Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Belief, Justification, and the Coming War with China

208 days until classes start.

If we live that long.

I have been spending the last day contemplating the proposition that a war between the United States and China is highly likely.

This, in turn, got me to thinking about beliefs and the justifications for beliefs.

Do you know that the vast majority of complex facts that people claim to know are false? Consider, for example, religious beliefs. There is a wide variety of beliefs about the nature of a God, or even whether God exists at all. Furthermore, many of these beliefs are mutually contradictory. Not only is there a large number of different religions, there is a wide variety of beliefs within any religion. Consequently, at best, only a small handful of people can have true beliefs. The vast majority of people must have false beliefs – regardless of how certain their beliefs are.

Many atheists mock theists on the grounds that, “With all of the various religions out there, isn’t amazing that you got the correct religion and that everybody else is wrong?”

Of course, if you simply add atheism to this set of beliefs, we can make the same claim.

However, this also applies to secular matters. It applies to beliefs about the nature of morality. Of all of the various ideas out there – none of which are actually held by more than a small number of people, “Isn’t it amazing that you managed to pick the correct one?”

So, in considering the proposition that a war with China seems likely, I consider it more likely that I would not be able to make a correct judgment as to what is likely. This is one of those complex beliefs that would benefit from a lot of specialized knowledge that I do not have.

Still, let’s consider the evidence I do have for this belief.

If the Trump administration establishes a blockade of the islands in the South China Sea that China claims is their sovereign property, then war is almost certain. So, the probability of war is to be determined by the probability that the Trump Administration will establish a blockade around those islands.

Let’s examine the evidence for this claim.

If the United States were to establish such a blockade, the Chinese people will force the Chinese government to stand up to the American bully. The government must either challenge the blockade or appear to be weak and unfit in the eyes of the Chinese people. They would not want to do this. Therefore, they will challenge the blockade.

When China challenges the blockade, the American government will either have to use violence to enforce the blockade (attacking the ships or airplanes that attempt to run the blockade), or back down. The United States will almost certainly not back down. Therefore, the United States will almost certainly shoot at those shops and planes.

When the US shoots at those ships and planes, the Chinese will shoot back. And the war begins.

Each of these steps is highly likely – virtually certain. Therefore, if the US sets up a blockade, it is virtually certain that the US will be at war with China.

So, what are the odds that the United States will set up a blockade?

President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have already spoken positively about setting up a blockade. (See, Trump Vows to Stop China Taking South Sea Islands). There is a distinction between talking about something that will cause a war and doing it. However, talking about it has no value unless others believe that one will actually do it (otherwise, they ignore the talk as irrelevant).

However, such an attitude can lead to action – which leads to war – in two ways.

The first way is bungling incompetence. That is to say, the Trump administration announces a blockade under the assumption that the Chinese will not dare to challenge them and will back down. I consider this to be a stupid assumption – the people of China themselves will demand that their government stand up to the American bullies or will insist on replacing them with somebody who will.

The second way is if the Trump Administration wants a war. If it did, this would be an easy way to start one short of naked aggression. But why would the Trump administration want a war with China? The main reason is to bolster support for the President. If one wants to improve a leader’s popularity, one proven and effective way of doing so is to start a war. History shows us that leaders tend to be overconfident to the point of delusion in thinking, “They can’t stand up against us. We’ll be home by Christmas.”

Given the way Trump has handled its executive orders and other decisions to date, the first option seems likely. And given Trump’s verbal cruelty, and his eagerness to use the courts against those he has not liked in the past, the fact that he prefers bullying to negotiation and compromise, and the fact that he has created an image that he is a person of strength, it seems reasonable to believe that he will be quick to do something that will start a war and will not back down from that outcome.

By accident or by intention, there is reason to believe that Trump is likely to establish a blockade of the South Pacific islands and, from there, the laws of nature (including human nature) dictate that war is the necessary outcome.

But, then again, though a great many people have an attitude of certainty about such conclusions (even though only a small percentage of these types of conclusions can be true), each person is almost always wrong – I can draw some comfort from the fact that though this chain of events appears likely to me, it is almost certainly wrong.

I hope.


Prof. P. A. Varghese said...

Now that Mr. trump is in saddle, the tension between China and the US will be at raised pitch. The communist giant may feel cornered and may growl more often.

Unknown said...

The Chinese leadership is far more mature than Trump and they'll find a way to manage the next 4 or hopefully less years of threats. Also, it is in neither countries economic interests to go to war. Then again I hope I'm one of the few with a monopoly on the truth!