“Once the mobilization button was pushed, the whole vast machinery for calling up, equipping, and transporting [millions of] men began turning automatically,” warned Barbara W Tuchman in her definitive account of the origins of World War I. It was a tragically devastating conflict, which no one intended to spark, yet once in motion, each party sought maximal gains to make up for unfathomable cost in blood and treasure.
The conflict was upshot of not irrationality per se, since the protagonists were heirs to centuries-old kingdoms, but underestimating the ability of their rivals to stand their ground in face of provocation. “One constant among the elements of [war] was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true,” observed Tuchman in The Guns of August (1962).
In retrospect, one should understand why hardly anyone expected all-out conflict. After all, Britain and Germany were deeply economically interdependent, while the monarchs of the three leading powers of Britain (George V) , Germany (Wilhelm II) and Russia (Nicholas II) were related by blood. And yet, neither kinship nor trade managed to prevent the great power conflict and the devastation of Europe that followed. If anything, deep interdependence and proximity became a liability, since “Europe was a heap of swords piled as delicately as jackstraws; one could not be pulled out without moving the others.”
While circumstances are vastly different, the intensifying showdown between the US and China in Asian waters is deeply troubling. In the past month alone, both superpowers have conducted almost a dozen naval drills in the increasingly congested and bitterly disputed South China Sea, which could turn into the tinderbox of the 21st century. At the rate things are escalating, the two economically-interdependent powers could sleep-walk into armed confrontation– even if each party is desperate to avoid it.
Great conflicts don’t take place in a psychological and political vacuum. It takes a toxic mixture of escalatory posturing and reckless provocations to drive otherwise rational and calibrated superpowers into direct confrontation. As historian John Gaddis pithily observed, “with great power comes great responsibility … but also the danger of doing dumb things.”
One area of major concern is the rise of hardliners on both sides of the fence. On one hand, the so-called “Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy” among China’s new generation of increasingly assertive and rhetorically aggressive diplomats and functionaries have rattled policy-makers across the West and beyond. It marks a significant departure from earlier days of Chinese ‘charm-offensive’, when Chinese diplomats and foreign ministry officials were praised for their measured rhetoric and strategic sophistication.
At the same time, senior Trump administration officials have invoked Cold War era rhetoric to denigrate China as a dangerous revisionist power. Beginning with Vice-President Mike Pence’s major speech at Hudson Institute in late-2018, a growing number of top American officials have deployed various permutations of Reagan-like “evil empire” speech against China. With President Donald Trump facing a tough election, his deputies have upped the ante, with US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien comparing China’s leadership to the Soviet politburo, while recently US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo went so far as claiming, “China is working to take down freedom all across the world.”
In the meantime, the rise of strong-willed leaders in both China and the US has raised concerns over the prospects of optimal engagement and reasonable compromise. Thanks to his temperamental and often reckless foreign policy, US President Donald Trump has often been compared to Germany’s last Emperor Wilhelm II, who placed his ego and delusions of grandeur above the interest of his own people as well as hard-earned European peace.
As China closes in on the US in both economic and military power, various scholars have emphasized broader structural factors and the so-called “Thucydides trap” to explain rising tensions between the two superpowers. But as leading historians such as Christopher Clark have argued, contingency and broader forces of history don't absolve leaders of their responsibility to prevent conflict and de-escalate tensions. And often singular events, which were initially seen as manageable if not trivial, could spark an unforeseen conflict.
And this is precisely where the rising tensions in the South China Sea are deeply worrying. Perturbed by China’s expanding strategic footprint across adjacent waters, the US has dramatically increased its naval deployments across the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, not to mention regularized war games with allies in Japan, Australia, and increasingly India across the Indo-Pacific.
Avoiding Tit-for-Tat Spiral
Much to Beijing’s consternation, the US has also expanded military cooperation with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. From a massive US$62 billion arms deal to growing naval deployments in the Taiwan Straits and the unprecedented visit by a US cabinet official to the island, Washington has raised alarm bells in Beijing. This has gone hand in hand with a major policy statement on the South China Sea, whereby Washington is effectively backing the claims of its allies against China’s.
But this is no longer the mid-1990s, when the US could intimidate China through deployment of aircraft carriers and major warships. Today’s China is vastly modernized, better-organized and has well-equipped armed forces, which could potentially even defeat (or at least inflict heavy cost on) US forces in an event of conflict in the Western Pacific. Conscious of its growing capabilities, China has responded by flexing its military muscles, recently launching its much-feared “aircraft-carrier killer” missiles -- including a DF-21D missile, which was launched from Zhejiang province in the east, and a DF-26B missile, which was launched from Qinghai – into the South China Sea.
While the missile launches came a day after a US U-2 spy plane reportedly entered a no-fly zone during massive drills in the Bohai Sea, the maneuver was clearly meant as a much broader “warning to the US”. In fact, late August saw China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducting their first-ever near-simultaneous drills across four regions, which has displayed Beijing’s ability to mobilize massive forces for naval operations on short notice.
Only weeks after conducting successive drills across the East and South China as well as Taiwan Straits, the PLA upped the ante in late-August through coast guard drills in Bohai Gulf, live-fire naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, all-weather combat operations in the East China Sea, and two separate major drills in the South China Sea, one off the coast Guangdong and another off the coast of China’s southernmost island of Hainan. Thus, within a single week, China conducted six overlapping naval and coast guard drills in a clear signal of its readiness for any contingencies.
In the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s armed forces should “prepare for war” if push comes to shove. Nonetheless, there are also growing efforts by top defense officials on both sides to manage the new era of ‘great power competition’. Earlier this month, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper held a 90 minute-long conversation with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to enhance military-to-military diplomacy and institute various mechanisms to avoid unwanted escalation. Regardless of who wins this November’s elections, we need more of this and at the highest level in the most institutionalized manner possible.
Make no mistake, the South China Sea is where the precise coordinates of Sino-American rivalry is most palpable, thus the great necessity for proactive leadership, calibrated strategic competition, and delicate diplomacy. Otherwise, the contested waters could see the very kind of singular events that have sparked previous conflicts. After all, who would have thought that a coterie of ragtag Serbian nationalists, who dared to assassinate an Austrian dignitary in full daylight, would trigger a global conflict?