But China held a trump card in that showdown that it probably wouldn’t hold after a collision at sea, namely possession of the American craft and its crew. The stricken EP-3 landed on Hainan Island, bestowing leverage on Beijing. The parallel between 2001 and today is inexact at best—above and beyond the differences separating an aviation from a seaborne incident. Still, it’s fair to forecast that China would reprise its efforts to define what had transpired, fitting events to its preexisting tale about American aggression and Chinese ascendancy. And it would again seek to extract some confession of U.S. culpability. Such measures conform to Beijing’s three-warfares playbook.
But deeper-seated cultural factors may also be at work. The late Alan Wachman, a China hand at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, likened the EP-3 uproar to imperial China’s demand for a “kowtow” from the British Empire. In 1793 officials representing China’s Qing Dynasty insisted that a visiting British embassy headed by Lord Macartney make such a gesture of subservience to China as a condition of opening trade. Dynastic officials demanded a kowtow; Macartney protested that the British crown was the Qing emperor’s sovereign equal. Neither party bent. Irreconcilable differences set them on the pathway to eventual conflict.
Rival conceptions of world order could likewise shape the aftermath of a future high-seas collision—as Henry Kissinger might prophesy judging from his book World Order. Basic worldviews that clash amid impassioned circumstances and diplomatic one-upsmanship make for mercurial interactions.
In fact, it’s fair to prophesy that such an imbroglio would outdo past confrontations by most measures. The stakes would be high as each contender painted the other as a dastardly aggressor. Publicity would glare on the contestants—limiting their political freedom of maneuver. Beijing and Washington would stake out intractable positions, Black Sea-type formulas for deescalating the impasse would elude them, and options would narrow. It’s anyone’s guess what trajectory such a controversy would take.
Strategists are forever conducting wargames to project how armed conflicts might unfold. As they should. They could do worse than simulate a high-seas collision and its diplomatic fallout as part of their gaming repertoire. Better to think ahead now than improvise later under hothouse conditions.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” in the current issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings. The views voiced here are his alone.
This first appeared in 2018.