America Will Decide If There Is War in Asia

An F-22 and an F-15.

Whether history’s next great conflict begins in East Asia will not be determined in the halls of power in Beijing.

Aggressors, like China, start wars. Yet whether history’s next great conflict begins in East Asia will not be determined in the councils of a belligerent Beijing. If you’re trying to set your watch to the sound of gunfire, you must, most of all, observe Washington.

The region is in seemingly never-ending crisis because Chinese leaders believe their country should be bigger than it is today. As a result, China is pushing on boundaries to the south and east, using forceful tactics to both take territory under the control of others and close off international water and airspace.

The dynamic of aggression has started, and at this point China will not stop until it is stopped.

Unfortunately, Washington is in many ways responsible, or at least paved the way, for the latest round of Chinese provocation. That round began in the spring of 2012. Then, Chinese and Philippine vessels sailed in close proximity around Scarborough Shoal, in the northern portion of the South China Sea.

To avoid conflict in that critical body of water, Washington brokered an agreement between Beijing and Manila. Both agreed to withdraw their craft, but only the Philippines honored the deal. That left China in control of the shoal.

Beijing’s grab was particularly audacious. Scarborough lies just 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, guarding the strategic Manila and Subic Bays. It was long thought to be part of the Philippines.

The Obama administration did not enforce the agreement it had brokered, perhaps under the belief it could thereby avoid a confrontation with Beijing. The White House’s inaction just made the problem bigger, however. Emboldened Chinese officials and flag officers then ramped up pressure on another Philippine feature—Second Thomas Shoal, where Chinese vessels have regularly operated—and the Senkakus, eight specks under Japanese administration in the East China Sea.

You would have thought that Washington policymakers had learned the costly lessons of earlier eras when Western timidity opened the door to large-scale conflicts that could have been avoided. Britain and France, for instance, allowed the Third Reich to remilitarize the Rhineland in March 1936. That gambit secured one of Germany’s frontiers and eventually led to Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938 and his bold grab of the Sudetenland the following September. Germany, after the infamous Munich pact, took the rest of Czechoslovakia by the spring of the following year.

In the first half of August 1939 Hitler did not think Britain or France would go to war over Poland, and it’s not hard to see why. After all, they did nothing to stop him when they could have, in the Rhineland. Then they meekly stood by while he marched into large parts of Europe.

By the latter part of that August the declarations of London and Paris that they would defend Polish borders sounded hollow and in any event were too late. German forces crossed the Polish border on September 1, and London and Paris, likely to Hitler’s surprise, declared war on Germany two days later.

Unfortunately, America looks like it is following in the footsteps of Britain and France. The People’s Republic of China is not the Third Reich, but the dynamic in the second half of the 1930s and our era looks eerily similar.

Then and now, an aggressive power seized what it wanted. Chinese leaders today, like Germany’s before, believe further advances will not meet effective resistance. Moreover, there is at this time, like there was in that decade, a momentum toward war. Hostile elements—many but not all of them in uniform—are in control of the levels of power in Beijing, as they were in Berlin.

This month has seen those elements hit out toward their country’s south and east. To the continental south, in the Himalayas, Chinese troops intruded into Indian-controlled territory at four separate spots in the state of Arunachal Pradesh on the ninth.

To the maritime southeast, a Chinese vessel deliberately rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat on June 16. And last week about a dozen of China’s trawlers fished in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone and confronted local patrol vessels, creating the third such incident in as many months.

Moreover, to China’s east there was a series of incidents in the East China Sea. On June 15, a Chinese intelligence ship entered Japan’s territorial waters in the dark of early morning, loitering close to two islands off the main Japanese island of Kyushu. The intrusion was the first since 2004, when a submerged Chinese submarine transited a strait between two of Japan’s islands, and only the second by China since the end of the Second World War.