The Specter of an Accidental China-U. S. War

WSJ

As China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea, the risks of an inadvertent clash with the U.S. are growing

A recent think-tank report says that America must “expand communications with China in times of peace, crisis, and war.” Above, a Chinese military band plays as a U.S. destroyer arrives on Aug. 8 at the port of Qingdao, in eastern China, on a scheduled visit.
A recent think-tank report says that America must “expand communications with China in times of peace, crisis, and war.” Above, a Chinese military band plays as a U.S. destroyer arrives on Aug. 8 at the port of Qingdao, in eastern China, on a scheduled visit. Photo: Associated Press

SHANGHAI—The last time America and China went to war—in Korea in 1950—they fought each other to a standstill.

Later that decade, as the Cold War ramped up, they came close to blows again; the Eisenhower administration repeatedly threatened “Red China” with nuclear devastation as tensions bubbled over Taiwan.

Today, given the astronomical stakes at play, many assume that armed conflict between the two giants is out of the question. They are each other’s largest trading partner. Military confrontation wouldn’t only threaten these huge flows but also student exchanges, scientific collaboration, joint technical projects and the myriad other ways in which the fates and fortunes of the world’s two largest economies and their peoples are inextricably linked.

Yet, as China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the risks of an inadvertent clash on the water or in the air are growing by the day.

A new RAND Corp study says that a Sino-U. S. war as a result of such a crisis “cannot be considered implausible.”

Violence could ignite quickly, the report warns. That is because each side has deployed precision-guided munitions, as well as cyber and space technologies, able to inflict devastating damage on the other’s military assets, including Chinese land-based missile batteries and American aircraft carriers. Thus they have a strong incentive to launch massive strikes first as part of a “use it or lose it” calculation.

Once out of control, fighting could be prolonged, although it is unlikely to go nuclear, according to the RAND study sponsored by the U.S. Army. Both nations possess the military, industrial and demographic resources to absorb heavy losses and slog on. As in Korea, there would likely be no clear victor.

Washington and Beijing “need to contemplate the possibility of a severe, lengthy, uncontrollable and devastating, yet indecisive, conflict,” the RAND paper asserts.

This is the troubling context in which to view China’s defiant response to last month’s ruling by a panel of jurists in The Hague, who struck down Beijing’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea and rebuked it for dredging artificial islands topped by military-capable runways that have intimidated other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

Instead of backing off, China has doubled down on its assertive strategy, flying a bomber over the Scarborough Shoal, which it has effectively seized from the Philippines, announcing war games with Russia and sending militia fleets swarming into waters contested with Japan.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, has published satellite photos showing aircraft hangers springing up on the fake islands, reinforced apparently to withstand air attack.

So far there are no signs that the People’s Liberation Army has stationed military aircraft on the mid-sea platforms.

Then again, some Western experts think China may be biding its time so as not to spoil a Group-of-20 summit of leading economies it is hosting for the first time next month. Watch out for even more aggressive moves between then and the U.S. presidential election in November, they say.

Washington’s response to The Hague ruling has been conspicuously restrained. U.S. officials seem to hope that avoiding provocative words and actions, such as sending warships steaming close by the island fortresses in “freedom of navigation” missions, will make it easier for Beijing to find a graceful way to comply with the ruling over time.

For the U.S., striking the right balance between displays of conciliation and resolve is critical. As the RAND report argues, war is much more likely to arise as a result of China misjudging America’s willingness to defend its East Asian allies, and pushing them too far, than from a premeditated attack.

Indeed, Chinese leaders — arch-realists on foreign policy — may even feel emboldened now. Their man-made islands are a fait accompli; the tribunal has no power to enforce its judgment. Southeast Asia has been silent. So has a struggling Europe, as ever, most concerned with ginning up Chinese investment.

“Nobody is pushing back,” says Jennifer Lind, an East Asia specialist at Dartmouth College. She thinks the Chinese strategy has been successful. “They control more territory; they have more influence than ever before,” she says.

Worryingly, the RAND report notes an increasing confidence among Chinese military strategists that they could conduct a short, sharp and victorious war.

Among the report’s recommendations: America should make clear it doesn’t favor pre-emptive strikes against China and must “expand communications with China in times of peace, crisis, and war.”

On that latter objective, history isn’t encouraging. In 2001, when a Chinese fighter ran into an America spy plane, its pilot killing himself and forcing the crippled U.S. plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, then U.S. President George W. Bush tried to reach his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, on a hotline. Mr. Jiang wouldn’t take the call.

Write to Andrew Browne at andrew.browne@wsj.com

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