Most of the discussions in recent years regarding the increase in Chinese influence were conducted in the focus of a potential threat that China may present as, after all, as an equal competitor to the United States, challenging the status quo of the current world order. But another problem is more pressing. For at least another decade, China will remain rather weak compared to the United States and there is a real danger that relations between Beijing and Washington will end up in a crisis that will quickly escalate into a military conflict.
In contrast to the long-term strategy of rivalry between superpowers, which may escalate or not worsen, the danger of a crisis between two nuclear powers is real in the short term, and the events of the past few years suggest the possibility of increasing this risk.
Since the end of the Cold War, Beijing and Washington have managed to avoid dangerous clashes several times: in 1995-96, when the United States responded to Chinese missile tests designed to warn Taiwanese voters about the dangers of voting for independence; in 1999, when the Americans bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by mistake during a NATO operation in Serbia; and in 2001, when an American reconnaissance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter, which led to the death of a Chinese pilot. Beijing, in turn, detained an American plane with a crew. But the absence of an escalation of these conflicts should not give rise to complacency.
None of these episodes had a definition of a true crisis: a confrontation that would threaten the vital interests of both parties, and thus sharply increased the risk of war.
If Beijing and Washington are in a similar skirmish in the near future, both sides will have strong incentives to use force. Moreover, temptation is likely to be the strongest at an early stage, which will make it much more difficult to prevent war through diplomacy.
THIN RED LINE
It would seem that the prospects for similar crises in US-China relations have been reduced in recent years, as the tension around Taiwan’s problem subsided, and this was the main powder keg underlying most of China’s and US military planning in East Asia since the middle of 90’s years
But there were new potential hot spots. While China and its neighbors are arguing about islands and maritime rights in the Eastern and Southern Chinese seas, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to defend the two countries that have challenged China’s claims (Japan and the Philippines) and are very close to the same with the third (Viet Nam). In addition, the “axis” or “rebalancing” in Asia from the Obama administration is the diplomatic side of the planned military redistribution, which is a signal of Washington’s readiness to engage in the event of a regional conflict.
Also, the United States insists on international legislation allowing freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace, a limit defined in 12 miles from the country. China, on the other hand, claims that foreign warships and airplanes should be kept outside the country for approximately 200 miles (“exclusive economic zone”). Given such territorial claims, most of the South China Sea and the airspace for American ships and aircraft are closed. Disputes over freedom of navigation have already provoked a confrontation between China and the United States, and it remains a possible trigger for a serious crisis.
Today, China and the United States are not adversaries - clearly not in the sense of the word, as the USSR and the United States were during the Cold War. But the risk is that the US-China crisis will in fact be even more dangerous if Beijing and Washington fall into the trap of a zero-sum game, fighting for life and death.
As opponents in constant combat readiness, the USSR and Washington were aware of the fundamental contradiction of their interests, which could be the cause of war.
After several nervous confrontations around Berlin and Cuba, they gained an understanding of the vital interests of each other, challenging which inevitably provoke a crisis, and developed mechanisms for how to avoid escalation. China and the United States should achieve the same mutual understanding of interests or find reliable means to curb possible crises.
Neither China nor the United States clearly defined their vital interests in the vast expanses of the western Pacific. In recent years, China has issued various unofficial statements regarding its “key interests”, which sometimes go beyond the territorial and political integrity of the mainland and claim dominance over Taiwan.
For example, China intends to treat the disputed territories of the eastern and southern Chinese seas as its vital interests.
Washington's position in the region also looks vague.
The United States insured against the threat of Taiwan with a US security umbrella. And the position of the United States on controversial maritime issues, including China and its neighbors, looks somewhat confusing: Washington remains neutral on ownership issues and insists on a peaceful resolution of issues, but reaffirms its commitment to support its allies in the event of a conflict.
Such Chinese and American ambiguities about the “red line” that cannot be crossed without the risk of conflict increase the likelihood that one of the parties will take steps that will be considered safe, but will turn out to be unexpectedly provocative.
MORE DANGER THAN THE COLD WAR
The uncertainty of what could lead to war for both Beijing and Washington makes the crisis much more likely than if the parties knew when, where the danger lurks or how much pressure can be pressed if the other side is not ready for concessions. A similar situation occurred at the beginning of the Cold War, when there were several serious crises, until the parties began to feel each other and learned the rules on the go.
