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Much of the debate about China’s rise in recent years has focused on the potential dangers China could pose as an eventual peer competitor to the United States bent on challenging the existing international order. But another issue is far more pressing. For at least the next decade, while China remains relatively weak compared to the United States, there is a real danger that Beijing and Washington will find themselves in a crisis that could quickly escalate to military conflict. Unlike a long-term great-power strategic rivalry that might or might not develop down the road, the danger of a crisis involving the two nuclear-armed countries is a tangible, near-term concern -- and the events of the past few years suggest the risk might be increasing.
Since the end of the Cold War, Beijing and Washington have managed to avoid perilous showdowns on several occasions: in 1995–96, when the United States responded to Chinese missile tests intended to warn Taiwanese voters about the danger of pushing for independence; in 1999, when U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the NATO air assault on Serbia; and in 2001, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot and Beijing’s detention of the U.S. plane and crew. But the lack of serious escalation during those episodes should not breed complacency. None of them met the definition of a genuine crisis: a confrontation that threatens vital interests on both sides and thus sharply increases the risk of war. If Beijing and Washington were to find themselves in that sort of showdown in the near future, they would both have strong incentives to resort to force. Moreover, the temptations and pressures to escalate would likely be highest in the early stages of the face-off, making it harder for diplomacy to prevent war.
THIN RED LINES
It might seem that the prospects for a crisis of this sort in U.S.-Chinese relations have diminished in recent years as tensions over Taiwan have cooled, defusing the powder keg that has driven much Chinese and U.S. military planning in East Asia since the mid-1990s. But other potential flash points have emerged. As China and its neighbors squabble over islands and maritime rights in the East China and South China seas, the United States has reiterated its treaty commitments to defend two of the countries that are contesting China’s claims (Japan and the Philippines) and has nurtured increasingly close ties with a third (Vietnam). Moreover, the Obama administration’s “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” to Asia, a diplomatic turn matched by planned military redeployments, has signaled that Washington is prepared to get involved in the event of a regional conflict.
Also, the United States insists that international law affords it freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace, defined as lying beyond a country’s 12-mile territorial limit. China, by contrast, asserts that other countries’ military vessels and aircraft are not free to enter its roughly 200-mile-wide “exclusive economic zone” without express permission -- a prohibition that, given Beijing’s territorial claims, could place much of the South China Sea and the airspace above it off-limits to U.S. military ships and planes. Disputes over freedom of navigation have already caused confrontations between China and the United States, and they remain a possible trigger for a serious crisis.
It is true that China and the United States are not currently adversaries -- certainly not in the way that the Soviet Union and the United States were during the Cold War. But the risk of a U.S.-Chinese crisis might actually be greater than it would be if Beijing and Washington were locked in a zero-sum, life-and-death struggle. As armed adversaries on hair-trigger alert, the Soviet Union and the United States understood that their fundamentally opposed interests might bring about a war. After going through several nerve-racking confrontations over Berlin and Cuba, they gained an understanding of each other’s vital interests -- not to be challenged without risking a crisis -- and developed mechanisms to avoid escalation. China and the United States have yet to reach a similar shared understanding about vital interests or to develop reliable means for crisis management.
Neither China nor the United States has clearly defined its vital interests across broad areas of the western Pacific. In recent years, China has issued various unofficial statements about its “core interests” that have sometimes gone beyond simply ensuring the territorial and political integrity of the mainland and its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Beijing has suggested, for example, that it might consider the disputed areas of the East China and South China seas to be core interests.
Washington has also been vague about what it sees as its vital interests in the region. The United States hedges on the question of whether Taiwan falls under a U.S. security umbrella. And the United States’ stance on the maritime disputes involving China and its neighbors is somewhat confusing: Washington has remained neutral on the rival sovereignty claims and insisted that the disputes be resolved peacefully but has also reaffirmed its commitment to stand by its allies in the event that a conflict erupts. Such Chinese and U.S. ambiguity about the “redlines” that cannot be crossed without risking conflict increases the chances that either side could take steps that it believes are safe but that turn out to be unexpectedly provocative.
MORE DANGEROUS THAN THE COLD WAR?
Uncertainty about what could lead either Beijing or Washington to risk war makes a crisis far more likely, since neither side knows when, where, or just how hard it can push without the other side pushing back. This situation bears some resemblance to that of the early Cold War, when it took a number of serious crises for the two sides to feel each other out and learn the rules of the road. But today’s environment might be even more dangerous.
