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

Another accelerant might involve compromising the confidentiality of sensitive networks. Some are obvious, such as those that operate nuclear command and control. Each side, however, may perceive other actions quite differently. Take China’s “Great Firewall,” a collection of hardware and software that enables Beijing to monitor and block vast segments of online content. Washington could disable a system essential to the Great Firewall, intending it as a modest, private warning. But for Chinese leaders who regard the ability to control citizens’ access to information as vital, the operation could be misconstrued as the tip of a spear aimed at regime change.

Given these background conditions, potential sparks can be frighteningly mundane. Escalation can occur rapidly. The following three scenarios show just how easily the United States and China can stumble into a war that each side hopes to avoid.


CURRENTLY, AMERICAN and allied warships and aircraft are operating in greater proximity to their Chinese counterparts than ever before. U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers periodically conduct freedom-of-navigation operations near Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Suppose that during routine operations an American destroyer passes near Mischief Reef, one of the newly constructed islands where China has built runways for aircraft and installed air and missile defenses. As the ship nears the contested site, Chinese coast guard vessels harass the destroyer, just as they did during the USS Cowpens incident in 2013. Unlike that encounter, however, the U.S. destroyer is unable to swerve in time. It collides with a Chinese ship and sinks it, killing all on board.

The Chinese government now has three options. The dovish course would be to avoid escalation by allowing the American destroyer to leave the area and to protest its actions through diplomatic channels. At the other end of the spectrum, it could adopt an eye-for-an-eye approach and sink the destroyer using aircraft or missiles stationed on Mischief Reef. By refusing to be the “chicken,” while also not wanting to escalate, Beijing could opt for what it believes is a middle course. As the U.S. destroyer attempts to leave the area, a PLA Navy cruiser blocks its way, insisting that the destroyer entered Chinese territorial waters and demanding that its crew surrender and face justice for the deaths of the coast-guard personnel.

China believes it is deescalating the situation by allowing for a diplomatic solution, akin to the deal that permitted an American crew to go free after a crash landing near Hainan Island sixteen years ago. The background conditions have changed since that incident. From a U.S. perspective, China’s reckless harassment of the destroyer caused the collision in the first place. China’s attempt to arrest American sailors in international waters would undermine the principles of the law of the sea. Surrendering would have far-reaching repercussions: if the U.S. military will not stand up to China to defend operations conducted by its own navy, what message does that send to America’s allies, including Japan and the Philippines?

Not willing to undermine its credibility by surrendering, the destroyer could simply sink the Chinese cruiser blocking its path. Alternatively, to avoid further bloodshed and to show a degree of sensitivity to the nationalistic pressures Chinese leaders face at home, the United States could use a show of force to get the cruiser to back down peacefully. U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, in consultation with leaders in Washington, could order nearby aircraft to fly to the area, send an aircraft carrier stationed in Japan toward the South China Sea, and forward-deploy B-2 bombers to Guam. American officials believe these actions will signal their seriousness without risking any further escalation.

Events look different to Beijing, especially amid the fog of war. As China sees it, the United States has already sunk a Chinese vessel. Now scores of American aircraft are aloft, threatening attacks on the Chinese cruiser, other naval vessels, or military installations on nearby islands. Mindful of public opinion, Chinese leaders are especially conscious that any further bloodshed inflicted by the United States would force them to retaliate aggressively.

But events are running beyond Beijing’s control. As U.S. fighter jets rush to the scene to assist the stranded destroyer, a Chinese antiaircraft battery panics and fires on the oncoming aircraft. The U.S. aircraft take desperate evasive action, and the destroyer begins firing on Chinese antiaircraft sites on the island. Under attack, the Chinese commander on the island bombards the destroyer with antiship missiles. The missiles hit their intended target, killing hundreds of American sailors and sinking the ship. Those who escape are now stranded in small lifeboats.