Is World War III inevitable?
The Financial Times has an article by Gideon Rachman entitled:
How to stop a war between America and China
Unfortunately, the article doesn’t tell us how to stop a war between the US and China. It does mention the possibility of setting up the sort of “hot line” that existed between the US and the Soviet Union, but it’s hard to see how that would be decisive. There was no hot line 1962, when the US and Russia pulled back from the brink of nuclear war.
Rachman says that policymakers view the risk of war as being quite high:
Visiting Washington last week, it was striking how commonplace talk of war between the US and China has become. That discussion has been fed by loose-lipped statements from American generals musing about potential dates for the opening of hostilities.
Those comments, while unwise, did not spring from nowhere. They are a reflection of the broader discussion on China taking place in Washington — inside and outside government. Many influential people seem to think that a US-China war is not only possible but probable.
The rhetoric coming out of Beijing is also bellicose. Last month, Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, said that “if the US side does not put on the brakes and continues down the wrong path . . . confrontation and conflict” between the two nations is inevitable.
I am also worried about the risk of war between the US and China. When thinking about this risk, it might be worth reviewing the situation in Europe, which seems equally dangerous. As far as I can tell, the US policy in Europe is roughly the following:
1. If Russia invades Estonia, we go to war with Russia.
2. If Russia invades Latvia, we go to war with Russia.
3. If Russia invades Lithuania, we go to war with Russia.
4. If Russia invades Ukraine, we supply Ukraine with weapons and intelligence.
A major war between two nuclear armed nations is a massive negative sum outcome. That sort of outcome is most likely to occur due to miscalculation. One way to reduce the risk of war is by making one’s intentions crystal clear, so that our adversaries know how we will respond if they act. Russia knows that we will defend Nato countries if they are attacked, and that’s why it doesn’t attack Nato countries.
It’s somewhat odd that the risk of war with China is currently seen as being higher than the risk of war with Russia, especially given the fact that Russia has a more powerful nuclear force than China and is led by a more reckless and militaristic leader. One possible factor is that our foreign policy in Asia is far more ambiguous than in Europe. Ambiguity can lead to miscalculation, which can have very negative effects.
In my view, clarity along the following lines would make war between the US and China much less likely than it is today, and much less likely than war between the US and Russia:
1. If China invades Japan, we go to war with China.
2. If China invades South Korea, we go to war with China.
Russia China invades the Philippines (their main islands), we go to war with China.
Russia China invades Taiwan, we supply Taiwan with weapons and intelligence.
[Yikes, there were typos in the original.]
In other words, replicate our successful European policy approach to avoiding a US war with Russia, as a way of avoiding war with China.
Of course there are other possible options, such as extending our defense umbrella to Taiwan. But whatever we decide to do, our policy must be crystal clear. The worst of all possible outcomes would be if the US intends to go to war with China over Taiwan, while China doesn’t believe the US intends to go to war over Taiwan. Remember the Gulf War of 1991?
Alternatively, suppose China believes that we’d go to war over Taiwan, but we have no intention of actually doing so. China might accompany an attack on Taiwan with a Pearl Harbor-type strike against US bases in Japan and Guam, triggering WWIII. All due to a misunderstanding. Not a likely outcome, but possible.
I don’t expect the US to follow my advice, and hence I see a non-trivial risk that miscalculation could lead to a nuclear war between the US and China during the late 2020s, which would be in no one’s interest. I hope I’m wrong.