In essence, leaders will tend to think that even though the prospective wars in Asia might be small-scale compared with a war on the Central Front, all those conflicts are nevertheless closely linked to one another, and thus it is imperative not to let the other side prevail in any crisis. At the same time, both parties will be prone to see the costs of using force as relatively low. This situation is not conducive to stability and peace in the region.
Consider the Korean Peninsula, which is probably the only place where China and the United States might conceivably end up fighting a major conventional land war. The odds of such a conflict are low, but it is more likely than was a war between the superpowers in Europe. For one thing, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios where South and North Korea become involved in a war, and both China and the United States—which has about 19,000 troops stationed in South Korea—get dragged into the fight. After all, that is what happened in 1950; Chinese and American forces then fought against each other for almost three years. Furthermore, the scale of the war would be less in a future Korean conflict than it would have been in a NATO–Warsaw Pact conflict; that makes war in Asia more thinkable.
In addition to Korea, one can imagine China and the United States fighting over control of Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the sea lines of communication that run between China and the Persian Gulf. The costs associated with these potential conflicts (as with the one in Korea) would be nowhere near as great as the costs of a superpower war in the heart of Europe would have been during the Cold War. Furthermore, because a number of the possible conflict scenarios involve fighting at sea—where the risks of nuclear escalation are lower—it is easier to imagine war breaking out between China and the United States than between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It is also worth noting that no territorial dispute between the superpowers—Berlin included—was as laden with intense nationalistic feelings as Taiwan is for China. Thus, it is not hard to imagine a war erupting over Taiwan, though the odds of that happening are not high.
A final point about nuclear weapons is in order. The preceding discussion emphasized that war is more likely in Asia than it was in Europe during the Cold War, in part because of the reduced risk of escalation to the nuclear level. Nevertheless, there will always be some chance of inadvertent nuclear use in a future Asian war, and that possibility will work to buttress stability in a crisis. In other words, one should not think that nuclear weapons would have hardly any deterrent effect in Asia. Indeed, the mere presence of those weapons in the arsenals of the key countries in the region will have a significant impact on how the relevant leaders will think and act in a future crisis. Still, the likelihood of escalation, and even the consequences, will be much lower than would have been the case in a NATO–Warsaw Pact conflict, thus making a future conventional war involving China and the United States a more serious possibility.
Polarity and War
The second reason Asia is likely to be more war-prone than Europe was during the Cold War has to do with the different distribution of power between the two cases. Bipolarity prevailed in Europe, where the Soviet Union ruled the eastern half of the continent and the United States dominated the western half. One might think Asia is likely to be bipolar if China continues its rise, with the Americans on one side and the Chinese on the other. But this is unlikely, because there will be other great powers in Asia. Russia already qualifies as one, and if Japan gets nuclear weapons, it will as well. India, which now has a nuclear arsenal, is not far from the point where it will be considered a great power. All of this is to say that Asia will be a multipolar system. Indeed, it will be an unbalanced multipolar system, because China is likely to be much more powerful than all the other Asian great powers, and thus qualify as a potential hegemon.
War is more likely in multipolarity than in bipolarity, in part because there are more great powers in multipolar systems and therefore more opportunities for great powers to fight with each other as well as with smaller countries. In addition, imbalances of power are more common in multipolarity, because the greater number of countries in multipolarity increases the chances that the underpinnings of military power will be distributed unevenly among them. And when you have power asymmetries, the strong are hard to deter when they are bent on aggression. Finally, there is greater potential for miscalculation in multipolarity, in terms of assessing both the resolve of opponents and the strength of rival coalitions. This is due in good part to the more fluid nature of international politics in a multipolar world, where there are shifting coalitions and significant potential for states to buck-pass to each other.
To make matters worse, unbalanced multipolarity is the most dangerous distribution of power, because it contains a potential hegemon, which not only has markedly more power than any other state in the region but also has strong incentives to use the sword to gain hegemony. A potential hegemon can, moreover, elevate the level of fear among its rivals, which sometimes causes them to pursue risky strategies that might lead to war.
In short, the bipolarity of the Cold War was a more peaceful architecture of power than the unbalanced multipolarity that lies ahead if China’s economy continues to grow rapidly. In addition, the geography of the Central Front was more conducive to peace than is the geography of Asia. These two considerations taken together do not mean that a Sino-American war is sure to happen, but they do tell us it is more likely than was a Soviet-American war between 1945 and 1990.
Communism and Nationalism
One might counter this pessimistic assessment by arguing there was an ideological dimension to the Cold War that made it especially dangerous—communism versus liberal capitalism—which will be absent from the growing rivalry between China and the United States. For example, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, says, “Unlike U.S.– Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the United States and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market. Sino-American relations are both cooperative and competitive. Competition between them is inevitable, but conflict is not.”
Ideology of any sort, of course, falls outside the scope of my realist theory of international politics. Nevertheless, the subject merits some discussion because ideology doubtless played a role in fueling the Cold War, although a subsidiary one. The conflict was driven mainly by strategic considerations related to the balance of power, which were reinforced by the stark ideological differences between the superpowers. Furthermore, it seems clear that this potent ideological cleavage will not matter much in shaping future relations between Beijing and Washington. After all, China is now hooked on capitalism, and communism holds little attraction inside or outside of China. So this development appears to point toward a Sino-American security competition that will be less fearsome than the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
That is the good news. The bad news, however, is that a different ideology—nationalism—is likely to play a role in energizing the rivalry between China and the United States, as well as between China and its neighbors. Nationalism, which is the most powerful political ideology on the planet, holds that the modern world is divided into a multitude of distinct social groups called nations, each desiring its own state. This is not to say every nation gets its own state or to deny that many states have more than one nation living within their borders.
The members of each nation have a strong sense of group loyalty, so powerful, in fact, that allegiance to the nation usually overrides all other forms of identity. Most members typically believe they belong to an exclusive community that has a rich history dominated by remarkable individuals and salient events, which can be triumphs as well as failures. But people do not simply take pride in their own nation; they also compare it with other nations, especially those they frequently interact with and know well. Chauvinism usually emerges as most people come to believe that their nation is superior to others and deserves special recognition. This sense of specialness sometimes leads nations to conclude that they are the “chosen” people, a perspective that has a rich tradition in both China and the United States, among other countries.
Nations at times go beyond feeling superior to other nations and wind up loathing them as well. I call this phenomenon “hypernationalism,” which is the belief that other nations are not just inferior but are dangerous, and must be dealt with harshly, if not brutally. In such circumstances, contempt and hatred of the “other” suffuses the nation and creates powerful incentives to use violence to eliminate the threat. Hypernationalism, in other words, can be a potent source of war.