The balance of nuclear and conventional military power between China and the United States, for example, is much more lopsided than the one that existed between the Soviet Union and the United States. Should Beijing and Washington find themselves in a conflict, the huge U.S. advantage in conventional forces would increase the temptation for Washington to threaten to or actually use force. Recognizing the temptation facing Washington, Beijing might in turn feel pressure to use its conventional forces before they are destroyed. Although China could not reverse the military imbalance, it might believe that quickly imposing high costs on the United States would be the best way to get it to back off.
The fact that both sides have nuclear arsenals would help keep the situation in check, because both sides would want to avoid actions that would invite nuclear retaliation. Indeed, if only nuclear considerations mattered, U.S.-Chinese crises would be very stable and not worth worrying about too much. But the two sides’ conventional forces complicate matters and undermine the stability provided by nuclear deterrence. During a crisis, either side might believe that using its conventional forces would confer bargaining leverage, manipulating the other side’s fear of escalation through what the economist Thomas Schelling calls a “competition in risk-taking.” In a crisis, China or the United States might believe that it valued what was at stake more than the other and would therefore be willing to tolerate a higher level of risk. But because using conventional forces would be only the first step in an unpredictable process subject to misperception, missteps, and miscalculation, there is no guarantee that brinkmanship would end before it led to an unanticipated nuclear catastrophe.
China, moreover, apparently believes that nuclear deterrence opens the door to the safe use of conventional force. Since both countries would fear a potential nuclear exchange, the Chinese seem to think that neither they nor the Americans would allow a military conflict to escalate too far. Soviet leaders, by contrast, indicated that they would use whatever military means were necessary if war came -- which is one reason why war never came. In addition, China’s official “no first use” nuclear policy, which guides the Chinese military’s preparation and training for conflict, might reinforce Beijing’s confidence that limited war with the United States would not mean courting nuclear escalation. As a result of its beliefs, Beijing might be less cautious about taking steps that would risk triggering a crisis. And if a crisis ensued, China might also be less cautious about firing the first shot.
Such beliefs are particularly worrisome given recent developments in technology that have dramatically improved the precision and effectiveness of conventional military capabilities. Their lethality might confer a dramatic advantage to the side that attacks first, something that was generally not true of conventional military operations in the main European theater of U.S.-Soviet confrontation. Moreover, because the sophisticated computer and satellite systems that guide contemporary weapons are highly vulnerable to conventional military strikes or cyberattacks, today’s more precise weapons might be effective only if they are used before an adversary has struck or adopted countermeasures. If peacetime restraint were to give way to a search for advantage in a crisis, neither China nor the United States could be confident about the durability of the systems managing its advanced conventional weapons.
Under such circumstances, both Beijing and Washington would have incentives to initiate an attack. China would feel particularly strong pressure, since its advanced conventional weapons are more fully dependent on vulnerable computer networks, fixed radar sites, and satellites. The effectiveness of U.S. advanced forces is less dependent on these most vulnerable systems. The advantage held by the United States, however, might increase its temptation to strike first, especially against China’s satellites, since it would be able to cope with Chinese retaliation in kind.
A U.S.-Chinese crisis might also be more dangerous than Cold War showdowns because of the unreliability of the existing channels of communication between Beijing and Washington. After the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States recognized the importance of direct communication between their top leaders and set up the Moscow–Washington hot line. In 1998, China and the United States also set up a hot line for direct communication between their presidents. But despite the hot line’s availability, the White House was not able to contact China’s top leaders in a timely fashion following the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing or the 2001 spy-plane incident. China’s failure to use the hot line as intended might have reflected the reluctance of its leaders to respond until they had reached an internal consensus or until they had consulted widely with their military. The delay might also have reflected China’s difficulties in coordinating policy, since China lacks a dependable counterpart to the U.S. National Security Council. Whatever the reason, experience suggests that frustrating delays in direct communication are likely during what would be the crucial early moments of an unfolding U.S.-Chinese crisis.
Instead, communication between the two countries might initially be limited to either public statements or tacit signals sent through actions. But public statements are aimed at multiple audiences, and nationalist passions in either China or the United States, as well as pressure from allies, might force either side to take a more aggressive public stance than it actually felt was warranted. Absent direct and confidential communication, the two countries might be unable to discuss politically sensitive proposals. They might also be unable to share information that could help head off a disastrous escalation, such as classified details about military capabilities or military maneuvers already under way.
