Over the last few years, I have undertaken what most would consider a depressing assignment: debating and thinking through the possibility of a great-power war in today’s chaotic international environment. And for good reason . As Washington attempts to transition away from counterinsurgency operations and the nightmare that has become the Middle East, new challenges—many from revisionist great powers—seem to be popping up around the globe. The crisis in Ukraine—with many now openly calling the state of U.S.-Russian relations “ Cold War 2.0 ”—serves as perhaps the best example of such a chilling possibility.
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Yet, despite whatever the crisis of the day is, when it comes to challenges Washington must face in the years to come, none is as important as the challenge presented by the People’s Republic of China. Beijing— now empowered by an economy and military that is only second to America —seems bent on remaking the international order in the Asia-Pacific and possibly the wider Indo-Pacific at least partly in its own image. From the East China Sea to the wide expanses of the Indian Ocean, China has clearly made its intentions known that the current international order is open to at least some revision on its terms. Over the last several years, various clashes over the very meaning of the maritime commons , natural resources below the sea bed , air-defense identification zones and various near collisions in the near seas and in the sky have set off alarm bells in capitals around Asia. While Washington has declared its own “pivot” or “rebalance” towards Asia, destabilizing and what some have called “coercive actions ” by China have continued unabated.
So where does all of this end up? Is open war in Asia a possibility ? Would the United States be sucked in?
While thankfully the chances of all-out war are remote, as all parties would have a tremendous amount to lose—including their own lives in a nuclear confrontation—the possibility remains, as history has taught us all too well. Here we will explore five ways Washington and Beijing could find themselves in open conflict. While this essay for reasons of time and space won’t ponder over the consequences of such a conflict , you can be sure of one thing: if tensions were to escalate beyond just a minor, isolated clash, there is the distinct possibility a third and possibly atomic world war would be in the offing.
1. A Crisis in the East China Sea
One way a U.S.-China war could commence is by Washington getting sucked into a regional war in Asia. Looking beyond a straight-up U.S.-Chinese great-power war there is another clash in Asia that could be almost as terrifying—and would likely draw in America: a China-Japan war in the East China Sea .
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Over at the Lowy Interpreter , I explored a hypothetical scenario that is all too possible—where the number-two and -three economies on the planet come to blows over some obscure rocks inhabited by goats:
Two Chinese SU-27 fighters come within 25 feet of a Japanese P-3 Orion surveillance plane just 10 miles west of the Senkakus. The Japanese pilot gets nervous. A slight tweak at the controls and the Japanese plane collides with one of the Chinese fighters. Both aircraft crash into the ocean, with no survivors.
...Beijing accuses the Japanese pilots of violating Chinese sovereign airspace...Japan claims the Chinese pilots acted recklessly, flying so close...Just 72 hours later, a group of twenty Chinese nationals land on one of the disputed [Senkaku] islands under the cover of darkness...A Japanese naval task force carrying a small detachment of soldiers is dispatched. Their goal: remove the only residents of the disputed five-island chain.
...As Japanese naval forces come within 20 miles of the islands a Chinese J-10 fighter jet buzzes the task force. On its second pass it comes dangerously close to a Japanese destroyer. In a perceived act of self-defence, the destroyer shoots down the aircraft.
Hours later...Beijing fires a warning shot, a DF-21D or “carrier-killer” missile which hits the ocean just 10 miles away from the Japanese task force. Undeterred, Japanese forces press ahead. Domestic pressure on Chinese leaders becomes intense. They feel they have no choice but to escalate, launching a massive saturation strike with ballistic and cruise missiles against the Japanese task force...Prime Minister Abe urgently phones President Obama formally requesting America's help.. .
In the above article, I would later make the argument that Washington might not automatically jump in to defend Japan. And depending on the context of the situation and the severity, I would argue it is entirely possible Washington might try to play the role of mediator instead of as a combatant—in fact, depending on the situation, why should Washington make matters worse and officially take a position, especially if it was a minor clash with no loss of life?