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

Chinese leaders are desperate to avoid a full-scale war with the United States, but also cannot admit that their chain of command broke down. They claim their actions were a proportionate and defensive response because the American destroyer was the aggressor. Officials in Washington are stunned that China has sunk a $3 billion vessel and killed hundreds of American sailors. Though wary of going to war with China, those in the Situation Room cannot back down: video of the ship’s wreckage and stranded U.S. sailors on cable news and social media has made that impossible. Many in Congress are calling on the administration to authorize war plans based on the doctrine formerly named Air-Sea Battle, which calls for massive air strikes against missile and radar systems on the Chinese mainland. Realizing that attacks on China’s mainland would trigger war, the president authorizes Pacific Command to instead destroy China’s military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea. The president reasons that this is a proportionate response, since these islands were directly responsible for the sinking of the destroyer. Furthermore, eliminating these military bases will allow U.S. ships to rescue the sailors stranded nearby. Most important, such an action would target only China’s artificial islands, leaving its mainland untouched.

President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials do not make this distinction. For years they have told the public that China has undisputed sovereignty over these islands. They are an integral part of China proper, and America has just attacked them. (Americans who scoff should recall that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor struck neither the mainland nor even a U.S. state, yet still rallied a nation to war.) Many in China are demanding that Xi order the PLA to destroy U.S. military bases in Guam, Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific. Some want China to attack the United States itself. No one is calling for China to exercise restraint. As millions of its citizens’ social-media postings are reminding the government, after its century of humiliation at the hands of sovereign powers, the ruling Communist Party has promised: “never again.”

Still, President Xi clings to the hope that war can be avoided, an impossibility if China begins attacking U.S. military bases in Guam or Japan, killing soldiers and civilians and triggering retaliatory attacks on the Chinese mainland. Seeking a proportionate response to the U.S. attack on China’s island bases, Xi instead approves an alternative plan: using lasers, electronic and kinetic weapons to destroy or disable all U.S. military satellites in orbit above the crisis area, and using cyberattacks to cripple American command-and-control systems throughout the Asia-Pacific. The goal is to deescalate: Xi hopes that the United States will be shocked into backing down.

But from the American perspective, these “blinding” attacks are indistinguishable from the first stage of a coordinated attack on the U.S. aircraft carrier and its strike group sailing from Japan—an event for which the PLA has spent decades developing its “carrier-killer” antiship ballistic missiles. The ninety-thousand-ton carrier, a floating city of 5,500 sailors that the United States describes as sovereign American territory, is simply too big to lose. The president is not willing to take the risk. On the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president reluctantly approves the only plan ready on short notice that has a chance of saving the carrier: a war plan based on Air-Sea Battle.

Using those assets still operational after the Chinese attack, the United States military begins destroying China’s “kill chains,” the various satellite and surveillance systems that allow Beijing to accurately target American carriers with its antiship missiles. It also launches massive cruise missile and stealth bomber attacks on PLA missile sites and air bases on the Chinese mainland, which could at any moment be used to sink U.S. vessels anywhere within the first island chain.

The attacks provoke exactly what they intended to avoid. Its mainland now under attack, and the targeting systems needed to operate China’s antiship weapons about to be lost, China must use them or lose them. Xi authorizes attacks on all U.S. warships within range, including the carrier group. American aircraft and naval escorts intercept Chinese bombers and fighter jets flying to the carrier, but a swarm of DF-21D ballistic missiles—the so-called carrier killers—prove too much to handle. Enough reach their target to sink the carrier, killing most of the 5,500 sailors on board—far more than died during Pearl Harbor. The dynamics of playing chicken with cyber and space weapons over the South China Sea has transformed a tiny spark into a roaring fire.


IF TAIWAN were an independent nation, it would be among the most successful countries in the world. Its hardworking population of twenty-three million has developed a market economy twice the size of the Philippines, Thailand or Vietnam. Although many in Taiwan want independence, China views it as a province. Beijing is prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Taipei from asserting its sovereignty. No other country has been prepared to fight China over the matter.

Suppose, however, that the Chinese government were to substantially increase repression at home, including in Hong Kong, where China promised to maintain considerable autonomy and freedom when Britain returned control of the city in 1997. Enraged that the Chinese government is backtracking on its promises, residents of Hong Kong take to the streets to demand that Beijing uphold its commitment to “One Country, Two Systems.” As the protests drag on for weeks with no resolution in sight, Xi orders the military to do what it did in Tiananmen Square in 1989: crush the protests.