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

Besides South Korea, the other major U.S. ally in China’s immediate vicinity is Japan, a country with a post–World War II history of pacifism, but whose politics have become increasingly militaristic in recent years. Conservative Japanese politicians have spoken ever more stridently about revising the pacifist constitution imposed on their country by the United States. They have also been chafing against Chinese claims of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas. In a crisis involving its historical rival Beijing, any steps Tokyo takes would certainly be shaped by these memories, and by the Japanese government’s shifting attitude toward military force.

A likely flashpoint is the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), located near valuable fishing grounds, trade routes and potential oil reserves in the East China Sea. The United States controlled the islands after World War II, before returning them to Japan in the early 1970s. That same decade, China began claiming sovereignty over the islands. Chinese ships regularly pass through these waters, raising tensions between Beijing and Tokyo and risking a collision that could set off a chain reaction.

Consider a scenario that provided the story line for a recent war game designed by the RAND Corporation. A group of Japanese ultranationalists set sail for the Senkakus in small civilian watercraft. On social media, they explain that they are headed for Kuba Jima, one of the smaller islands, which they intend to claim and occupy on behalf of Japan. They land and begin building unidentified structures. Taking a page out of the Chinese playbook, they live stream their activities for the world to see. China reacts swiftly, its coast guard arriving within hours with officers who arrest the Japanese dissidents and take them back to the Chinese mainland for trial. Does Japan allow them to face justice in a Chinese court? It could. Instead, rather than lose face, Japan dispatches some of its own coast-guard vessels to intercept the ship carrying the ultranationalists and prevent them from being taken to China.

A pileup ensues as both the PLA Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force deploy warships and fighter planes to the area. Neither side backs down. To make matters worse, some of the Japanese vessels land amphibious troops to occupy Kuba Jima, doubling down on the nationalists’ actions. A skirmish has become a military confrontation. In an urgent call, the Japanese prime minister reminds the U.S. president that Tokyo expects Washington to uphold the seven-decade-old mutual defense treaty, noting that senior officials have repeatedly confirmed that America’s commitment applies to the Senkakus.

As the standoff enters its third day, the president and his National Security Council must decide: Does the United States wholeheartedly respond to Japan’s appeal, putting air power over the disputed island to protect the Japanese troops now on the ground there? Or is there a more restrained course that will satisfy the Japanese without antagonizing China and further escalating the tense naval standoff? The president opts for the latter, directing the Japan-based carrier strike group to patrol outside the range of the PLA’s land-based carrier-killer missiles, but keeping aircraft and submarines close enough to aid Japanese vessels and territory if things get ugly.

They do. The next morning, a Chinese destroyer collides with a Japanese fishing boat in the crowded waters off the Senkakus, and soon fighter jets from both sides are provocatively buzzing their opponent’s warships. The standoff erupts into a brief, bloody naval battle as a Japanese captain, fearing for his ship’s safety, downs one of the low-flying Chinese fighters, and the PLA Navy warships, in return, sink his vessel.

Both sides are at the edge of war at this point, and so is the United States, which is in a position to sink Chinese vessels with its hidden attack submarines or to send its carrier’s air wing into action. At this juncture, however, before the next decision has been made, something unexpected happens. All communications between Japanese forces on and around the Senkakus and their headquarters go dark.

A cyberattack has severely disrupted one of the Japanese military’s command-and-control systems. The United States and Japan immediately blame China. The attacker has even left the telltale signs of the PLA’s offensive hacking unit. There is little hesitation in Washington or at U.S. Pacific Command about what to do next. To prevent the Japanese naval force from being annihilated while it is incommunicado, U.S. submarines sink three PLA Navy warships off the Senkakus with torpedoes. China, Japan and the United States have now fired their opening shots in a three-nation war.

But what if it was not the PLA that launched the cyberattack after all? What if it was a carefully timed false-flag operation by Russia, seeking to draw the United States and China into a conflict in order to distract Washington from its wrestling match with Moscow over Ukraine? By the time intelligence agencies around the world learn the truth, it will be too late. The Kremlin has played its hand brilliantly.

From the Senkakus, the war zone spreads as China attacks more Japanese vessels elsewhere in the East China Sea. Tokyo is desperate for the United States to commit its carrier strike group to the fight. If Washington makes that call, the same point of no return may well be crossed as in the collision-at-sea scenario: the destruction of one of the crown jewels of the U.S. Navy and the loss of life of all aboard could be the tragedy that the U.S. administration is forced to avenge with widening attacks on Chinese forces in a full-scale Pacific war.