As President Trump’s trade war with China continues, weakening relations between the two powerful states have already begun exacerbating tensions between U.S. and Chinese interests in other realms of geopolitics. Diplomatic spats about how the United States views Taiwan, and a looming standoff between the Chinese and the U.S.-led Pacific forces that challenge China’s claimed sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea are now no longer just simmering disputes without a clear path toward resolution — they’re starting to look like the varied facets of a slow-and-steady march toward war.

For those who have built their careers out of thriving at that point of conflict — where words and actions have reverberating effects on the lives of millions for years to come — the symptoms of war can become fairly easy to discern. Dehumanizing political rhetoric, a focus on your opponent’s human rights abuses, and, of course, repeated reminders of the threat the opponent poses to the general public are all the wickets that need to be hit before a nation can stomach declaring war.

Today, you’ll find each of those, as well as a host of other red flags, pouring freely from American and Chinese politicians. It isn’t necessarily about grooming these nations for war, so much as it’s about grooming the people to withstand one if it were to become inevitable. Vietnam demonstrated to policymakers for the first time that souring public support for a military operation can turn the tides of battle just as effectively as bullets or bombs — and the world’s leaders took notice. If you hope to at least present the image of a nation that listens to its people, you now have two options when it comes to war: only declare them when the public demands it… or stir up the demand from the public yourself.

Retired Lt. General Ben Hodges, who previously served as the commander of all U.S. Army forces in Europe, now earns a paycheck as a defense strategy expert for the Center for European Policy Analysis. Recently, Hodges remarked on the likelihood that a conflict would break out with China in the near future, and how that will affect America’s ability to serve as a deterrent force for Russian aggression in Europe.

“The United States needs a very strong European pillar. I think in 15 years — it’s not inevitable — but it is a very strong likelihood that we will be at war with China,” Hodges said at the Warsaw Security Forum. “The United States does not have the capacity to do everything it has to do in Europe and in the Pacific to deal with the Chinese threat.”

Fifteen years isn’t a long and arbitrary prediction. The retired general didn’t suggest a century, or even a generation from now American forces would find themselves squaring off against Chinese troops. Ben Hodges is saying a war with China is so close that a child born in America today wouldn’t even make it to their junior prom before the first shots of what could be World War III were fired. We’re not talking about some far-off possibility; we’re talking about a situation that could potentially be a single presidency away. If Donald Trump wins reelection in 2020 and his successor also managed to secure two terms, Ben Hodges believes that president could potentially preside over a war with the second most powerful economy on the planet.

That’s a really big deal… but is there any truth to it?

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Well, predictions are tough — especially when it comes to incredibly complex relationships between nations. The United States and China are economically interdependent, regardless of the tough talk about trade that’s currently being tossed about. The Chinese military, while massive and amidst a large scale modernization effort, isn’t capable of fielding any formidable military presence in any part of the world that isn’t their own backyard. China has made some technological leaps beyond America’s defense apparatus — including hypersonic missile platforms — but the United States is dumping billions into its own programs to remedy that strategic advantage. The fact of the matter is, a war with China within the next 15 years seems about as likely as a war with Martians… but that isn’t to say that General Hodges has missed the mark.

A war with China, however unlikely, has to be among America’s top concerns in the near future; because preparing for a war in the next 15 years may be the only way to prevent one in the next 50.

China’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers do not possess nuclear power, nor do they have reliable and effective fighters to field from their decks. Their massive standing military relies on commercial trains for transportation because they lack the equipment necessary to move their troops around their own country, let alone the world, but perhaps the single greatest reason China won’t go to war with the United States within the next 15 years is because it could put their eventual victory at risk. China is absorbing the role of diplomatic leader that America has shied away from under President Trump’s administration. Their military expansion is meant as a means to guarantee their diplomatic and economic efforts, not as a means of direct imperialism.

China is playing the long game; watching America’s foreign policy isolate the nation and making calculated decisions to ensure their victory over the span of decades, rather than in the headlines this week. Going to war with America in the next decade would compromise their careful branding efforts as a 21st-century power that stands up to America’s “bullying” ways.

America has been painted in the international media as a selfish and powerful nation in recent years, and, in particular, in recent months. Russia and China helped bolster the narrative that America was the aggressor in talks with North Korea, and America has exhibited less enthusiasm for defending its allies in Europe while simultaneously walking away from international agreements pertaining to environmental issues. America is removing itself from international conversation and relinquishing its leverage over even friendly nations. China sees these decisions as opportunities, and likely wouldn’t risk their chance at capitalizing on them for the sake of a conflict in the South China Sea.

Though China has demonstrated a willingness to push the limits of diplomacy. Here is the People’s Liberation Army-Navy Lanzhou (right) nearly colliding with the USS Decatur (Left) in the South China Sea earlier this month. (U.S. Navy)

And that’s why American needs to be worried about them. General Hodges may believe a war with China could erupt any day now, and that may well be true — but even if it isn’t, an ideological conflict with China is already underway, with stakes no different than an armed campaign. The United States needs to counter China’s diplomatic efforts to absorb the role of global leader. It needs to enact a strategy that mitigates China’s economic leverage over so much of the world. And it needs to prepare its military to fight against the most technologically capable opponent it has ever faced — it needs to do all of these things to survive the 21st Century and retain its status as a superpower. In this case, a strong offense is a good defense. By countering China’s efforts, the United States could avoid a conflict through the act of preparing for one. As a declaration alone, that may seem counter-intuitive, but truly, that concept serves as the very basis of deterrent military strategy.

Maybe, in some ways, a war with China could break out within the next 15 years… but the bigger concern is really that, in some ways, that war has already started.