Would a Chinese leader barely in control of his own country after a long civil war dare attack a superpower that had crushed Japan to end World War II five years earlier by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? As American troops pushed North Korean forces toward the Chinese border in 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur could not imagine so. But Mao Zedong did. MacArthur was dumbstruck. Chinese forces rapidly beat American troops back to the line that had divided North and South Korea when the war began. That thirty-eighth parallel continues to mark the border between the two Koreas today. By the time the war ended, nearly three million had perished, including thirty-six thousand American troops.
Similarly, in 1969, Soviet leaders could not imagine that China would react to a minor border dispute by launching a preemptive strike against a power with overwhelming nuclear superiority. But that is precisely what Mao did when he started the Sino-Soviet border war. The gambit showed the world China’s doctrine of “active defense.” Mao sent an unmistakable message: China would never be intimidated, not even by adversaries that could wipe it off the map.
Unwise or undesirable, however, does not mean impossible. Wars occur even when leaders are determined to avoid them. Events or actions of others narrow their options, forcing them to make choices that risk war rather than acquiesce to unacceptable alternatives. Athens did not want war with Sparta. Kaiser Wilhelm did not seek war with Britain. Mao initially opposed Kim Il-sung’s attack on South Korea in 1950 for fear of blowback. But events often require leaders to choose between bad and worse risks. And once the military machines are in motion, misunderstandings, miscalculations and entanglements can escalate to a conflict far beyond anyone’s original intent.
To better understand these dangers, Washington and Beijing have developed scenarios, simulations and war games. These often begin with an unexpected incident or accident. Individuals assigned to play the hand of China or the United States take it from there. Participants in these exercises are repeatedly surprised to find how often and easily small sparks lead to large wars. Today, there are at least three plausible paths to war between the world’s two greatest powers.
In war scenarios, analysts use basic concepts made familiar by the U.S. Forest Service. Arsonists cause only a small fraction of fires. Discarded cigarettes, smoldering campfires, industrial accidents and bolts of lightning are much more common sources. Fortunately, in the forest as well as in relations among nations, most sparks do not ignite a blaze.
Background conditions often determine which sparks become fires. While Smokey the Bear’s warning that “only you can prevent forest fires” teaches campers and hikers about sparks, the Forest Service posts additional warnings after long dry spells or periods of extreme heat, occasionally closing high-risk areas. Moreover, it regulates the storage of flammable chemicals, propane tanks and gas depots, becoming increasingly stringent as conditions worsen.
In relations between China and the United States today, relevant background conditions include geography, culture and history. “History,” Henry Kissinger observed in his first book, “is the memory of states.” China’s memory is longer than most, with the century of humiliation forming a core part of the country’s identity. Recent military engagements are also part of each state’s living memory. The Korean War and Sino-Soviet border conflict taught Chinese strategists not to back down from more powerful adversaries. Moreover, both the American and Chinese militaries acknowledge that the United States has lost, or at least failed to win, four of the five major wars it has entered since World War II.
The most pertinent background conditions, however, are Thucydides’s Trap and the syndromes of rising and ruling powers that China and the United States display in full. Thucydides’s Trap is the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one. Most contests that fit this pattern have ended badly. Over the past five hundred years, a major rising power has threatened to displace a ruling power sixteen times. In twelve of those, the result was war.
The rising power syndrome highlights the upstart’s enhanced sense of itself, its interests, and its entitlement to recognition and respect. The ruling power syndrome is essentially the mirror image: the established power exhibiting an enlarged sense of fear and insecurity as it faces intimations of “decline.” As in sibling rivalries, so too in diplomacy one finds a predictable progression reflected both at the dinner table and at the international conference table. A growing sense of self-importance (“my voice counts”) leads to an expectation of recognition and respect (“listen to what I have to say”) and a demand for increased impact (“I insist”). Understandably, the established power views the rising country’s assertiveness as disrespectful, ungrateful and even provocative or dangerous. Exaggerated self-importance becomes hubris; unreasonable fear, paranoia.
Like gasoline to a match, accelerants can turn an accidental collision or third-party provocation into war. One cluster of accelerants is captured by what Carl von Clausewitz called the “fog of war.” Extending Thucydides’s insight about war as “an affair of chances,” Clausewitz observed that “war is the realm of uncertainty. Three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” This profound uncertainty can lead a commander or policymaker to act aggressively when a fuller set of facts would advise caution, and vice versa.
The advent of disruptive weapons that promise “shock and awe” makes the fog and uncertainty even worse. With attacks on command-and-control systems, enemies can paralyze a nation’s military command. In Desert Storm, U.S. forces demonstrated version 1.0 of this option. They destroyed Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and cut communication links to his commanders in the field. Isolated, his forces hunkered down; it was like “shooting fish in a barrel,” U.S. pilots remarked.
Antisatellite weapons are one accelerant that military planners expect to play a big role in any U.S.-China conflict. Long a subject of science fiction, such weapons are today a fact of life, running the gamut from kinetic ones that physically destroy their targets to quieter systems that use lasers to jam or “dazzle” satellites, rendering them inoperable. In 2007, China successfully destroyed a weather satellite, and it regularly tests its antisatellite capabilities in less dramatic fashion. Satellites provide a crucial link in almost every U.S. military endeavor, from early warning of ballistic-missile launches and providing imagery and weather forecasts to planning operations. Global positioning satellites put the “precision” in almost all the military’s precision-guided munitions and allow ships, planes and ground units to know where they are on the battlefield. The United States depends on this technology more than any of its competitors, making it a perfect target for Chinese military planners.
Cyberspace provides even more opportunities for disruptive technological transformations that could provide a decisive advantage, on the one hand, but might also risk uncontrolled escalation, on the other. The details of offensive cyberweapons remain heavily classified and are constantly evolving. But the public has seen glimpses of them in some cases, such as America’s cyberattack against Iran’s nuclear program or its “left-of-launch” attacks on North Korea’s missile tests. America’s primary cyberspace organizations, the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, as well as their Chinese counterparts, can now use cyberweapons to silently shut down military networks and critical civilian infrastructure like power grids. Moreover, by employing proxies and assembling an international web of compromised computers, they can disguise the origins of a cyber-operation, slowing the victim’s ability to identify the attacker.
Like antisatellite measures, cyberweapons could create a decisive advantage in battle by disrupting the command-and-control and targeting information on which modern militaries depend—and without bloodshed. This presents a dangerous paradox: the very action that attackers believe will tamp down conflict can appear reckless and provocative to the victims. Similarly, cyberattacks that disrupt communication would intensify the fog of war, creating confusion that multiplies the chances of miscalculation.
While both the United States and China now have nuclear arsenals that could survive the other’s first strike and still allow for retaliation, neither can be sure its cyber arsenals could withstand a serious cyber assault. For example, a large-scale Chinese cyberattack against the U.S. military’s networks could temporarily cripple Washington’s ability to respond in kind, or even to operate some of its critical command-and-control and surveillance systems. This creates a dangerous use-it-or-lose-it dynamic in which each side has an incentive to attack key links in the other’s computer networks before their capabilities are disabled.
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.
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.
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.