The Asia-Pacific has become a dynamic and increasingly important region. With China as a major emerging power both economically and militarily, there is no shortage of literature on the complex dynamics of U.S.-China relations and the potential for conflict. For example, Harvard’s Belfer Center has started its “Thucydides Trap Project” to catalog all great power wars triggered by power transitions between a rising and a status quo power. Of the 16 cases they identify, war occurred 75% of the time. Interestingly, of the seven most recent cases, war only occurred three times. This suggests that periods of hegemonic transitions are potentially becoming more stable. This finding matches the general trend discovered by Steven Pinker that overall violence at all levels is steadily decreasing.
Nevertheless, many theorists still see Asia as ripe for conflict. In a recent article in International Security, G. John Ikenberry and Adam Liff argue that Asia is experiencing a potential security dilemma due to the opacity of China’s regime both politically and militarily. The interconnectedness of the U.S., China, and the litany of other actors in the region also makes Asia far more complicated geopolitically than the old Cold War split along the “Iron Curtain.” While the Warsaw Pact and NATO were largely decoupled economically, that dynamic is non-existent in modern Asia. Indeed, many military alliance partners of the U.S. like Japan and South Korea are incredibly reliant on China economically, making it difficult for regional powers to pick sides. Military expenditures are also rising rapidly in Asia, partly due to Asia’s economic growth, but also in part due to fear and insecurity triggered by a newly assertive China. Finally, Chinese military capabilities are significantly improved, and even though in absolute terms they lag far behind U.S. capabilities, they are very close to matching U.S. regional capabilities, which might potentially tempt them to launch a pre-emptive strike to achieve limited war aims before the U.S. has time to surge forces to the Western Pacific.
One area of particular concern is that of an accident or miscalculation in the South or East China Seas. Currently, both seas are heavily patrolled by Chinese vessels which are using classic salami tactics to gradually assert control over territories that most legal experts believe belong to other regional actors. From building artificial islands to ramming other countries’ fishing vessels to repeatedly moving an oil rig into Vietnam’s territorial waters, China has become increasingly assertive. In response, the U.S. has begun to challenge China by conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations. Essentially, U.S. warships sail through areas China claims but are not legally recognized by the U.S. or other countries in the region. This has led to tense stand-offs and dangerous antics that some argue might eventually trigger an accidental escalation. For example, in 2014 Chinese ships locked their targeting radar on a Japanese warship. While this, fortunately, didn’t escalate, it is easy to see how a scenario like this could lead to combat. Authors and analysts who argue about the dangers of miscalculation point to a rich body of work within IR to support their claims. For example, many scholars claim that World War One serves as a warning of how states that seemingly have no reason to fight can stumble into war nonetheless.
Fortunately, the chances of a minor skirmish leading to war are remote. While authors who espouse this view are certainly correct that miscalculations and misperceptions have historically been the cause of many conflicts, those miscalculations take place at the strategic level. For example, many argue that World War One escalated because of underlying fears between the great powers. Germany feared a growing Russia while Britain was concerned about an industrializing Germany that sought to compete with the Royal Navy. Thus, while a seemingly small, random event triggered the war, it was the underlying fears and insecurities that fueled the escalation. There are no examples of tactical miscalculations leading to war, which makes the analogies between the South China Sea and World War One all but meaningless. In other words, applying miscalculation at the strategic level (i.e., states misconstruing the intentions of others or believing that they possess more power than they do and thus undertaking a foolhardy war) does not apply to small-scale incidents between individual combatants who panic and initiate a minor skirmish.
Incidents do not occur in a vacuum. They occur in a broader system that has many institutional and informal checks on conflict and escalation. While the U.S. and China are far from close allies, they are also not entrenched enemies. Thus, while a military incident between the PLAN and USN would undoubtedly be a diplomatic crisis, it would not spiral into open conflict simply because the strategic insecurities do not exist. The fact that none of the hundreds of maritime incidents between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. resulted in escalation or war makes it all but certain that an incident between the U.S. and China – countries far less antagonistic towards each other than the U.S. and Soviets – would remain stable and contained.