How America and China Could Stumble to War
Can Beijing and Washington escape the Thucydides Trap?
The attacks provoke exactly what they intended to avoid. Its mainland now under attack, and the targeting systems needed to operate China’s antiship weapons about to be lost, China must use them or lose them. Xi authorizes attacks on all U.S. warships within range, including the carrier group. American aircraft and naval escorts intercept Chinese bombers and fighter jets flying to the carrier, but a swarm of DF-21D ballistic missiles—the so-called carrier killers—prove too much to handle. Enough reach their target to sink the carrier, killing most of the 5,500 sailors on board—far more than died during Pearl Harbor. The dynamics of playing chicken with cyber and space weapons over the South China Sea has transformed a tiny spark into a roaring fire.
IF TAIWAN were an independent nation, it would be among the most successful countries in the world. Its hardworking population of twenty-three million has developed a market economy twice the size of the Philippines, Thailand or Vietnam. Although many in Taiwan want independence, China views it as a province. Beijing is prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Taipei from asserting its sovereignty. No other country has been prepared to fight China over the matter.
Suppose, however, that the Chinese government were to substantially increase repression at home, including in Hong Kong, where China promised to maintain considerable autonomy and freedom when Britain returned control of the city in 1997. Enraged that the Chinese government is backtracking on its promises, residents of Hong Kong take to the streets to demand that Beijing uphold its commitment to “One Country, Two Systems.” As the protests drag on for weeks with no resolution in sight, Xi orders the military to do what it did in Tiananmen Square in 1989: crush the protests.
The ensuing violence shocks the Taiwanese, particularly the younger generation. Pro-independence and anti-Beijing sentiment soars. In this atmosphere, the Taiwanese president is emboldened to ramp up rhetoric emphasizing her people’s hard-won rights and democracy. Her political allies go further, insisting that what has occurred in Hong Kong proves that Taiwan can never guarantee its citizens’ freedom without becoming a sovereign, independent country. To signal disapproval of Chinese regression in Hong Kong, the American president pointedly announces his respect for the Taiwanese president’s strong stance and declares that the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act fully commits the United States to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion.
This is a major break from the long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the issue, and the Taiwanese president interprets it as tacit endorsement of a move toward independence. In an interview with the New York Times, she announces that Taiwan will apply for full membership to the UN (a move that China has long opposed) and rejects the so-called 1992 Consensus, under which both parties had agreed to the One-China concept while allowing for differing interpretations of what it actually meant. To punish Taiwan’s insubordination and scare it into backing down, China conducts an enhanced version of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis by barraging Taiwanese waters with “tests” of ballistic and cruise missiles, severely interrupting the commercial shipping that constitutes the island’s lifeline to the world. When Taipei still refuses to withdraw its membership application, China uses other weapons, including mine-laying drones, to further disrupt shipping into and out of Taiwan.
As a small island nation, Taiwan imports 70 percent of its food and most of its natural resources, including energy. A sustained blockade would grind its economy to a halt and cause large-scale food shortages. Despite opposition to Taiwan’s application to join the United Nations, the United States feels obliged to prevent its strangulation. Many pro-Taiwan members of Congress are demanding that the White House send aircraft carriers to Taiwan’s aid, just as Bill Clinton did during the 1995–96 crisis. But the administration knows that China’s antiship ballistic missiles would now pose a serious threat to any U.S. carriers moving into the area, and the American public has little stomach for another war.
Instead, U.S. Pacific Command offers to escort commercial shipping through the affected seas, a gesture of support but not of willingness to fight. The escort campaign puts U.S. warships at risk of being sunk by the Chinese missile barrage, either deliberately or accidentally—an event that could instantly kill more than one thousand Americans and spark calls for retaliation. In this scenario, a Chinese antiship missile—ostensibly fired as part of ongoing test barrages—sinks the USS John P. Murtha, an amphibious transport dock ship acting as an escort to civilian shipping. All of the nearly eight hundred sailors and marines aboard are killed—more than the United States lost in the first year of the Iraq War.
China insists that the sinking was accidental; the Murtha merely got in the way of a missile fired at a random patch of ocean. It reminds Washington that America accidently bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999. But in Washington, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs urge the president not to be deceived by this explanation. Instead they urge him to authorize the Air-Sea Battle plan to strike PLA antiship missile-launch sites on the mainland.
Confronted with the sinking of the Murtha, the president accedes to pressure from military and political advisers, and agrees to preemptively strike antiship and other ballistic-missile systems on the Chinese mainland. Because China’s conventional and nuclear missiles are kept in the same locations, and their command-and-control systems are intertwined, Beijing mistakenly believes the United States is trying to eliminate its nuclear arsenal in a surprise first strike. In a desperate attempt to “deescalate by escalating”—an Orwellian doctrine that is nevertheless a pillar of Russian military strategy—China fires one of its land-based, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles into an empty tract of ocean south of Okinawa. The nuclear threshold has been crossed. And while no lives have been lost in the strike, it is but a short step from here to all-out nuclear war.
THE SPARK to a Sino-American clash need not initially involve American or Chinese military forces. Instead, it might result from a confrontation with or between third-party allies. Such a scenario nearly became reality in 2010, when North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing forty-six South Korean sailors. China supported North Korea’s denial of involvement. Seoul, meanwhile, insisted that Pyongyang be held accountable. Ultimately, the two Koreas and their allies stepped back from the brink. But with a new set of background conditions and accelerants today, it is not clear that it would be so easy to avoid war, especially if the third parties involved were less inured to the sort of slow, grinding tensions that the Korean Peninsula has endured for decades.
Besides South Korea, the other major U.S. ally in China’s immediate vicinity is Japan, a country with a post–World War II history of pacifism, but whose politics have become increasingly militaristic in recent years. Conservative Japanese politicians have spoken ever more stridently about revising the pacifist constitution imposed on their country by the United States. They have also been chafing against Chinese claims of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas. In a crisis involving its historical rival Beijing, any steps Tokyo takes would certainly be shaped by these memories, and by the Japanese government’s shifting attitude toward military force.
A likely flashpoint is the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), located near valuable fishing grounds, trade routes and potential oil reserves in the East China Sea. The United States controlled the islands after World War II, before returning them to Japan in the early 1970s. That same decade, China began claiming sovereignty over the islands. Chinese ships regularly pass through these waters, raising tensions between Beijing and Tokyo and risking a collision that could set off a chain reaction.
Consider a scenario that provided the story line for a recent war game designed by the RAND Corporation. A group of Japanese ultranationalists set sail for the Senkakus in small civilian watercraft. On social media, they explain that they are headed for Kuba Jima, one of the smaller islands, which they intend to claim and occupy on behalf of Japan. They land and begin building unidentified structures. Taking a page out of the Chinese playbook, they live stream their activities for the world to see. China reacts swiftly, its coast guard arriving within hours with officers who arrest the Japanese dissidents and take them back to the Chinese mainland for trial. Does Japan allow them to face justice in a Chinese court? It could. Instead, rather than lose face, Japan dispatches some of its own coast-guard vessels to intercept the ship carrying the ultranationalists and prevent them from being taken to China.
A pileup ensues as both the PLA Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force deploy warships and fighter planes to the area. Neither side backs down. To make matters worse, some of the Japanese vessels land amphibious troops to occupy Kuba Jima, doubling down on the nationalists’ actions. A skirmish has become a military confrontation. In an urgent call, the Japanese prime minister reminds the U.S. president that Tokyo expects Washington to uphold the seven-decade-old mutual defense treaty, noting that senior officials have repeatedly confirmed that America’s commitment applies to the Senkakus.