How America and China Could Stumble to War

How America and China Could Stumble to War

Can Beijing and Washington escape the Thucydides Trap?

Compared with the bluntest instruments of war, especially nuclear bombs, cyberweapons seem to offer the promise of subtlety and precision. But this promise is illusory. Increased connectivity among systems and devices creates a domino effect. Unable to determine how the hacking of one system may affect others, attackers would find it difficult to narrowly tailor the effects of their operation and avoid unintended escalation. In 2016, 180,000 Internet-connected industrial control systems were operating around the world. Along with the proliferation of the “Internet of Things,” which encompasses some ten billion devices worldwide, the number of enticing targets is growing rapidly.

Another accelerant might involve compromising the confidentiality of sensitive networks. Some are obvious, such as those that operate nuclear command and control. Each side, however, may perceive other actions quite differently. Take China’s “Great Firewall,” a collection of hardware and software that enables Beijing to monitor and block vast segments of online content. Washington could disable a system essential to the Great Firewall, intending it as a modest, private warning. But for Chinese leaders who regard the ability to control citizens’ access to information as vital, the operation could be misconstrued as the tip of a spear aimed at regime change.

Given these background conditions, potential sparks can be frighteningly mundane. Escalation can occur rapidly. The following three scenarios show just how easily the United States and China can stumble into a war that each side hopes to avoid.


CURRENTLY, AMERICAN and allied warships and aircraft are operating in greater proximity to their Chinese counterparts than ever before. U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers periodically conduct freedom-of-navigation operations near Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Suppose that during routine operations an American destroyer passes near Mischief Reef, one of the newly constructed islands where China has built runways for aircraft and installed air and missile defenses. As the ship nears the contested site, Chinese coast guard vessels harass the destroyer, just as they did during the USS Cowpens incident in 2013. Unlike that encounter, however, the U.S. destroyer is unable to swerve in time. It collides with a Chinese ship and sinks it, killing all on board.

The Chinese government now has three options. The dovish course would be to avoid escalation by allowing the American destroyer to leave the area and to protest its actions through diplomatic channels. At the other end of the spectrum, it could adopt an eye-for-an-eye approach and sink the destroyer using aircraft or missiles stationed on Mischief Reef. By refusing to be the “chicken,” while also not wanting to escalate, Beijing could opt for what it believes is a middle course. As the U.S. destroyer attempts to leave the area, a PLA Navy cruiser blocks its way, insisting that the destroyer entered Chinese territorial waters and demanding that its crew surrender and face justice for the deaths of the coast-guard personnel.

China believes it is deescalating the situation by allowing for a diplomatic solution, akin to the deal that permitted an American crew to go free after a crash landing near Hainan Island sixteen years ago. The background conditions have changed since that incident. From a U.S. perspective, China’s reckless harassment of the destroyer caused the collision in the first place. China’s attempt to arrest American sailors in international waters would undermine the principles of the law of the sea. Surrendering would have far-reaching repercussions: if the U.S. military will not stand up to China to defend operations conducted by its own navy, what message does that send to America’s allies, including Japan and the Philippines?

Not willing to undermine its credibility by surrendering, the destroyer could simply sink the Chinese cruiser blocking its path. Alternatively, to avoid further bloodshed and to show a degree of sensitivity to the nationalistic pressures Chinese leaders face at home, the United States could use a show of force to get the cruiser to back down peacefully. U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, in consultation with leaders in Washington, could order nearby aircraft to fly to the area, send an aircraft carrier stationed in Japan toward the South China Sea, and forward-deploy B-2 bombers to Guam. American officials believe these actions will signal their seriousness without risking any further escalation.

Events look different to Beijing, especially amid the fog of war. As China sees it, the United States has already sunk a Chinese vessel. Now scores of American aircraft are aloft, threatening attacks on the Chinese cruiser, other naval vessels, or military installations on nearby islands. Mindful of public opinion, Chinese leaders are especially conscious that any further bloodshed inflicted by the United States would force them to retaliate aggressively.

But events are running beyond Beijing’s control. As U.S. fighter jets rush to the scene to assist the stranded destroyer, a Chinese antiaircraft battery panics and fires on the oncoming aircraft. The U.S. aircraft take desperate evasive action, and the destroyer begins firing on Chinese antiaircraft sites on the island. Under attack, the Chinese commander on the island bombards the destroyer with antiship missiles. The missiles hit their intended target, killing hundreds of American sailors and sinking the ship. Those who escape are now stranded in small lifeboats.

Chinese leaders are desperate to avoid a full-scale war with the United States, but also cannot admit that their chain of command broke down. They claim their actions were a proportionate and defensive response because the American destroyer was the aggressor. Officials in Washington are stunned that China has sunk a $3 billion vessel and killed hundreds of American sailors. Though wary of going to war with China, those in the Situation Room cannot back down: video of the ship’s wreckage and stranded U.S. sailors on cable news and social media has made that impossible. Many in Congress are calling on the administration to authorize war plans based on the doctrine formerly named Air-Sea Battle, which calls for massive air strikes against missile and radar systems on the Chinese mainland. Realizing that attacks on China’s mainland would trigger war, the president authorizes Pacific Command to instead destroy China’s military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea. The president reasons that this is a proportionate response, since these islands were directly responsible for the sinking of the destroyer. Furthermore, eliminating these military bases will allow U.S. ships to rescue the sailors stranded nearby. Most important, such an action would target only China’s artificial islands, leaving its mainland untouched.

President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials do not make this distinction. For years they have told the public that China has undisputed sovereignty over these islands. They are an integral part of China proper, and America has just attacked them. (Americans who scoff should recall that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor struck neither the mainland nor even a U.S. state, yet still rallied a nation to war.) Many in China are demanding that Xi order the PLA to destroy U.S. military bases in Guam, Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific. Some want China to attack the United States itself. No one is calling for China to exercise restraint. As millions of its citizens’ social-media postings are reminding the government, after its century of humiliation at the hands of sovereign powers, the ruling Communist Party has promised: “never again.”

Still, President Xi clings to the hope that war can be avoided, an impossibility if China begins attacking U.S. military bases in Guam or Japan, killing soldiers and civilians and triggering retaliatory attacks on the Chinese mainland. Seeking a proportionate response to the U.S. attack on China’s island bases, Xi instead approves an alternative plan: using lasers, electronic and kinetic weapons to destroy or disable all U.S. military satellites in orbit above the crisis area, and using cyberattacks to cripple American command-and-control systems throughout the Asia-Pacific. The goal is to deescalate: Xi hopes that the United States will be shocked into backing down.

But from the American perspective, these “blinding” attacks are indistinguishable from the first stage of a coordinated attack on the U.S. aircraft carrier and its strike group sailing from Japan—an event for which the PLA has spent decades developing its “carrier-killer” antiship ballistic missiles. The ninety-thousand-ton carrier, a floating city of 5,500 sailors that the United States describes as sovereign American territory, is simply too big to lose. The president is not willing to take the risk. On the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president reluctantly approves the only plan ready on short notice that has a chance of saving the carrier: a war plan based on Air-Sea Battle.

Using those assets still operational after the Chinese attack, the United States military begins destroying China’s “kill chains,” the various satellite and surveillance systems that allow Beijing to accurately target American carriers with its antiship missiles. It also launches massive cruise missile and stealth bomber attacks on PLA missile sites and air bases on the Chinese mainland, which could at any moment be used to sink U.S. vessels anywhere within the first island chain.