Can one-child China fight a war?

Edward N. Luttwak
Edward N. Luttwak
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The invasion of Ukraine that started on February 24, 2022 revealed that the Russian army, which last won a war 77 years ago, was seriously out of practice, and that Vladimir Putin’s cronies were not up to the job. Instead of refighting World War II by going in with multiple tank-lead invasion columns, which might have worked, their ultra-modern “post-kinetic war” plans relied on cyber, post-modern information warfare, and a very fast airborne seizure of central Kyiv, followed by the parade-like advance of thousands of armored vehicles, to make all resistance seem futile. The CIA was so impressed that it predicted that Kyiv would fall in 24 hours and the entire country in a few days—exactly the same estimate as Putin’s own FSB. (Only the FSB has been restaffed, alas).

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For the last eight months, the Russians have been trying to recover their balance, and with the steady infusion of recalled reservists their growing forces will have another go, sooner or later. When a Great Power fails to defeat a smaller one, it tries again, and again. Russians can keep trying in spite of an entire slew of Western sanctions because they make their own food, and their own fuel.

China, by contrast, is by far the world’s largest importer of chicken, mutton, beef, and dairy products, and of much greater quantities of animal feed: 96,516,785 metric tons of soya beans and another 30 million metric tons of maize, wheat, and sorghum. In 2021, Chinese feed imports accounted for the largest of all oceanic freight flows save for iron ore and petroleum.

Most of China’s protein derives from those feed imports. If they are interrupted by sanctions, after the mass slaughter of cows, pigs, and chicken with great meat-eating feasts for all, China would be back to its Mao-era diet of rice, wheat, vegetables, occasional bits of pork, and one chicken a month, if that.

China is also the world’s largest importer of crude oil and liquified natural gas, but that is a less critical dependence because it has domestic production and pipelines deliver hydrocarbons from Russia and Kazakhstan, plus a bit from Myanmar. More importantly, once it is at war, exports and the very large energy demand of the export industries would both end.

By contrast with Russia, China cannot possibly replace its food and feed imports. If Xi Jinping were to trigger basic G-7 sanctions by launching a military attack, the Chinese might still have fuel rations but not much food. In the Shanghai COVID lockdowns people were much better fed than when I lived awhile in Mao’s China, but they bitterly complained that they were starving—understandably: today’s taller, more muscular Chinese need their proteins.

But perhaps another shortage is more crippling for a “war of choice”—not to defend China but to attack, as per Beijing’s frequent threats—and this is the most critical of all war requirements: a supply of expendable military manpower.

By the very lowest estimate in circulation, 28,517 Russian regular soldiers, recalled reservists, Donetsk and Luhansk militia, and Wagner mercenaries were killed in action in Ukraine by mid-October, without arousing any significant resistance. In fact, more reservists are being recalled to active duty as this is written, without even making the news.

By contrast, when four PLA soldiers were killed in a night brawl with Indian troops in Ladakh’s Galwan valley on June 15-16, 2020, those four deaths were of such great significance that their deaths were not announced until February 19, 2021, a delay of eight months, long enough to allow very elaborate preparations to mitigate the effect of disclosing just four combat deaths.

It was then announced that the senior of the four, battalion commander Major Chen Hongjun, had been posthumously decorated with the “July 1 Medal,” the highest Communist Party award, granted by Xi Jinping himself. Chen’s pregnant widow Xiao Jianwen, who had a degree in music, was promptly appointed to teach at the region’s highest-ranking musical institution, the Xi'an Conservatory of Music, with a new house nearby for her and her infant son.

Chen Xiangrong, the youngest of the dead, was the object of a professional media treatment in which he appears as downright “cute,” to make him an instant youth hero.
A somewhat older soldier, Xiao Siyuan, was cast as the earnest defender "of every inch of the motherland.” His mother echoed her son’s sentiments too enthusiastically, evoking social media criticism for her lack of motherly sentiments, which required a further propaganda intervention to defend her.

The presentation of the fourth and final “martyr,” Wang Zuoran, stressed his filial sentiments supposedly preserved in a pre-combat letter: "Mom and dad, sorry to be an unfilial son. I am sorry that I might not be able to be there for you through the end. If there is an afterlife [heroes are allowed some ideological leeway] I wish I could be your son again.”

By the time of Wang Zuoran’s funeral, at which his parents had to express spontaneous grief kept on ice for eight months, a permanent Wang Zuoran exhibit graced the local museum.

My own “Post-Heroic” theory links the diminished tolerance for the casualties of war to the fall in family size: In the wars of the past, the loss of one male child would still leave two more, even three, and at least one to perpetuate the family. By the time of the Vietnam war, the June 6 1944 D-Day loss of 2,400 killed, wounded, or missing in one day in one place (Americans were also fighting in Italy and in the Pacific on that day) had become unimaginable, and this is even more true for today’s Chinese. The elaborate treatment accorded to the four killed in the Galwan valley reflects the exceptional sensitivity to casualties of Chinese families, whose children of military age are almost exclusively single children, the only future of two nuclear families. No war in history was fought with units manned exclusively by single children—and I doubt that the PLA will be the first, judging by what happened when just four men were killed.

All of the above strongly suggests that when Xi Jinping’s minions in the propaganda machine threaten war, as they did when it was announced that Nancy Pelosi would fly to Taiwan, they are bluffing—and they must have been very gratified by the eagerness of think tank China experts and fashionable columnists to echo their hollow threats.

My own view was different: On August 1, I tweeted, “it is distressing that President Biden publicly advised Speaker Pelosi not to travel to Taiwan. A country that imports its protein from the US & allies is not another Russia free to choose war. Any action that triggers G-7 sanctions would reduce China to a Mao diet soon enough.” And: “Thomas L Friedman in NYT: ‘Why Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan Is Utterly Reckless, Aug. 1, 2022’ attributes a war option that food-importing China lacks…”

Pelosi duly flew to Taiwan, and China’s response was to launch missiles that landed in the open ocean. But that did not stop a slew of retired US admirals from projecting a Chinese invasion in 2027 or some other such year, because by then the Chinese navy would greatly outnumber the US Navy. Perhaps. But what about the soya beans, and only sons?

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