A massive and devastating war in the Pacific will probably break out between China and the United States within a decade. In some international circles that is the consensus.
No less than the chief political strategist of the administration of US President Donald Trump has made a fearless forecast based on that view. Says Stephen Bannon: "We are going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years. There is no doubt about it."
What makes him so sure? For one thing, there is today a great deal of tension in the South China Sea aggravated by saber-rattling rhetoric on both sides.
It is true that in recent days Trump has struck up a "bromance" with China's President Xi Jinping as he tries to sweet-talk China into pressuring North Korea to drop its nuclear arms and missile buildup.
The bonhomie, however, does not allay the clash of strategic interests. The fact remains that the United States desperately needs to stop China's aggressive building of artificial islands on contested maritime territory and militarizing those sea features. Failure to stop this will mean loss of US credibility and will boost the narrative of America's swift decline and its replacement by China as global kingpin.
Thus, US secretary of state has not walked back from his view that China's access to the artificial islands must be warded off. On top of that, the newly appointed US ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, says, "China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight."
China, on the other hand, is defiant. The commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy has laid down the dogma: "We will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands [Spratlys]." Official Chinese media have warned about a "large-scale war" and a "devastating confrontation" if the United States got too much in China's way. The Chinese defense minister hinted at government preparations for a "people's war at sea."
China's Grand Strategy
What gives? It is not the South China Sea itself that is the problem. It is the grand strategy with which China pursues its long-term security, and where the South China Sea is one of the crucial elements. This grand strategy requires first that China must dominate not only the South China Sea, but also Taiwan, the Senkakus (Diaoyo to the Chinese) and the island territories in the area claimed by four member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
These form "the first island chain," which is the focus of the first part of the China's three-pronged grand strategy. China must control this first island chain to deny access to it by other powers, particularly the United States. What for? You see, repeatedly in the past China had been invaded by foreign navies charging through the first island chain. If China can deny these foreign navies, especially the US Navy, access to the first island chain, then China will feel more secure.
The second part of China's grand strategy is to secure its supply chain and lifeline to its economic and security interests in South Asia, Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This requires, in the first place, a strong presence on the Indian Ocean rim through the "string of pearls" that it is building in that theater, to the consternation of India: a chain of ports in friendly countries along the Indian Ocean rim that extends from China itself to Port Sudan, with each boasting China-controlled commercial and military facilities.
When completed, the "pearls" will include Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan. Each pearl serves as a base for China's exercise of hard and soft power. They will also help China propel its outreach to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
The "string of pearls" is an American term usually understood as a military, expansionist initiative. In recent years, China elaborated and expanded the concept and named it the "Maritime Silk Road," with emphasis on the diplomatic and economic aspects of the project. China has complemented this maritime endeavor with a land-based "New Silk Road" that would connect East Asia with Europe by a railroad that runs through Central Asia. Wrapped together, these two projects become the "One Belt, One Road" (OBOR) scheme that President Xi is today fervently selling to world leaders from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa as a win-win undertaking.
Yet, for all the hype about it, little is known about the OBOR program except that China is willing to pour into it $1 trillion, which the partner countries will pay back over time. Partner countries will also have to provide security. One thing is sure: OBOR is immense and if successfully carried out, it will solve many of China's internal economic problems and will strengthen its power projection exponentially. Hence, by and large, OBOR is still the "string of pearls" magnified in scope several times over and made to wear lipstick.
The Plan for PLAN
Both the OBOR program and the "first island chain" project, however, will not work as envisioned if China does not grow a much stronger navy than the one it has. China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may already be second only to that of the United States, but it is still barely sufficient to defend its inflated claims in the South China Sea and the East Sea. And it has only just begun to boost its capability to project force so that it can protect its global maritime trade.
Logically, therefore, the third part of China's grand strategy must be the realization of a navy large enough and strong enough to defend its coastal regions, deny the "first island chain" to other navies and operate indefinitely in the open seas of various continents in support of its global and economic and political interests.
In this regard, the progress of PLAN has been phenomenal. It is supported by a robust shipbuilding industry that has produced and keeps producing top-quality battleships and support ships, some of which may be regarded as among the best in the world. It recently launched a second aircraft carrier, and is building a third, this time one that uses catapult-assisted takeoff. It plans to build six more carriers.
On top of that, its arsenal of missiles and cyberweaponry is getting more sophisticated, smarter by the day. It has built and has probably deployed the DF-21D missile, a reputed "carrier killer" that is, however, untested against a moving target.
What is worrisome, is that as China carries out its grand strategy, widespread talk of the probability – even the inevitability – of war between China and the United States intensifies. It does not help that Chinese military officials and aides of US President Trump have ramped up the bellicose rhetoric. The idea of the near inevitability of such a war even has some scholarly support, which has been cited in several journalistic writings lately, the so-called "Thucydides Trap."
The term refers to the analysis of the historian Thucydides on the causes of the wars in ancient Greece between Sparta – then the foremost power in the Greek peninsula – and Athens – the rising power. Thucydides wrote: "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable."
In his book, "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap?" Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School argues that China and the United States are bound to collide. In 16 cases in history that he studied, where a rising power confronted a dominant power, war broke out in 12 cases. The book has been cited as the new gospel by dozens of analysts and pundits since it was launched a few years ago.
Despite all their bickering, neither China nor the United States wants war. For both powers, war would be a devastating lose-lose situation. That does not matter, according to Allison. It would take only an incident, such as a miss-encounter at sea or an impulsive Trump move against North Korea, to escalate into a conflagration, in the same way the assassination of an Austrian archduke led to World War I.
Yet I do not believe another war in the Pacific is destiny. It may be a distinct probability, given the clash between China's grand strategy and the awkward US pivot to East Asia, but it is not inevitable. Both major powers and their allies, as well as the fence sitters, have the resources and the means to ensure that the Pacific region does not suffer another catastrophic war, as it did some 76 years ago when Japan, then a rising power, launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
But it will take an enormous effort and perseverance as well as an abundance of wisdom on the part of various players to secure long-term peace. How that may be done will be the subject of my next column.