War between China and the US is a real risk

It’s still August, month of victoria plums, grouse shooting and doomsday scenarios. Right on cue comes a report from Rand, the US think tank, into the odds of a war between the US and China which concludes: it’s worth worrying about.

A future Sino-American bust-up, say the forecasters, could be short and bloody or long and devastating. Take your pick. “Sensors, weapon guidance, digital networking and other information technologies used to target opposing forces have advanced to the point where both US and Chinese military forces seriously threaten each other,” say the authors. That doesn’t mean either country wants a war, nor would such a war necessarily turn nuclear. The brute force that is accumulating, however, “creates the means as well as the incentive to strike enemy forces before they strike one’s own”. Use it or lose it, as Dr Strangelove might have put it.

As long as there are supposedly rational arguments for shooting first, there is a risk, the risk inherent in all deterrence theory. And as long as there is ambiguity about the other side’s intentions there is the risk of an unintentional war. Accidental wars are actually quite rare — there was a catastrophic combination of events and misperceptions in August 1914 but the war was nonetheless ultimately the consequence of state policies. They are likely to erupt when leaders do not have full control over their military organisations, or when leaders fail to appreciate what a potential enemy thinks about the costs and benefits of war.

The latter goes some way to explaining the last near-miss: 1983, when the Kremlin convinced itself that Ronald Reagan was gunning for Moscow. An accumulation of apparently hostile actions suggested to the Soviets that America was planning a nuclear winter: Reagan’s Star Wars programme, the stationing of Pershing 2 missiles in Europe, and the big Able Archer exercise that was supposed to try out nuclear drills. The KGB and co-opted east European spooks went into overdrive. Declassified documents from that time suggest there was a real prospect of a pre-emptive war being triggered by a nervous Soviet leadership.

No one outside the bubble really knew what was up. In 1983 Margaret Thatcher won by a landslide, there was a heatwave in July, there was a new Michael Jackson album. Now we could be missing something again. Vladimir Putin could get up to no good — he has already flouted international law, snatched territory and aided and abetted the shooting down of a civilian airliner. His fighters continue to buzz our coastlines.

It’s China though that is concerning defence planners. Emerging commercial empires are jealous of their trade routes and feel easily threatened. China has just opened its first overseas base in Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea, not only to spy on the US and Japanese but to keep a watch over the passage of oil. It has developed formidable cyberweapons. And it has this month launched a quantum satellite into space, part of a $100 billion programme to create uncrackable encryption keys. This has all the makings of a space arms race. Any power that can be sure of absolutely secure information has an important military edge.

Add to that the increasing tensions in the South and East China Seas and it’s plain we might be heading for a spectacular misjudgment. It could be that Beijing misreads US willingness to intervene on behalf of Japan or the Philippines and goes a step too far in the intimidation campaign against its neighbours. And there is North Korea. What would China do if the US and South Korea struck at Kim Jong Un, suspecting that he was about to unleash a nuclear attack on Seoul? Would it passively accept the loss of face, the prospect of US influence stretching to its frontier?

The Rand analysts assume a war between the US and China would be non-nuclear. Beijing’s likely preference would be for a limited regional war. The Chinese temptation to act, the analysts reckon, will be in the coming eight years as Beijing narrows the conventional arms gap with the US to a point where winning such a regional conflict would be feasible. That seems to be the working premise not only of think tankers thinking the unthinkable but also the US defence establishment.

That’s overly optimistic. China is boosting its air defences to such an extent that the new US F35 stealth fighter might have problems getting through. The US might thus threaten the use of long-range nuclear-armed cruise missiles and signal a readiness to wage a “tactical nuclear war”. The mere suspicion of this happening will change Beijing’s calculations.

There is thus an urgent case for creating a military and political channel of communication between Beijing and Washington. A clear need for vigilance when China invests in American and European strategic assets. And it’s time to reassure Japan and South Korea that the US security shield still holds. The great western pivot to Asia prompted an anxious question: how far was the US willing to go to protect its perceived interests in the east? Both China and its cowed neighbours would like an answer.

The idea that China and the West have become so interdependent that armed conflict is off the table is no more than a lazy assumption. It doesn’t take into account the advances in military technology, the speed now required to make decisions in an escalating crisis, the fuzziness about political intentions. We have managed despite multiple flashpoints to avoid war with Russia and with China. That’s beginning to look more and more like a fluke.

Roger Boyes is a British journalist and author.

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