Sino-American conflict: Rare earth and proxy wars instead of interstate great power wars?

Sino-American conflict: Rare earth and proxy wars instead of interstate great power wars?

Global Review recommends two articles about the Sino-American conflict. First, “ America´s strategic vulnerability. Rare Earth Elements” by Ariel Cohen and James C. Grant at the website of the Foreign Policy Reeaerch Institute (FPRI), June 22nd 2021. Interesting article that compares the US dependence on China`s rare earths with the dependence on oil during  the OPEC embargo 1973 and suggests similar measures: Restructuring of the supply chain, investment in other rare earth mining countries, a strategic reserve, a consumer´s club. . A good overview of the producing countries and the importance of Central Asia and Africa. As political recommendations the article lists:

“Policy Recommendations: U.S. Must Lead in Building the Western Supply Chain 

As it stands, Chinese domination of the critical mineral supply chains dwarves the U.S. by all conceivable metrics: China commands 85% of the REE export market, producing 62% of global raw mineral materials and importing $2 billion worth of critical minerals and REEs. In the event of an acute international crisis, the PRC would likely use its leverage to further geostrategic aims by imposing critical mineral embargos. Considering the United States derives roughly 80% of its REEs from China, these would likely be catastrophic for the economy, including the high tech, computers, electronics, electric mobility, aerospace, and military-industrial complex.

Given China’s track record and threats in this space, the potential for future embargos is realistic. Like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), the stockpiling of rare earths and critical minerals would provide sustainability in the face of international crisis. Supply delays during the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the U.S. lack of preparedness and supply chain bottlenecks, which is beginning to have short-term ramifications for U.S. semiconductors, appliances, autos, and other industries. Current semiconductor shortages in car and appliances factories are threatening to interrupt production and are leading to wait periods of up to six-month delivery times.

In the event of a critical minerals embargo, U.S. companies would be left stranded with limited REE stockpile capabilities. To counter the strategic vulnerabilities associated with reliance on Chinese critical mineral and REE supply chains, the United States must immediately establish a reserve of critical minerals like that of the SPR for oil imports. The capacity of such a reserve is open to discussion, but one third-to-half of annual REE demand seems appropriate at the first stage, later expanding the reserve to a whole year of supply.

Developing domestic capacities to mine and refine critical minerals across the United States should be a priority for the U.S. government agencies, yet the private sector should be the primary driver behind REE exploration and production, like other mineral mining and processing. The sole Mountain Pass mine in California will not be sufficient for long-term aims of decoupling from Chinese critical mineral supply. Plans made by Lynas and Blue Line Corp to build domestic REE refinement facilities in the United States should be the pioneering projects, leading to bigger and better ones throughout North America. The Biden administration should also reauthorize the Defense Production Act to speed up the planning, construction, and operation of these facilities, as expanding domestic mineral projects addresses a key strategic vulnerability.

U.S. corporations should be encouraged to expand rare earths extraction operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The construction of mining infrastructure in African nations would be relatively inexpensive, given lower labor costs and less stringent environmental regulations. Africa’s rich mineral reserves make it an ideal destination for supply chain diversification. However, the security challenges, from Al Shabaab to Boko Haram will require U.S. and its allies to project power in order to protect the supply chain. Importantly, the African governments and audiences should be aware of U.S. efforts to address developmental needs of host countries, regions, and communities—in competition with China. Roads, schools, medical facilities, and environmental protection should be front and center for U.S. REE operations in Africa.

Finally, U.S. policymakers must set specific targets to decrease reliance on Chinese REEs and critical minerals. Targeting specific non-China reliance goals will increase intergovernmental and business sector cooperation and signal clear intent to international partners to build robust levels of Western REE self-reliance.

The United States and its allies should pursue policies that guarantee dependable access to these critical resources at affordable prices, like those in response to the 1970s Arab embargo-triggered energy crisis. President Richard Nixon launched Project Independence after the 1973 oil embargo, attempting to ensure that the U.S. would increase its capacity to refine and extract oil domestically while promoting a union of consumer countries to study the industry and influence oil pricing. The International Energy Agency arose from such cooperative efforts of oil-consuming democracies. Similarly, the U.S. must now explore critical mineral supply expansion while gathering allies into an REE “consumer club” to develop policies and build strategic cooperation and partnerships in the diversification of extraction and refinement facilities.

Critical minerals are the lifeblood of the 21st century, fueling high-tech manufacturing and renewable energy transition. These resources are the keystones of economic progress and industrial leadership in building 21st century defenses. The U.S. and her allies must diversify their critical mineral supply chains. Governments who underestimate their importance do so at their own risk.

