Five Ways War with China Could Be Started… or Avoided

How a changing naval balance in the Pacific could turn deadly.

Sometime soon, perhaps before the end of the year, the U.S. Navy could perform another freedom of navigation patrol in the Spratly Islands, this time near Mischief Reef, another low-tide elevation that China has extensively built up with dredged sand. The last such patrol, conducted on October 27 by USS Lassen near Subi Reef, was a botched mission in the view of many analysts, since it left observers wondering whether the United States had inadvertently reinforced China’s sovereignty claims. The forthcoming Mischief Reef patrol may offer a much-needed “mulligan” to an Obama administration still striving to achieve credibility for its “Asia rebalance” policy.

How will China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) respond to the next patrol? After USS Lassen’s cruise, the PLA dispatched J-11B fighter-attack aircraft to its airbase on Woody Island in the nearby Paracel island chain, and then conducted training exercises with the Flanker-variant aircraft over the South China Sea. China has the capacity to project substantial anti-air and anti-ship capacity to the Spratlys. How China will respond to the next patrol remains a mystery and is no doubt contributing to the Obama administration’s apparent skittishness in the South China Sea.

What we do know is that China’s leaders believe that they will one day be able to challenge the U.S. military position in the western Pacific. We know this because for two decades China has expended enormous, and still rapidly growing, resources on building up a full range of air, naval, missile and military space power in the region, all specifically designed to counter an intervention by U.S. expeditionary forces. We have to assume that successive Chinese administrations would not have made this investment if they did not believe it could yield results.

But will China’s military buildup eventually result in a clear reversal of the military position in the western Pacific, a new correlation of forces that would compel U.S. policymakers and military planners to peaceably accept a Chinese-led order? Historian Geoffrey Blainey explained in his masterful The Causes of War (1973) that when competing players agree on their relative strengths (who is dominant and who is not), conflict is unlikely. U.S. supremacy meant that China was unable to challenge the deployment of two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups during the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Today’s leaders in Beijing probably also lacked the confidence to oppose USS Lassen’s patrol (and likely also concluded that the stakes this time were not worth such a challenge).

But a decade from now, when the build-out of the PLA’s space sensor network, anti-ship missiles forces and submarine fleets are much more mature, leaders in Beijing may be hoping that all the players come to a new agreement on relative strengths, and once again, as in 1996, avoid a conflict when a new crisis appears. Such a hypothetical new agreement would presumably also mean the end to America’s freedom of navigation challenges in the Spratlys and elsewhere in the western Pacific.

Naturally, the transition from one dominant player to another creates a very dangerous interval. Indeed, the goal of the Pentagon’s “Third Offset” initiative is to prevent such a transition from ever occurring, or to even be considered. As Blainey deduces, “wars usually begin when two nations disagree on their relative strengths.” Whether decision-makers in either Washington or Beijing are willing to risk military escalation will depend on the confidence they have in various war-fighting concepts, along with the troops and equipment that would execute them. If Blainey is correct, war could occur—instigated by, say, direct PLA resistance to a future U.S. freedom of navigation patrol—because of disagreement (or misperception) by the players over the efficacy of at least five concepts that have thus far been untested in large-scale combat.

1. Will the PLA’s “reconnaissance-strike complex” work?