Given the history of the Cold War and given that China and the United States both have nuclear arsenals, one might surmise there is little chance those two countries will shoot at each other in the foreseeable future. That conclusion would be wrong, however. Although the presence of nuclear weapons certainly creates powerful incentives to avoid a major war, a future Sino-American competition in Asia will take place in a setting that is more conducive to war than was Europe during the Cold War. In particular, both geography and the distribution of power differ in ways that make war between China and the United States more likely than it was between the superpowers from 1945 to 1990.
Of course, one cannot predict the likelihood of a Sino-American war with a high degree of certainty, but one can make informed estimates.
The Geography of Asia
Although the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States spanned the globe, its center of gravity was on the European continent, where massive armies and air forces equipped with nuclear weapons faced off against each other. Both superpowers cared greatly about two other regions, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, but they cared the most about the balance of power in Europe. Indeed, the core of American and Soviet military power was located near what was called the Central Front, in the heart of Europe. Not surprisingly, when the Pentagon ran war games simulating a major superpower conflict, Europe was the centerpiece of the fight.
In the thirty years prior to the Cold War, Europe was a remarkably deadly region; in fact, both the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia before 1917) fought on the same side in World War I as well as in World War II. Nevertheless, there was no war in Europe after 1945, and although there were a handful of crises over Berlin, they did not escalate to the use of force. The main reason is that a war in the center of Europe would probably have turned into World War III with nuclear weapons, because there was a serious prospect of inadvertent, if not purposeful, escalation to the nuclear level. No policymaker on either side was willing to countenance a conflict in which his or her country stood a reasonable chance of being annihilated. This terrifying prospect explains not only why Europe was so stable during the Cold War but also why the American and Soviet militaries never clashed with each other.
The geography of Asia is fundamentally different from that of Europe in the Cold War. Most important, there is no equivalent of the Central Front in Asia to anchor stability, as China grows more powerful. Instead, Asia has a number of places where fighting might break out, but where the magnitude of any individual war would be nowhere near as great as it would have been in Europe between 1945 and 1990. This is due in large part to the fact that the likelihood of nuclear escalation in these potential conflicts is much smaller than it was in Europe during the Cold War. First of all, there were thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, and they formed an integral part of NATO declaratory policy and military doctrine throughout the Cold War. Furthermore, it was widely believed that victory in the initial battles of a European conflict would cause a profound shift in the global balance of power; this conviction created powerful incentives for the side that was losing to use nuclear weapons to salvage the situation. Nuclear weapons are unlikely to play anywhere near as prominent a role in Asia’s potential trouble spots. In effect, this means that the costs of all the likely wars in Asia will be significantly less than what would have been the costs of a war in the heart of Europe during the Cold War. Given that the likelihood of war increases as the potential costs decrease, this makes a Sino-American conflict more likely than was a Soviet-American war.
One might argue that the risk of war is still low because the stakes in these potential Asian wars are rather small, thereby giving China and the United States little incentive to fight with each other. But, as discussed above, the stakes in a Sino-American security competition are enormous. China’s security would be greatly enhanced if it drove the American military out of Asia and established regional hegemony, while the United States has a deep interest in maintaining its present position in Asia. Therefore, both parties will be sensitive to reputational concerns in virtually every crisis and unwilling to back down.
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.