The role of military strategists in America’s defense apparatus isn’t to establish policy that leads to war, nor is it to inform the politics that surround one. Strategists are tasked with identifying potential conflicts and developing strategies to mitigate, manage, or win those conflicts if they were to manifest. This is why the media occasionally drags out stories about “plans” to conduct military operations on foreign soil as though they’re evidence of some nation-level ulterior motive, when the truth of the matter really is that you need to have a plan to act on the day a conflict arises. If you wait for the conflict to arise before establishing a plan, you’ll be fighting from your heels.

This approach to strategy is why the American people have seen such a shift in emphasis toward countering Chinese military expansion within America’s national security apparatus (and accompanying media). The intent is not to go to war with China, it’s to ensure America remains too formidable an opponent to the Chinese to allow such a conflict to develop. In many ways, what kept the Cold War cold (or at least lukewarm) was, in large part, the understanding on both sides that open war between the United States and the Soviet Union would just be too costly for everyone involved. With such terrible losses looming, both parties hesitated when it came to pulling the trigger, and that tiny bit of hesitation was enough to stave off a world-ending nuclear war on at least one occasion.

Despite the media attention Russia tends to garner with doomsday weapons and far-out claims about science-fiction technology, China represents the most formidable threat to American interests abroad in the 21st century. Its massive military presence at sea, which exceeds 600 vessels when its maritime militia and coast guard are brought to bare, would already present a formidable challenge to America’s massive Navy, and with continued expansion and modernization efforts ongoing, China promises to become the dominant power in the Pacific within the coming decades. In fact, according to some American defense experts, they are already on the verge of having the military capacity to defend their aggressive claims over the entirety of the South China Sea.

China’s claim over the South China Sea shown in red (WikiMedia Commons)

With tensions rising in the Pacific and in light of an ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and China, one might be inclined to think that war with China may be fast approaching. Objectively, such a fight still seems rather unlikely in the short term, but military strategy is a game of decades, not months or years. So if a war with China is a possibility within the next 50 years, strategies need to be established that assume it’s an unavoidable certainty.