During the phase of the Cold War between 1952 and 92, the possibility of any form of direct attack by the U.S.S.R on the U.S. or vice-versa was reduced to near-zero by the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Each of the two had the capability to absorb a nuclear first strike and thereafter inflict terminal damage on the other. Knowledge of such capability kept peace in Europe and helped the continent escape the conflicts that broke out in Asia. Indeed, the U.S.S.R was so intimidated by the U.S. nuclear arsenal that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (C.P.S.U.) lacked the courage to mount even a conventional challenge, not simply against the U.S. and its N.A.T.O allies, but also against countries such as Pakistan, that were being used by Washington to conduct a war by proxy against Moscow. Had a fraction of the munitions expended by the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan been spent on locations within Pakistan (in particular the regions feeding the insurgency in the neighboring country), there was a high probability that Moscow would have crippled the U.S.-backed insurgency and its regional satellites in Afghanistan. So pervasive was the fear of a U.S. nuclear strike that the U.S.S.R (even under the usually U.S.-compliant Mikhail Gorbachev) went ahead with an economically ruinous strategic and conventional military buildup after Ronald Reagan spoke in 1983 of creating a missile defense system that would in theory, once completed, absorb a nuclear first strike.
The C.P.S.U. believed that this move was a precursor to a nuclear first strike on the U.S.S.R by the U.S., something that they thought was the fervent wish of every U.S. administration. When in the 1993, this columnist pointed to China as being the replacement for the now defunct U.S.S.R. in the demonology of N.A.T.O., barring a handful of strategic experts (including R D Fisher, then with the Heritage Foundation), others saw such an outcome as “fanciful”. Today, they may have changed such a view, especially after the 2011 Department of Defense strategic vision document released by President Obama, which explicitly mentions the Peoples Republic of China (P.R.C.) as being in the same category of hostiles as Iran and therefore a direct threat to the U.S. Although he has been condemned on the campaign trail as being “weak” on national security, the reality remains that it was Barack Obama rather than the eight years of George W Bush that saw off Osama bin Laden, just as it is since 2009 that drone attacks on terrorist hideouts in Pakistan have accelerated. Indeed, in 2001, the Bush administration 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. President Obama has understood that while military power can win a territory from a conventional enemy, it cannot hold it unless it is willing to inflict human casualties on a scale made impossible by cable television and the use of mobile telephones as video cameras. To revert to the case of India, once international publications began to extensively cover the various protests of Mahatma Gandhi, the list of feasible responses by the India Office in London narrowed considerably that the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) and the U.S. military consider themselves rivals is no secret.
Indeed, Afghanistan has become the first significant theater of effective 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 U.S.S.R., today it is the U.S. itself. From 2003 at the latest, the P.L.A. has had greater influence over the Pakistan military than the Pentagon, public perceptions, and statements to the contrary. Since 2007, the PLA’s influence – and therefore that of the PRC – 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 the PLA is a complete withdrawal of all N.A.T.O forces from Afghanistan (and Pakistan), followed by the takeover of the former country by a Taliban affiliate of the ISI. Across the world, from Iran to Sudan to Venezuela, the PRC has been boosting the military and other capabilities of forces hostile to the N.A.T.O powers, principally the U.S. It is following a low-cost, low-visibility strategy of draining the U.S. in particular via feints and jabs conducted by the States and non-state players reinforced by Beijing.
The P.L.A is no match for the U.S.-armed forces, just as the U.S. conventional forces in Europe were no match for the U.S.S.R. What prevents a sufficiently robust response from Washington to the increasing number of challenges from Beijing? The explanation may vest in what may be described as the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction of Economy (or MADE). While China lacks the capacity to inflict equivalent damage to the U.S. via military means since the mid-1990s, it has reached a stage of economic interlinking with the U.S. as it would make a direct conflict between the two unacceptably costly for Washington.
It is unacceptable because such a conflict would not involve the takeover (actual or attempted) of territory belonging to the other, but jousts in proxy locations. This being the case, the pain threshold that remains bearable in case of a hostile act gets pushed significantly higher, in view of the apprehension that direct hostilities would inflict unacceptable economic damage. Given the absence of an overt and existential threat, such as that posed by the National Socialist German Workers Party (N.S.D.A.P.) 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 would be chary of committing their military to conflicts where the economic costs are huge. The lack of significant domestic opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. is explainable by the absence of knowledge about the eventual costs of that intervention. Now that the figures have come in, both for Iraq as well as Afghanistan, getting domestic support for another full-scale major war would be impossibly difficult, unless there were a direct and existential threat to the U.S. itself. By keeping the threshold of aggression below this (high) level, a country determined to challenge the U.S. can do so with relative impunity, especially if conflict brings with it huge economic damage to both sides unlike Syria and other states that have pursued politics antithetical to perceived N.A.T.O. strategic interests and got blowback, China has thus far escaped retaliation. The reason for this is the dense web of interconnection between the P.R.C. economy and that of the U.S. 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 to its hopes of survival. And in a domino effect, once the EU goes under economically, a weakened U.S. may as well. Given the core importance of economics to voters in within the N.A.T.O. bloc, such an outcome becomes unacceptable and therefore, any steps that could potential generate such an outcome would become undoable. Hence the immunity of the P.R.C. from significant N.A.T.O retaliation, despite Beijing challenging the alliance’s strategic interests worldwide. Apart from assistance to regimes considered “rogue” by N.A.T.O, would such immunity extend to a conflict between the PRC and Taiwan? Interestingly, the island has the same defense vis-a-vis the PRC as Beijing itself has vis-a-vis N.A.T.O. This is again MADE. So closely meshed are the economies of the P.R.C. and Taiwan that a conflict would lead to significant damage in the former. In particular, advances in high-technology items need the willing participation of brainpower. Should the Taiwanese see the P.R.C. as an occupier rather than as now, a partner, they would be unwilling to allow their own R&D skills to mesh with those of the P.R.C. It needs to be remembered that it is the Taiwan Dividend that has most enabled the P.R.C. to leapfrog several technological stages in its efforts at matching the N.A.T.O countries in high technology. While some may point to the economic linkages between the U.S., France, and the U.K. on the one hand and Germany on the other as evidence that such ties need not halt a war, the situation in the first half of the 20th century was characterized by (a) far lower interlink ages than at present and (b) the reality of colonies as a buffer against the shocks that a conflict would cause. The situation is very different in the 21st century. In a globalizing word, the transition from MAD to MADE is inevitable; in that the level of deterrence is similar .The only “anti-missile” defense against MADE would be a significant dilution in the economic linkages binding the NATO countries with the P.R.C., an outcome that seems distant at this time.