But today the situation is even more dangerous.
The balance of nuclear and traditional military power between China and the United States, for example, is much more one-sided than it was between the USSR and the United States. If the relations between the United States and China enter into conflict, the huge advantage of the United States in traditional weapons will cause the temptation to threaten or use force.
Realizing the temptation of Washington, Beijing, in turn, may feel an urge to use traditional weapons before they are destroyed. Although China is not able to correct the military imbalance, it may believe that a quick serious damage is the best way to force the US to retreat.
The fact that both sides have nuclear arsenals will help to avoid its use, which would be a reason for retaliation. In fact, if only nuclear weapon played a role, the US-China crises would be very stable and would not be worth worrying about too much. But the traditional armed forces of both countries complicate the situation, undermining the stability of nuclear deterrence.
Throughout the crisis, both parties can believe that the use of traditional weapons is a tool with which you can achieve better bargaining positions by manipulating the other side in what economist Thomas Schelling called “taking risks”.
During a crisis, China or the United States can assume that what is at stake means more for the enemy, and thus are willing to tolerate a greater level of risk.
But since the use of conventional weapons can only be the first step of unpredictable errors, mistakes and miscalculations, there is no guarantee that this balancing will end before an unforeseen nuclear catastrophe.
China, moreover, apparently believes that nuclear deterrence opens up the possibility of the safe use of traditional military force. Since both countries fear a potential nuclear exchange, the Chinese are inclined to think that neither they nor the Americans will bring the escalation of the conflict too far.
Soviet leaders, on the contrary, demonstrated that they would use any military means if the war began — one of the reasons why the war did not start. In addition, the Chinese official position on the use of nuclear weapons “not to be the first to use”, which is observed in military exercises and military preparations, increases their confidence that a war with the United States will not turn into a nuclear one. As a result of these beliefs, Beijing may be less careful in taking steps that could trigger the crisis. And if the crisis happens, China may also be less cautious about the first shot.
Such opinions are particularly disturbing, given the development of technology in recent years, thanks to which the accuracy and effectiveness of traditional weapons has improved dramatically. Their lethal effect can give a great advantage to the first attacking side, which was uncharacteristic of the traditional military actions of the US-Soviet confrontation in Europe.
In addition, due to complex computer and satellite systems, the management of modern weapons is extremely vulnerable to traditional military attacks and cyber attacks, today more accurate weapons can be effective only if they are used before the enemy has struck or taken counter-measures.
If peacetime containment has been replaced by a search for an advantage during a crisis, neither China nor the United States can be sure of the reliability of their systems that control traditional weapons.
Under such circumstances, both Beijing and Washington have incentives to initiate an attack. China will be under heavy pressure from the fact that their advanced weapons fully depend on vulnerable computer networks, fixed radar stations and satellites. The effectiveness of advanced US forces is less dependent on these vulnerable systems. However, the US advantage may increase the temptation to strike first, especially against Chinese satellites, which will cope with a similar response to retaliation from China.
The US-China crisis may also be more dangerous than the clashes of the Cold War due to the unreliability of the existing communication channels between Beijing and Washington. After the Cuban missile crisis, the USSR and the United States recognized the importance of a direct connection between their leaders, establishing the Moscow-Washington hotline. In 1998, China and the United States also established a hotline between the presidents. But despite the work of the hotline, the White House was unable to get in touch with the Chinese leaders in a timely manner after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade 1999 of the year or the incident with the spy plane 2001 of the year.
China’s inability to use the hotline may reflect the reluctance of Chinese leaders to respond before they have developed internal consensus or have not held extensive consultations with their military. The delay can also talk about the difficulties of policy coordination, since China has no equivalent to the US National Security Council. But whatever the reasons, the delay in direct communication can be critical in the early stages of the unfolding crisis.
Instead, communication between countries will initially be limited to early public statements or silent signals transmitted through actions. But public statements aimed at different audiences, and the patriotic passion in China or the United States, as well as the pressure of the allies, could push the other side to take an even more aggressive stance than was considered sufficient. In the absence of direct and confidential communication, the two countries will not be able to discuss politically sensitive proposals. They also will not be able to share information that will cool the heat of the terrible escalation of the conflict, such as information about military capabilities or current military preparations.
