How America and China Could Stumble to War

F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Flickr/U.S. Navy

Can Beijing and Washington escape the Thucydides Trap?

May-June 2017

The rising power syndrome highlights the upstart’s enhanced sense of itself, its interests, and its entitlement to recognition and respect. The ruling power syndrome is essentially the mirror image: the established power exhibiting an enlarged sense of fear and insecurity as it faces intimations of “decline.” As in sibling rivalries, so too in diplomacy one finds a predictable progression reflected both at the dinner table and at the international conference table. A growing sense of self-importance (“my voice counts”) leads to an expectation of recognition and respect (“listen to what I have to say”) and a demand for increased impact (“I insist”). Understandably, the established power views the rising country’s assertiveness as disrespectful, ungrateful and even provocative or dangerous. Exaggerated self-importance becomes hubris; unreasonable fear, paranoia.


LIKE GASOLINE to a match, accelerants can turn an accidental collision or third-party provocation into war. One cluster of accelerants is captured by what Carl von Clausewitz called the “fog of war.” Extending Thucydides’s insight about war as “an affair of chances,” Clausewitz observed that “war is the realm of uncertainty. Three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” This profound uncertainty can lead a commander or policymaker to act aggressively when a fuller set of facts would advise caution, and vice versa.

The advent of disruptive weapons that promise “shock and awe” makes the fog and uncertainty even worse. With attacks on command-and-control systems, enemies can paralyze a nation’s military command. In Desert Storm, U.S. forces demonstrated version 1.0 of this option. They destroyed Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and cut communication links to his commanders in the field. Isolated, his forces hunkered down; it was like “shooting fish in a barrel,” U.S. pilots remarked.

Antisatellite weapons are one accelerant that military planners expect to play a big role in any U.S.-China conflict. Long a subject of science fiction, such weapons are today a fact of life, running the gamut from kinetic ones that physically destroy their targets to quieter systems that use lasers to jam or “dazzle” satellites, rendering them inoperable. In 2007, China successfully destroyed a weather satellite, and it regularly tests its antisatellite capabilities in less dramatic fashion. Satellites provide a crucial link in almost every U.S. military endeavor, from early warning of ballistic-missile launches and providing imagery and weather forecasts to planning operations. Global positioning satellites put the “precision” in almost all the military’s precision-guided munitions and allow ships, planes and ground units to know where they are on the battlefield. The United States depends on this technology more than any of its competitors, making it a perfect target for Chinese military planners.

Cyberspace provides even more opportunities for disruptive technological transformations that could provide a decisive advantage, on the one hand, but might also risk uncontrolled escalation, on the other. The details of offensive cyberweapons remain heavily classified and are constantly evolving. But the public has seen glimpses of them in some cases, such as America’s cyberattack against Iran’s nuclear program or its “left-of-launch” attacks on North Korea’s missile tests. America’s primary cyberspace organizations, the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, as well as their Chinese counterparts, can now use cyberweapons to silently shut down military networks and critical civilian infrastructure like power grids. Moreover, by employing proxies and assembling an international web of compromised computers, they can disguise the origins of a cyber-operation, slowing the victim’s ability to identify the attacker.

Like antisatellite measures, cyberweapons could create a decisive advantage in battle by disrupting the command-and-control and targeting information on which modern militaries depend—and without bloodshed. This presents a dangerous paradox: the very action that attackers believe will tamp down conflict can appear reckless and provocative to the victims. Similarly, cyberattacks that disrupt communication would intensify the fog of war, creating confusion that multiplies the chances of miscalculation.

While both the United States and China now have nuclear arsenals that could survive the other’s first strike and still allow for retaliation, neither can be sure its cyber arsenals could withstand a serious cyber assault. For example, a large-scale Chinese cyberattack against the U.S. military’s networks could temporarily cripple Washington’s ability to respond in kind, or even to operate some of its critical command-and-control and surveillance systems. This creates a dangerous use-it-or-lose-it dynamic in which each side has an incentive to attack key links in the other’s computer networks before their capabilities are disabled.

Compared with the bluntest instruments of war, especially nuclear bombs, cyberweapons seem to offer the promise of subtlety and precision. But this promise is illusory. Increased connectivity among systems and devices creates a domino effect. Unable to determine how the hacking of one system may affect others, attackers would find it difficult to narrowly tailor the effects of their operation and avoid unintended escalation. In 2016, 180,000 Internet-connected industrial control systems were operating around the world. Along with the proliferation of the “Internet of Things,” which encompasses some ten billion devices worldwide, the number of enticing targets is growing rapidly.