Last week, mobile launchers in China fired four newly developed anti-ship missiles into the disputed waters of the South China Sea. This is the latest in a series of aggressive posturing from China designed to signal to the world that China should be seen as undisputed regional hegemon – a view that has long worried strategists in the United States.
To understand what’s driving the conflict in the South China Sea, one needn’t look very far. Half of the world’s tonnage of maritime merchant goods pass through the South China Sea, meaning whoever has control of these waters has control of the global economy – at least in times of peace. Managing and protecting trade networks like these, while not easy, is incredibly lucrative. Nations that are in control of global trade have huge influence in the terms of trade: volume, currency used, even what buyers and sellers are or aren’t permitted on the market. Control like that brings immense wealth, and the United States has benefited from a world trade system that has used dollars, laid sanctions on America’s enemies, and provided stability to its own economic interests around the world.
Up until very recently, the attitude towards the rise of China among military leadership has been “wait and see.” But during the Bush administration, when it was revealed that China was engaging in large-scale militarization, Western leadership began the scramble to prepare for an anticipated large-scale war of civilizations. Central to this effort was Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” where the American military began the long process of equipping and training themselves for the first “peer conflict” facing America since the Korean War. Despite appearances, meeting China in the South China Sea will take more than a pivot. That kind of war may prove to be too great a challenge for Western militaries.
Central to this entire conflict is what is often called a “Thucydides Trap.” Essentially, when an economic power like China rises and replaces the existing economic and military hegemon, war often breaks out as the incumbent power fights to keep its position. Before recognizing that China was indeed using its economic power to prepare for a military confrontation with the West, many strategists hoped that the world could continue the demilitarization between superpowers that we saw during the latter half of the 20th century. Numerous weapon bans and international economic initiatives seduced many of us into thinking that large-scale conflicts were an ugly relic of the past, and the optimism of the postwar period was apparently vindicated when the Berlin Wall fell so many years later – seemingly demonstrating that a unified world-system was all but inevitable. Sadly, however, it appears that the worst may yet be to come unless thinkers in the West can ensure China does not abuse its new position.
Obviously, we can all hope that trust can be rebuilt (if it ever existed in good faith) between the East and the West, and that China will not recreate international law in its own image, tarnishing the very idea of international law until a different superpower can enforce it. However, the West was never so noble in the drafting and enforcement of international law. It would be naïve to expect that from China. Instead, strategists are hard at work coming up with ways the West might be able to retain some of its geopolitical power and ensure that China doesn’t completely dominate the globe.
Right now, all strategic focus is on the South China Sea, where China will either defeat the U.S. Navy and earn global superpower status, or where its ambitions will be crushed by a coalition of Pacific nations led by the United States. A battle for the South China sea would be the steepest challenge the U.S. Navy has faced in generations, and the latter option seems increasingly unlikely. While China’s military capability – designed specifically to exploit key advantages the Chinese enjoy in personnel and organization – is rapidly developing, Western militaries – highly dependent on once-cutting edge technology – are becoming obsolete. As China continues to develop economically, it is seemingly inevitable that the West will lose what little advantages it has in high technology and brute military strength.
At that point, the West will have few options to challenge Chinese geopolitical power. The first option would be to expand their military partnerships. Adding India into NATO, or a specially drafted alliance to deal with China, seems likely. A second option would be an “ace,” or secret weapon or tactic developed during America’s long period as unchallenged hegemon. Cyberwarfare seems likely as a force-equalizer in future conflicts. Another option, always an extreme danger in Thucydides traps, is a first-strike scenario. Historically speaking, first-strikes are the preferred way of batting away potential challengers and are often how large-scale conflicts between great powers start. If America sees an opportunity to ruin the Chinese economy or military before China could credibly pose a threat in the Pacific, strategists would seize upon that chance.
In sum, this conflict is an 800-pound gorilla waiting to break loose. China’s military grows more powerful by the day; their leadership, more determined. Their recent missile test, like the many that came before it, proves unequivocally that if China decided that it was going to take the South China Sea today, the world would be hard-pressed to stop it.