History's Warning: A U.S.-China War Is Terrifyingly Possible

The United States and Britain almost came to blows in 1861 over the Trent Affair. Yet, conflict was averted. What it says about the state of play between Beijing and Washington today—and for the chances of war—is striking.

Many Americans believe that the United States and China have entered a long-term strategic competition. The way we use “competition” in many ways resembles a literary trope. At the US Naval War College, for example, we teach several historical case studies explicitly built around this narrative: Where a “rising power” challenges the “hegemon,” and its aggressive bid only increases tensions that at some point lead to military conflict. This is the story as much with Athens and Sparta in classical Greece as with Britain and Germany in the early 20th century.

The limitation of such historical analogies is in how, perhaps unwittingly, they create for us expectations that only go in one direction. It might be more helpful to contrast America and China today with a strategic competition that did not lead to war. This sort of comparison encourages us to test our dynamics against similar forces within an historical situation that—however strategically alarming at the time—did not end in war. Is our situation similarly stable (at a deep level), or should we really be worried?

Happily, there is a startlingly familiar—if mostly forgotten—historical counterpoint. Here the United States is the British Empire, and China is the United States:

In 1861. Britain and America almost went to war during the winter of 1861-1862. We call it the Trent Affair. Why did we almost go to war?

Because the US—in the midst of civil war—was in “existential mode” and on a strategic hair-trigger. Britain was supplying high-tech weapons to the Confederacy, and also the delivery vehicles to get them past the Union blockade. Worse yet Britain (along with France) might recognize the Confederacy at any moment. In the eyes of the Lincoln administration, Britain was a real strategic threat.

This is why the Britain-US analogy (as in the verse fragment above) is relevant: China is challenging the US; the US is actively containing China across a great ocean; disputes between China and US local allies threaten an incident, followed by crisis; both nations feel threatened by each other; and thus, both countries increasingly see each other as strategic threats. Plus, both nations fought each other in bloody war just a couple long generations back, in Korea, just like Britain and the US did in 1812.

But if Victorians seem too far-fetched and fantastical to tell us anything about today, the Trent crisis is still the best metaphor we have for thinking through our strategic naval situation with China. The most important question it asks us is this: When USS  San Jacinto stopped and boarded a British flag vessel (Royal Mail Steamer Trent), forcibly (and illegally) removing Confederate envoys to the United Kingdom and France, why was there no war?

Remember, a lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic wanted war. Amanda Foreman’s book—A World On Fire—describes this amazingly intense Anglo-American crisis, much worse that anything that has happened yet between the US and China. But war did not happen.

Here are ten reasons why war between Britain and the US did not happen. In contrast, stacked like historical cordwood, are ten darker indicators why war—despite everything we say—might just happen between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China.

Number 1: Easy but overlooked—British elites simply had no narrative of war with the US in 1861. Do no discount this factor. In every war ever fought, “The Narrative” is the biggest (and the deepest) factor in the decision to go to war. Because there was no developed canon of a British-American War, there was no constituency in place for conflict, and no collective expectation waiting to be activated.

There was not even a popular press playing out war stories about fighting Americans. Not so today. The narrative is strong like a drumbeat, and everywhere you can read the likes of “America’s Coming War With China.” War has not only been imagined, it already has its dramatic framing. In a score of breathless—“what would war look like”—media narratives, it has already been imagined. For their part, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)/ People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is lashed on by the dark symbols and legacies of the century of Chinese shame and degradation—to ring in a restoration of Chinese greatness.