The second article “The Future of Sino-U.S. Proxy War” by Dominic Tierney in the Texas National Security Review Volume 4, Issue 2, Spring 2021 analyzes the trends of warfare, interstate war, military intervention, nonmilitary intervention and proxy wars over the last decades and thinks that not a Sino-American conventional war will be the main pattern as global trends like nuclear deterrence and interdependence  inhibit such a interstate war, but the USA and China will engage more and more in proxy wars and China´s non-intervention principle already was not that dogmatic in the past and won´t be in the future, but will erode..

“The Future of Sino-U.S. Proxy War

Dominic Tierney

Strategic thought in both the United States and China has focused on the potential for a Sino-U.S. interstate war and downplayed the odds of a clash in a foreign internal conflict. However, great-power military competition is likely to take the form of proxy war in which Washington and Beijing aid rival actors in an intrastate conflict. The battlefield of Sino-U.S. military competition is more likely to be Venezuela or Myanmar than the South China Sea. Proxy war could escalate in unexpected and costly ways as Washington and Beijing try to manipulate civil wars in far-flung lands they do not understand, ratchet up their commitment to avoid the defeat of a favored actor, and respond to local surrogates that pursue their own agendas. (…)


In 2007, Robert Gates said that unconventional wars were “the ones most likely to be fought in the years ahead.”181 This holds true for military competition between the United States and China. Strategic doctrine in both countries downplays intervention in foreign civil wars. And yet, any future military rivalry between China and America is likely to take the form of proxy war because of the systemwide dynamics that inhibit interstate war. The battlefield is more likely to be in Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, or Myanmar than in the South China Sea.

A Sino-U.S. proxy war may be low-level, covert, and deniable. Moreover, even as the United States and China seek to manipulate a particular civil war in contrary directions, they may cooperate in other internal conflicts to achieve shared goals like combatting terrorism. However, there is a significant danger that psychological dynamics, ignorance of local culture, and the independence of local actors could unintentionally deepen the civil war or cause a proxy war to spiral into a larger conflict.

For both the United States and China, formal opposition to intervening in foreign civil wars is a useful myth. America’s prioritization of conventional interstate war aligns strategic doctrine with the U.S. military’s comfort zone and also aids particular organizational interests in the Army, Navy, and Air Force by facilitating spending on big-ticket hardware.182 Meanwhile, China’s doctrine of non-intervention serves to diminish fears in the international community about Beijing’s rise. Despite these well-established principles, however, both states routinely engage in foreign intervention.

What are the policy recommendations for the United States? First, the U.S. military and broader national security community should expand their thinking about military competition with China, going beyond preparing for highly unlikely scenarios of interstate war to thinking through far more probable scenarios of proxy war. This means boosting resources for both direct and indirect interventions, including diplomacy, information operations, foreign aid, training and advisory missions, special forces, and counter-insurgency. The military should institutionalize hard-won lessons learned from prior unconventional campaigns like Iraq. Professional education in the U.S. military should pay greater attention to proxy war specifically in order to better understand how interventions can evolve, sometimes in unexpected ways. The Army’s decision in 2014, for example, to close its Irregular Warfare Center is hard to justify when irregular warfare is the dominant kind of global conflict.

One counter-argument might be that a Sino-U.S. interstate war is the most dangerous outcome and therefore deserves the greatest attention, whereas proxy wars are relatively low stakes and the American response to an internal conflict can be improvised, if necessary. However, proxy wars are far more likely to occur than an interstate war and may have significant consequences for U.S. interests and values. Furthermore, the less that the United States prepares for proxy war, the more these campaigns are likely to happen, either because Washington stumbles into a crisis it does not expect or because rational opponents choose to confront America in a scenario where they have the best odds of success. After the Vietnam War, for example, the U.S. military neglected counter-insurgency and pivoted to readying for interstate war with the Soviet Union, leaving America unprepared for later interventions in foreign civil wars.

Second, having developed its toolbox for both direct and indirect interventions, Washington should employ these tools with much greater discretion. The era of American hyper-interventionism has also been an era of military failure in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. U.S. power can be a double-edged sword because it tempts Washington into unwise adventures. Competition with China makes picking and choosing foreign interventions even more important. Costly U.S. direct interventions like Iraq may only weaken America and strengthen China.

Third, the United States should recognize the dangers of perceiving global conflict through the lens of great-power competition and seeing the instability of foreign states as potentially beneficial because it hurts Beijing more than it hurts Washington. The consequences of instability are notoriously tough to predict. U.S. aid to rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, for example, helped force Moscow’s retreat from the country, but it may have also facilitated the rise of al-Qaeda.

Fourth, if the United States does intervene in foreign civil wars, emerging Sino-U.S. competition underscores the importance of setting limited and achievable goals. Washington has a track record of fighting for grandiose war aims, such as building a beacon of freedom in Iraq, in part because the U.S. creed of individual rights encourages Americans to see foreign conflicts in moralistic terms as a struggle between good and evil. As U.S. officials balance local dynamics with the consequences for great-power competition, Washington will usually be well served by aiming for ugly stability rather than true democracy and cutting pragmatic deals with opposing factions in internal conflicts.

