode may offer Americans food for thought in terms of exercising restraint and prudence in future decision-making. A US that is more circumspect and that guards against arrogance and rashness will be a stronger nation, and we cannot underestimate the US’s ability to reflect and self-correct. Some American domestic voices, especially Republican ones, are demanding that President Joe Biden resign over the catastrophic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which can be seen as the American way of reflecting and learning a lesson.

A newborn baby is looked after prior to taking off with other Afghan evacuees on a C-17 Globemaster III at a Middle East staging area, 23 August 2021. (US Air Force//Handout via Reuters)
A newborn baby is looked after prior to taking off with other Afghan evacuees on a C-17 Globemaster III at a Middle East staging area, 23 August 2021. (US Air Force//Handout via Reuters)

The US has grown and strengthened itself in the few decades after the Vietnam War, consolidating its hegemony in the process. Militarily, while it is now capable of taking over small- and medium-sized countries, long-term occupation would not serve American interests. If it wasn’t Afghanistan that was taken over but another country such as Vietnam, Iran, or even North Korea, a long-term occupation would not have worked out as well.     

Local resistance against outside forces is the coming together of the power and strength of a nation and its people. It would never die as this is where the resistance fighters have their homes and their roots. Even against major powers, such resistance is enduring and highly resilient. Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires”. But other countries would have the same moniker too if they were occupied. It is easy for an empire to militarily defeat a small country, but to occupy it permanently would be extremely difficult and costly.

It would be wrong to write off the US  

The US’s troop pullout from Afghanistan does not mark the end of American hegemony. On the contrary, there will be a price to pay for underestimating the US.   

When the Large Scale Global Exercise 21 (LSGE21) led by the US Indo-Pacific Command ended last month on 27 August, the outside world came to a few realisations. It was held back to back with the Large Scale Exercise (LSE), which is not only the largest naval and amphibious exercise of its kind in 40 years, but can also be seen as a mobilisation of the US’s global forces, and a call for US allies to fight a “world war” that is simultaneously breaking out in Europe and Asia. 

Going by the scale of the exercise, US Naval War College Professor of Strategy James R. Holmes thinks that the US not only sees a world war as a possibility but is also constructing a joint resistance force to fight against it.   

The British Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier sits anchored at the US naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture on 6 September 2021. (Kiyoshi Ota/AFP)
The British Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier sits anchored at the US naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture on 6 September 2021. (Kiyoshi Ota/AFP)

The exercise mobilised the three commands of US Fleet Forces Command, US Pacific Fleet, and US Naval Forces Europe; five battle groups and a marine expeditionary force consisting aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships; the UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier; the Australian frigate; and Japan’s Izumo-class light aircraft carrier. Over 25,000 personnel participated in the exercise, including 36 warships ranging from aircraft carriers to submarines and over 50 US military units.   

As a top US military think tank, RAND Corporation has long been making projections of intense conflicts between China and the US. In 2016, it published an important report titled “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable”, which emphasised that a nuclear war between China and the US is unlikely. The report stated that “Chinese first use is most improbable” and that the US has “no reason to resort to nuclear weapons if it were already on the verge of conventional victory over China”. 

In truth, the less the US avoids mentioning nuclear attacks, the more China should consider using nuclear deterrence to eradicate any untoward thoughts from the US — the aim is in restraining the other party’s strong conventional military capabilities.

China should, on the contrary, initiate talks about nuclear weapons and strengthen its nuclear capabilities to counter the US’s strategy. 

US clear on nuclear ‘no first use’

It was recently reported that a group of former US officials, including former Defence Secretary William Perry, and experts on nuclear disarmament, wrote an open letter addressed to Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and other party leaders. The letter said that the US is considering a declaration saying that it would not use nuclear weapons in an initial attack and is asking Japan to support the US’s “no first use” nuclear stance.     

Refugees receive instructions from a US navy soldier as they disembark from a US air force aircraft after an evacuation flight from Kabul at the Rota naval base in Rota, Spain, on 31 August 2021. (Cristina Quicler/AFP)
Refugees receive instructions from a US navy soldier as they disembark from a US air force aircraft after an evacuation flight from Kabul at the Rota naval base in Rota, Spain, on 31 August 2021. (Cristina Quicler/AFP)

While many are doubtful of the US’s “no first use” nuclear stance, I tend to believe that they will abide by it. In this way, the US can not only avoid a no-win nuclear war, but also confidently display its conventional military capabilities, plotting provocations and even war, or achieve a deterrent effect by exaggerating the US’s willingness and preparedness to go to war.

A powerful US wishing to reach a consensus to not resort to nuclear weapons is in fact showing that it has the upper hand and wants to display its strong conventional military capabilities in case of a war. In this case, China should, on the contrary, initiate talks about nuclear weapons and strengthen its nuclear capabilities to counter the US’s strategy. 

China should strengthen nuclear prowess

A thorough understanding of China’s nuclear deterrence and nuclear strike capabilities vis-à-vis the US would improve the deterrent effect of nuclear arsenal. When such research is encouraged, supported, and its outcomes made public, its deterrence effect would also be optimised. 

On 6 September, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg criticised China for expanding its nuclear arsenal by “building a large number of missile silos”, and claimed that “all of this is happening without any limitation or constraint” and “with a complete lack of transparency”. He reiterated the US’s longstanding stance that “more countries must be included in future missile restriction talks, not just Russia”. 

As the US and NATO call on countries and alliances to contain, oppress and provoke China, the best way — in fact, the simplest and most obvious way — for China to retaliate is to learn from North Korea: strengthen the country’s nuclear power and enhance nuclear deterrence. 

The assurance of Chinese rationality is in fact damaging for China in terms of nuclear deterrence.

A missile is seen launched during a drill of the Railway Mobile Missile Regiment in North Korea, in this image supplied by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on 16 September 2021. (KCNA via Reuters)
A missile is seen launching during a drill of the Railway Mobile Missile Regiment in North Korea, in this image supplied by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on 16 September 2021. (KCNA via Reuters)

The US is clueless about what to do with North Korea as the latter possesses nuclear weapons. As a Chinese saying goes, the barefoot are not afraid of those in shoes — those who have nothing to lose do not fear those in power. The US knows that the consequences will be dire if it pushes North Korea too far. 

In contrast, China is too rational about using nuclear weapons so the US and NATO are not very concerned. The assurance of Chinese rationality is in fact damaging for China in terms of nuclear deterrence.

China should openly strengthen its nuclear capabilities and research on the grounds that the US and its allies are containing and oppressing it.   

If China underestimates the US’s capabilities and power, belittles the US’s determination and courage in containing China, and does not take the initiative to curb the US’s attempts at provoking China, China could very well pay the price of going to war.

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