How America and China Could Stumble to War
Can Beijing and Washington escape the Thucydides Trap?
As the standoff enters its third day, the president and his National Security Council must decide: Does the United States wholeheartedly respond to Japan’s appeal, putting air power over the disputed island to protect the Japanese troops now on the ground there? Or is there a more restrained course that will satisfy the Japanese without antagonizing China and further escalating the tense naval standoff? The president opts for the latter, directing the Japan-based carrier strike group to patrol outside the range of the PLA’s land-based carrier-killer missiles, but keeping aircraft and submarines close enough to aid Japanese vessels and territory if things get ugly.
They do. The next morning, a Chinese destroyer collides with a Japanese fishing boat in the crowded waters off the Senkakus, and soon fighter jets from both sides are provocatively buzzing their opponent’s warships. The standoff erupts into a brief, bloody naval battle as a Japanese captain, fearing for his ship’s safety, downs one of the low-flying Chinese fighters, and the PLA Navy warships, in return, sink his vessel.
Both sides are at the edge of war at this point, and so is the United States, which is in a position to sink Chinese vessels with its hidden attack submarines or to send its carrier’s air wing into action. At this juncture, however, before the next decision has been made, something unexpected happens. All communications between Japanese forces on and around the Senkakus and their headquarters go dark.
A cyberattack has severely disrupted one of the Japanese military’s command-and-control systems. The United States and Japan immediately blame China. The attacker has even left the telltale signs of the PLA’s offensive hacking unit. There is little hesitation in Washington or at U.S. Pacific Command about what to do next. To prevent the Japanese naval force from being annihilated while it is incommunicado, U.S. submarines sink three PLA Navy warships off the Senkakus with torpedoes. China, Japan and the United States have now fired their opening shots in a three-nation war.
But what if it was not the PLA that launched the cyberattack after all? What if it was a carefully timed false-flag operation by Russia, seeking to draw the United States and China into a conflict in order to distract Washington from its wrestling match with Moscow over Ukraine? By the time intelligence agencies around the world learn the truth, it will be too late. The Kremlin has played its hand brilliantly.
From the Senkakus, the war zone spreads as China attacks more Japanese vessels elsewhere in the East China Sea. Tokyo is desperate for the United States to commit its carrier strike group to the fight. If Washington makes that call, the same point of no return may well be crossed as in the collision-at-sea scenario: the destruction of one of the crown jewels of the U.S. Navy and the loss of life of all aboard could be the tragedy that the U.S. administration is forced to avenge with widening attacks on Chinese forces in a full-scale Pacific war.
WAR BETWEEN the United States and China is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible. Indeed, as these scenarios illustrate, the underlying stress created by China’s disruptive rise creates conditions in which accidental, otherwise inconsequential events could trigger a large-scale conflict. That outcome is not preordained: out of the sixteen cases of Thucydides’s Trap over the last five hundred years, war was averted four times. But avoiding war will require statecraft as subtle as that of the British in dealing with a rising America a century ago, or the wise men that crafted a Cold War strategy to meet the Soviet Union’s surge without bombs or bullets. Whether Chinese and American leaders can rise to this challenge is an open question. What is certain is that the fate of the world rests upon the answer.
Graham T. Allison is director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 30.
Image: F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Flickr/U.S. Navy