Communicating through actions is also problematic, with many possibilities for distortion in sending messages and for misinterpretation in receiving them. Chinese analysts seem to overestimate how easy it is to send signals through military actions and underestimate the risks of escalation resulting from miscommunication. For example, the analysts Andrew Erickson and David Yang have drawn attention to Chinese military writings that propose using China’s antiship ballistic missile system, designed for targeting U.S. aircraft carriers, to convey Beijing’s resolve during a crisis. Some Chinese military thinkers have suggested that China could send a signal by firing warning shots intended to land near a moving U.S. aircraft carrier or even by carefully aiming strikes at the command tower of the U.S. carrier while sparing the rest of the vessel. But as the political scientist Owen Coté has noted, even a very accurate antiship ballistic missile system will inevitably have some margin of error. Consequently, even the smallest salvo of this kind would entail a risk of inadvertent serious damage and thus unintended escalation.
A final important factor that could make a U.S.-Chinese crisis more dangerous than those during the Cold War is geography. The focus of Cold War confrontations was primarily on land, especially in central Europe, whereas a future confrontation between China and the United States would almost certainly begin at sea. This difference would shape a U.S.-Chinese crisis in a number of ways, especially by requiring both sides to make some fateful choices early on. China’s small fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and its much larger fleet of conventionally armed attack submarines are most secure when they remain in the shallow waters near the Chinese mainland, where poor acoustics compromise the effectiveness of U.S. undersea antisubmarine operations. Their proximity to Chinese land-based aircraft and air defenses also limits Washington’s ability to rely on its airpower and surface ships to counter them. For China’s submarine forces to play a role in a showdown with the United States, however, they would have to move out of those safer waters.
The prospect of China’s submarines breaking out would dramatically increase the instability of a crisis. Although U.S. antisubmarine warfare technology would be more effective against China’s submarines operating in less noisy open waters (where the United States also enjoys air superiority), it would not be perfect: some U.S. naval assets that came within range of surviving Chinese submarines would be at risk. Early in a crisis, therefore, the United States would be tempted to minimize this risk by sinking Chinese attack submarines as they tried to leave their home waters. Especially because there are only a few narrow routes through which Chinese submarines can reach deeper waters, the United States would be tempted to strike early rather than accept an increased risk to U.S. naval forces. Regardless of the U.S. decision, any Chinese attack submarines that managed to reach distant deeper waters would face a “use them or lose them” dilemma, thanks to their greater vulnerability to U.S. antisubmarine forces -- one more potential trigger for escalation.
China’s nuclear-armed SSBNs present other risks. Under its no-first-use policy, China has clearly stated that any attack on its strategic nuclear forces would justify nuclear retaliation, making a U.S. strike against its SSBNs seem unlikely. Early in a crisis, therefore, Beijing would probably believe that it could safely deploy its SSBNs to distant, deeper waters, where they would be best positioned to execute their launch orders. Such a deep-water deployment, however, would introduce new dangers. One is the possibility that U.S. naval forces might mistake a Chinese SSBN for a conventional attack submarine and fire on it, inviting Chinese nuclear retaliation. Another is the danger that a Chinese SSBN could escalate the conflict without explicit orders from Beijing, owing to the limited communication such submarines maintain with the mainland in order to avoid detection.
MANAGING THE RISK
The chances of a U.S.-Chinese crisis in the coming years are low, but they are not negligible, and they are made more troubling by the risk of such a confrontation escalating. The most important steps Beijing and Washington can take are those that might help prevent crises from developing in the first place. Since uncertainty about the scope of each side’s vital interests would be a trigger for such crises, the two countries should deepen political and military exchanges that focus closely on this problem. Even if they cannot achieve full clarity, discussions can help draw attention to what each side believes poses the greatest risks.
Although it will be difficult to eliminate the possibility of U.S.-Chinese confrontations, both countries can do more to address the sources of potential instability and improve their ability to manage the risks they would face during a crisis. Leaders in Washington could share their rich experience in crisis management with their Chinese counterparts, emphasizing the importance of policy coordination. In addition, the United States should stress the need for China to use the existing hot line for prompt, direct communication between the countries’ top leaders during a crisis.
China and the United States should also deepen their currently modest military-to-military exchanges. Without compromising essential secrets, increasing familiarity with each other’s military systems and practices would reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation during a showdown. Both sides would be wise to foster greater personal familiarity among the two countries’ commanding officers, which, in the event of a crisis, would establish a modicum of trust that would be helpful if political leaders sought to de-escalate the conflict.
Getting Beijing and Washington to tackle the difficult task of containing a future crisis will not be easy. In the end, it might take the experience of living through a terrifying showdown of the kind that defined the early Cold War. But it should not have to come to that.