What will be the casus belli for war with China?
In one of the great scenes in the movie Citizen Kane, newspaper publisher Charles Kane, in desperate need of headlines to boost circulation, decides a patriotic war would be just the thing. When his reporters fail to find evidence of imminent hostilities, Kane famously bellows “You provide the prose, I’ll provide the war!”
Kane is directly modeled after the real-life William Randolph Hearst, who generously fanned the flames of the Spanish-American war, making the sinking of the Maine, a U.S. warship, by the Spanish, into a casus belli. It was all a lie — the Maine exploded internally, on its own. No matter, a war was needed, and so with that decision made, a cause was created.
The real reasons for the war included a U.S. desire to take control of Cuba and to become a Pacific power by seizing the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time, advocated for the war as a rally-round-the-flag event to heal the lingering wounds of the American Civil War, and as an excuse to increase the Navy’s budget. After all, they sank our ship! The press would wait until WMDs were not created to ever be that compliant again.
It was very much the same story in Vietnam. Washington, imagining a global communist conspiracy rising from the ashes of WWII, began its war in Vietnam by proxy in 1945, soon funding the French struggle for years. By 1950 the first American military personnel were stationed in Saigon. When American advisors and casualties began to come to the public’s attention, and successes by the other side began to pile up, the real American war got underway.
But with a more overt war, a more overt reason had to be found. That took the form of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident: a claim that two American warships came under unprovoked attack by North Vietnam. What really happened was far from that, but it didn’t matter. Congress passed an enabling resolution and the war escalated as needed. They hurt our ships!
In the late 1990s, The Project for the New American Century think tank developed what neoconservatives were calling a compelling vision for American foreign policy based on a “benevolent global hegemony.” They had nothing less in mind than a global war of occupation and regime change, focused on the Middle East. The war was set, but the problem lay in convincing the American people to support it. “The process of transformation,” PNAC charged in its manifesto, “even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”
The new Pearl Harbor fell into their laps on 9/11. Even then, though, another made-up reason was needed to justify the invasion of Iraq, the jewel in the neocon planning. The Bush administration made a few attempts to link Saddam to 9/11 directly, then to terrorism generically, but none of it stuck with the public, correctly confused about why an attack largely planned, funded, and executed by Saudis, required a war in Iraq.
In the end the decision to stress the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction above all others was made for “bureaucratic” reasons, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. “It was the one reason everyone could agree on.” It really did not matter that it wasn’t true.
This was followed by years of conflict under four presidents. Along the way mini-versions of the same game — war decided on first, reasons ginned up later — were run to justify invasions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. It does not matter what is true because the incidents, real or imaginary, are just like buses; miss one and another will be along soon enough.
These wars, from the Maine to Iraq, had no Pearl Harbor. America was not attacked, it wanted to initiate the war itself, and created a false pretext for doing so. Unlike with the WMDs, there was no question the Japanese bombed Pearl and that this was an actual, unambiguous act of aggression. It did not require a lie or an explanation or some 1940s version of Colin Powell at the UN.
Which brings us to China, which appears to be the next war now searching for a reason.
“The Fight for Taiwan Could Come Soon,” warns the Wall Street Journal, alongside nearly every other publication of note. President Biden has begun the propaganda spadework, declaring, “on my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Is war imminent? Will it begin in Taiwan?
The reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan are lengthy and cover the economic, military, and political spheres. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities. But that is not what the historical playbook says matters. It may be the United States has already decided a bench clearing, superpower showdown is needed, eagle vs. dragon, for control of the Pacific. We just need to find a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication.
Now it is possible the war fever over China is just a con inside a con. It is possible the military industrial complex knows it will never fight an actual war, but is simply using the threat as a way to run up its budget. They remember how the lies about the “missile gap” with the Soviet Union exploded the military industrial complex budget following WWII. A Chinese threat requires endless spending on the good stuff — big carriers, submarines, and space forces — upping the ante even beyond the decades of spending in Afghanistan.
And then boom! As certain as the sun rising in the east is red, last week Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the U.S. was in an “arms race” with China over the development of hypersonic weapons that can evade missile defenses. His boss Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin lambasted China over its pursuit of hypersonic weapons, saying the activity “increases tensions in the region.” America faces a hypersonic weapons gap.
An arms race would be the best case scenario to come out of all the saber rattling over China. If that’s all this is, it is well underway. But what if the U.S. has its mind set on a real war and needs a palatable reason?
So, a challenge to all readers. On a postcard addressed to the White House, what would be the declared justification for the U.S. going to war with China?
You can have fun with this — Beijing kidnaps Taylor Swift and a rescue mission escalates into full-on war? Or China is caught releasing a virus that disables global trade? Or geopolitically serious stuff about a struggle for rare earth minerals? No cheating with statements pretending to be reasons, like China is an “imminent threat,” or declarations like “clear and present danger.” Imagine you’re a modern day Paul Wolfowitz, handed the fait accompli of war and tasked with ginning up a reason Americans will buy. But no “they sunk our ship” scenarios. Been there, done that.
*Editor’s note: Citizen Kane quote updated for accuracy.