Fifth, Washington should make an effort to channel Chinese interventionism toward areas of shared interests. Although a true global partnership to tackle foreign civil wars is unlikely to emerge, there are cases where the great powers’ interests overlap and they can cooperate effectively, such as countering terrorism or piracy.

Sixth, if a Sino-U.S. proxy war occurs, it ought to be carefully managed. Decision-makers should recognize how ignorance of the local culture and ethnic dynamics, an aversion to loss, and independent action by surrogates can all spur unplanned or undesired escalation. The United States should develop deconfliction protocols like those used in Syria.184 Proxy wars are unlikely to involve existential threats to either Washington or Beijing, making it possible to negotiate politically tolerable outcomes and avoid a foreign quagmire from triggering the Thucydides Trap.

While these experts focus more on economic and proxy wars, China also prepares for cyberwar and space war. An good indicator for this is the following Global Times´comment about space wars which makes an armsrace in space more likely- beyond the alleged 120 ICBM silos China would built in the Gobi desert which might change the strategic nuclear balance between the USA and China as the CSBA simulates in its study“Rethinking Armaggeddon- The Second Nuclear Age”. However till now it is not for sure if the report by The Washington Post is real or fake news.

„China, Russia must resolutely respond to arrogant US space goal: Global Times editorial

By Global Times Published: Jul 18, 2021 11:28 PM

According to US and UK media reports, the US is developing a Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability – or DARC – to locate a giant new radar system in Texas, the UK and Australia. The site in the UK would house 10 to 15 parabolic antennas (large satellite dishes) for tracking and four to six for transmitting, and each radar dish will be 15 meters in diameter. The system is said to be able to identify potential targets up to 36,000 kilometers away.

US and UK military officials claimed that it is to make the outer space „safer and more secure.“ To make their claim reasonable, they accused China and Russia of posing „irresponsible and reckless“ threats with their anti-satellite weapon experiments. They also asserted that they need to understand „what’s going on in the dark corners of space.“

It is a significant escalation that has the potential to further change the direction of global military competition. The head of the Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston, has bluntly predicted the next war could be won or lost in space. The primary purpose of the US and its allies in developing DARC is obviously to prepare for winning a war and to deter China and Russia.

The US has been developing its space situational awareness (SSA) for a long time, which is leading far ahead. With the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, its star wars and anti-missile capabilities are already the strongest across the world. But the US is not satisfied. Its ambition to achieve „all-weather, all-dimensional“ information control from outer space to ballistic missiles is turning arms control into formalist attempts. This severely threatens the minimum balance of power needed for global peace.

China and Russia must strongly oppose the US‘ efforts to extend the military competition among major powers into space and oppose its attempts to construct DARC with its allies. China and Russia need to expose the US‘ shameless practice to further develop space warfare capabilities by hyping the so-called space threat from China and Russia. If the US adheres to such moves, China and Russia should take countermeasures, in a bid to strategically frustrate the US‘ ambitious plan.

It has to be noted that it is much more difficult for the US to achieve hegemony in space than that on land and at sea. If the US dares to attack the space assets of China and Russia, the two countries can inflict the same loss on the US. Washington cannot develop the ability to unilaterally occupy outer space and close it to China and Russia.

However, by deploying DARC, the US can expand its lead in SSA. It will reinforce the impression that it „controls everything“ through hegemony, consolidate its allies‘ confidence, and make vacillating countries and forces further yield to it.

Just as the US established a global anti-missile system, the reliability of those systems cannot be verified. The world can hardly give it a chance, because such a moment means the extinction of humankind. The US developing these extreme systems that breaks the balance has had a large number of direct political effects. It has intensified the turbulence in relations between major powers and in global geopolitics.

The US vision to build DARC has particularly sounded the alarm for China. China’s space launch capabilities are getting stronger, and the country is increasing the frequency of its various space activities including efforts on a space station. The US is openly threatening the safety of these activities of China, speeding up the pace of constructing infrastructure and building certain capabilities to dominate the future space order. China must accelerate the building of its space counterattack capability and form a stronger deterrent to the US, in an attempt to resolutely suppress any impulse of the US to provoke a space conflict. 

China has far fewer nuclear warheads than the US. But China’s space capacity building can go faster with relatively fewer international obstacles. China can effectively weaken the US‘ strategic arrogance through strengthening its overall deterrence. In that case, China can force the US to face the reality and to some extent return to the mind-set of keeping the balance of power when Washington wants to establish overwhelming advantages. 

China must accelerate the pace to realize the convenience and cost-effectiveness of space launches, continue to systemize our space assets, strive to achieve the leading position in certain fields and projects, and dismantle the US‘ space advantage. We must not hesitate to invest in this field. It must be made clear that outer space security is becoming the new cornerstone of China’s overall national security.“

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