Communication through action is also problematic, as it is related to the possibility of a lot of distortion when sending a message and misinterpretation when it is received. Chinese analysts seem to overestimate the ease with which you can send a signal through military action and underestimate the risk of escalation resulting from misreading a message.
For example, analysts Andrew Erickson and David Young drew attention to the Chinese military publications, which suggested the use of Chinese anti-ship missile systems created against American aircraft carriers to give China resolve during the crisis. Some Chinese military thinkers assumed that China could send a signal by opening warning fire close to a moving aircraft carrier and even a targeted strike on the aircraft carrier command tower without affecting the rest of the ship. But, as Owen Cotier points out, even the most accurate anti-ship missile systems have an inevitable accuracy of accuracy. Thus, the smallest salvo of this kind can entail the risk of serious damage and thus unintentional escalation.
The final important factor that makes the US-China crisis more dangerous than the Cold War is geography. The focus of the Cold War was on land, especially in central Europe, and the future confrontation between the United States and China will almost certainly take place at sea. This difference will characterize the new crisis in many ways, especially requiring both parties to make some crucial decisions from the very beginning. The Chinese small submarine fleet with nuclear missiles (SSBNs) and the much larger fleet with traditional weapons feel most secure being in shallow water near the Chinese mainland where, due to poor acoustics, the efficiency of American submarines will deteriorate. Their proximity to aviation and China’s missile defense also limits the ability of the US Air Force and US surface ships to deal with them. For China, submarines play a large role in the confrontation with the United States, but for this they will have to leave safe waters.
Chinese submarines dramatically increase the possibility of a crisis getting out of control. Although American technology of underwater warfare is more effective in less noisy open waters (where Americans also enjoy air superiority), this is not ideal: part fleet The United States caught in the range of surviving Chinese submarines will be in jeopardy. Thus, at the very beginning of the crisis, the US will be tempted to attack Chinese submarines as soon as they try to leave domestic waters. Especially because there are only a few narrow routes through which Chinese submarines can reach deep water, the United States will be tempted to strike immediately, rather than endanger the ships of its navy.
Regardless of the decision of the United States, every Chinese military submarine that manages to reach deep, deep waters will have to choose whether to use or lose, due to its huge vulnerability to American anti-submarine forces — another potential trigger for escalating the conflict.
The Chinese nuclear submarine fleet presents other risks. By virtue of its “not to be the first to use” policy, China clearly stated that any attack on strategic nuclear forces would be a pretext for a second nuclear strike, which makes an attack on SSBNs unlikely. At the beginning of the crisis, therefore, Beijing will find it safer to place SSBNs at a distance in deep waters, where it will be most convenient for them to execute the launch order. But such an arrangement, in turn, includes new dangers. One of them is the possibility of confusing a submarine with nuclear missiles with a conventional submarine, and attacking it to provoke a Chinese retaliatory strike. The other is the possibility of an escalation of the conflict without a direct order from Beijing, due to the restriction of communication with the mainland, which is practiced to avoid detection.
MANAGEMENT OF RISKS
The chances of a US-Chinese crisis in the coming years are low, but they are not insignificant, and they worry more and more as the risks of such a conflict increase. The most important steps that Beijing and Washington can take are those that can prevent such crises. Due to the uncertainty of the framework of the vital interests of each other, which could be the trigger for such a crisis, both countries should deepen political and military exchanges, the focus of which lies on this problem. Even if they are unable to achieve complete clarity, the discussion will help draw attention to what each country views as the greatest risk.
Although it would be difficult to rule out the possibility of confrontation between the United States and China, both countries can do more to address the sources of potential instability and improve their ability to manage the risks they may face during the crisis. Leaders in Washington can share their rich risk management experience with their Chinese counterparts, emphasizing the importance of policy coordination. In addition, the United States must emphasize the need to use the existing hotline for operational, direct communication between the top leaders of countries during a crisis.
China and the United States should deepen their modest military cooperation.
Without prejudice to the leakage of important secrets, increase familiarity with each other’s military systems and practices, which will reduce the risk of accidental escalation in the event of a clash. It would be wise for both sides to develop personal contacts among the commanders of both countries who, in the event of a crisis, created a grain of trust, which would be useful if political leaders tried to reduce the level of conflict.
The task received by Washington and Beijing to address the future crisis will not be easy. In the end, you may need to go through the experience of a frightening collision, just as it was during the beginning of the Cold War. But no need to go through that.