Picking up from the first of a series of articles about war in the (not too distant) future, The Economist looks, in an article headlined “Pride and prejudice: The odds on a conflict between the great powers,” at the possibilities that miscalculation may lead to a war involving the great powers. Readers may remember that in Future wars I said that: “in my opinion such miscalculation is –
- Highly likely by Russia,
- Possible by America, and
- Very unlikely by China …“
The Economist says that “Despite the extraordinary decline in interstate wars over the past 70 years, many foreign-policy experts believe that the world is entering a new era in which they are becoming all too possible again. But there is a big difference between regional wars that might be triggered by the actions of a rogue state, such as North Korea or Iran, and those between great powers, which remain much less likely. Still, increased competition between America, Russia and China poses threats to the international order and does have a military dimension.” I believe that a war between America and China is least likely while one involving Russia ~ against either America (plus allies) or China ~ is highly likely.
A Sino-Russian war must be President Putin’s worst nightmare … the Russians will be slaughtered; the Chinese can and will survive a Russian nuclear attack ~ civil defences in China are extensive and kept in good order, Chinese civil defence preparations date back to the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s ~ and when (not if) they retaliate and they will destroy much of Russia. For some Chinese, the Russians are the quintessential barbarians: rude, crude and, at best, only semi-civilized. Some Chinese scholars believe that Russia needs to be dismembered, for its own sake, and that three or even four or five new “autonomous” countries (all within China’s sphere of influence, of course) need to be created East of the Urals. Some (quite a few, I think) Chinese believe that there is no place for a Eurasian state; Russia, they say, should be European, and Asia should be for the (Chinese led, of course) Asians. (The fact that it sounds a lot like Japanese propaganda in the 1930s is not lost on many Chinese.)
“The main reason,” the article says, “why great-power warfare has become somewhat more plausible than at any time since the height of the cold war is that both Russia and China are dissatisfied powers determined to change the terms of a Western-devised, American-policed international order which they believe does not serve their legitimate interests. In the past decade both have invested heavily in modernising their armed forces in ways that exploit Western political and technical vulnerabilities and thwart America’s ability to project power in what they see as their spheres of influence. Both have shown themselves prepared to impose their will on neighbours by force. Both countries’ leaders are giving voice to popular yearning for renewed national power and international respect, and both are reaping the domestic political benefits. Where they differ is that Russia, demographically and economically, is a declining power with an opportunistic leadership, whereas China is clearly a rising one that has time on its side and sees itself as at least the equal of America, if not eventually its superior … [and] … Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, wants to regain at least some of the prestige and clout his country lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event he has described as the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the [20th] century”. He believes that in the 1990s the West rejected making Russia an equal partner, and that the European Union’s and NATO’s eastward expansion jeopardised Russia’s external and internal security. In a statement on national-security strategy at the end of 2015 the Russian government designated NATO as the greatest threat it faced. It believes that the West actively tries to bring about “colour revolutions” of the sort seen in Ukraine, both in Russia’s “near abroad” and in Russia itself … [but] … Russia’s armed forces, although no match for America’s, are undergoing substantial modernisation, carry out frequent large-scale exercises and are capable of conducting high-intensity warfare at short notice across a narrow front against NATO forces. Russian military aircraft often probe European air defences and buzz NATO warships in the Baltic and the Black Sea, risking an incident that could rapidly get out of control.” This fits well with my thesis that Putin’s Russia is an “opportunistic adventurer” (or, sometimes an “adventurous opportunist“) and has little to lose by taking chances.
After going into considerable detail about what a Russia vs NATO war might look like (which I regard as too technical for a blog like this, but those who are interested and do not have subscriptions should go to your local public library ~ every public library worthy of the name subscribes to The Economist) The Economist turns to China and says that: “Some suggest that America and China are destined to go to war, falling into the “Thucydides trap” as encountered in antiquity by Sparta and Athens. In essence, the established power feels threatened by the rising power, which in turn feels resentful and frustrated. Graham Allison, the author of a popular book expounding this thesis, believes that “war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognised” … [but] … Mr Allison’s prognosis, based on an analysis of past conflicts between incumbent powers and thrusting newcomers, may be too deterministic. Although China and America do not have anything like the shared international agenda that America had with Britain when the roles were reversed, they are bound together by a web of economic interests. Strategic patience and taking the long view comes naturally to Chinese leaders, and successive American presidents (except perhaps the current one) have tried hard to show that far from wanting to keep China in its box, they wish to see it playing a full and responsible part in the international system. The previous contests for hegemony cited by Mr Allison were not conducted under the shadow of nuclear weapons, which for all their risks remain the ultimate disincentive for great powers to wage war against each other … [and] … Moreover, says Jonathan Eyal of RUSI, a defence think-tank, demographic factors and changing social attitudes in China suggest that there would be little popular appetite for conflict with America, despite the sometimes nationalistic posturing of state media. Like other developed countries, the country has very low birth rates, fast-decreasing levels of violence and large middle classes who define success by tapping the latest smartphone or putting down a deposit on a new car. In a culture of coddling children prompted by the one-child policy, Chinese parents would probably be extremely reluctant to send their precious “snowflakes” off to war.” I doubt that Xi Jinping is overly worried about public opinion ~ somewhat, just not overly ~ because the Chinese Communist Party is as adept at shaping opinion as is any Madison Avenue ad agency ~ but, rather, as I have said, I think the Chinese have a well thought out, long term grand strategy that has real, measurable aims and plans to achieve those aims without firing a shot. The Chinese are not pacifists and they are not afraid to fight … but there is an ancient belief, going back thousands of years, that:
No one should think that Sun Tzu’s thoughts are museum pieces; every Chinese high school student is familiar with them and they resonate, loudly, in the corridors of power.
Beyond that there is, as I have mentioned before, the countervailing natures of American and Chinese military power: it is the great white shark versus the tiger (or whale vs elephant, different strategic thinkers use different animals) ~ while each may be supreme in his own sphere, the ocean for America and on the Asian mainland for China, neither can fight especially well in the other’s domain; I believe the Chinese know this.
The Economist admits that “The risk that the West will run into a major conflict with China is lower than with Russia, but,” it adds, “it is not negligible and may be growing. China resents the American naval presence in the western Pacific, and particularly the “freedom of navigation” operations that the US Seventh Fleet conducts in the South China Sea to demonstrate that America will not accept any Chinese claims or actions in the region that threaten its core national interests or those of its allies.” There is no doubt that China intends (not just wants) to displace America as the strategic hegemon in East Asia. I don’t think the Chinese object to American bases in “outer Asia” e.g. Japan and the Philippines, but I believe the Chinese aim is that there will be no significant US military presence on the East Asian mainland, and that includes the Korean peninsula.
“The greatest danger,” the article concludes, and I agree completely, “lies in miscalculation through a failure to understand an adversary’s intentions, leading to an unplanned escalation that runs out of control. Competition in the “grey zone” between peace and war requires constant calibration that could all too easily be lost in the heat of the moment.” I believe this danger is most pronounced in Moscow and Washington and, in each capital, is strongest amongst people in uniform.