High Noon Over China: The Chances of War in the Orient
The Sleep of Reason ‘C. P. Snow’s very fine novel of the 1960s – carries a title eerily applicable to our contemporary complacency about the low risk of shooting wars any time soon in Asia.
This idyll holds that Asia’s Tomorrow follows a straight line extrapolation from Today, when peace abides with an apparent tenacity that would have been utterly implausible thirty years ago. Putting aside the current edgy theatre with Pyongyang, we can say that the sprawling Asia-Pacific region has found the right formula.
Or can we? Listening to descriptions of the Long Peace in Asia calls to mind the common rationale in a raft of books appearing in both Europe and America a few years before the Great War smothered the last century’s first years.
Then as now, the argument ran as follows: steadily rising trade volumes, dense cross investments in neighbouring countries, improved levels of material comfort, higher education levels, the horrible efficiency of modern weapons, evenly matched weaponry in contending states, an equilibrium of alliances, routine cross connectivity and, above all else, the March of Reason-all these characterized the era.
In composite they revealed a triumph of enlightened self interest and placed restraints against aggression like overlapping safety nets, making war a Thing of the Past. Of course, one must avoid too easy a recourse to contemporary history to make a point. Trends in the past often do little more than reveal some interesting parallels. But the current Asian era does have a smug, repetitive zeitgeist-one sensed since Southeast Asia’s reluctant adjustment to Vietnam’s violent reunification in 1975.
Here is how it goes: There may be an occasional shot across the bows (as in South China Sea maritime boundary encounters) or North Korea’s firing of intermediate missiles like roman candles in 2006. Yet the ‘contemporary balance’‘to use strategic parlance’ remains remarkably durable. And there are many who imagine it will endure indefinitely, as a line of speakers at the last Institute of International Strategic Studies (IISS) ‘Shangri-La’ conference in Singapore implied or said so directly.
Whether seen as a ‘security village’ (Malaysia), or a ‘spider’s web’ of bilateral security treaties and multilateral security ‘dialogues’ (Japan), the assumption rests on a continuation of the present. As all long periods of peace will do, the Long Peace in Asia has lulled us to think that the stresses, strains, and chronic fissures in Asia’s power relations can be managed as tidily as routine small shifts in the earth’s tectonic plates stave off major earthquakes. There are at least four major reasons why they cannot.
First, Sino-Japanese tension is as constant an axiom as anything can be in international affairs. This doesn’t gainsay sincere efforts by both countries’ diplomats but rather agrees with America’s best thinker about China, former US ambassador to Beijing Jim Lilley, that the past two hundred years and supreme questions of self-regard guarantee rejection, by either, of any subordinate role.
This matters a great deal to our thesis because Japan’s new prime minister Abe intends not only to create, quickly, a defence ministry (as suggested by former prime minister Koizumi) but also to inject a new sense of strategic purpose into Japanese security thinking-in ways we haven’t seen from Japan since the 1920s. Abe will do this without loosening his country’s reliance on the U.S. security anchor. These new actions will fill decisively the vacuum in Asian affairs created by Tokyo’s voluntarily vacating its strategic role after the second world war.
The second trend lies in a shift by states to naval power projection. This move, apparent in everything from the acquisitions drive of the Navy of the People’s Liberation Army to the procurement decisions of smaller ASEAN states, coincides with America’s global move to prepare a ‘surge capacity’ to reach war zones from the continental United States. This would leave only ‘warm bases’, i.e. places run by skeletal staffs but able in very short order to ramp up to accommodate and provision an expeditionary force, in Asia and elsewhere. Hence, the importance attached to America’s Asian presence as a “passing gendarme,” in a Thai statesman’s phrase, becomes even more acute-but this time in seas ever more crowded with rising or re-emerging powers’ navies.
The third trend towards a higher war risk in Asia arises from China’s steady intrusion (commercial, diplomatic, energy supply, military supply and training) into Southeast Asia. This could not differ more from old fantasies that Communist China would overwhelm its neighbours by force and impose an alien system. Far more successful than Beijing’s clandestine support in earlier years for insurgent groups in Burma, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, Chinese intrusion today rests on three facets: commercial advantage plus gargantuan economies-of scale; a benign (but still unyielding) attitude to prosecuting Beijing’s territorial claims (as in the South China Sea), and on American inattentiveness resulting from ‘global-war-on-terror’ fixations.
In short, there is less and less on which Asians living in China’s shadow can draw for ‘balance’. Lee Kuan Yew famously said (when speaking of Thailand’s adjustment to rising Chinese power), that “the Thais will bend even before the wind begins to blow.”
Can India play the balancer? Not in my opinion: their reach still exceeds their grasp. Under the Vajpayee ministry of the late 1990s, India succeeded in getting ‘outside the sub continental box’, as Vajpayee’s national security adviser Brajesh Mishra would often say. Yet Delhi remains a junior rival to China in virtually every respect save in the systems architecture dimension of information technology. And even in this, the Chinese are now snapping at India’s heels. Looking at military hardware, neither India’s periodic dispatch of frigates through the Malacca Straits, nor its trade/investment profile in Asia, come close to matching China’s large shadow.
The Southeast Asians cannot, within their loose groupings, find serious common purpose to balance China, even with American and Japanese help. Subsurface tensions simmer-over migration, Islamic radicalism, and borders. None are acute but, in composite, they prevent solidarity and military interoperability.
The last reason why war risk will rise lies in Chinese miscalculation.We saw this troublingly at play in 1996, when missile firings in the direction of Kaohsiung in Taiwan required first one, then another carrier task force to sail into the Formosa straits.
We saw this during the Chinese leadership’s encouragement of urban anti-Japanese disturbances during 2005 and in feverish anxiety over China’s bête noire, a dash for formal independence by Taiwan. The formal extension, in a 2004 US-Japanese strategic memorandum, of security interest to the Formosa Strait shook Beijing badly.
True, President George W. Bush has shown perhaps his greatest streak of independence from his vice president by not agreeing to give Taiwan’s leadership a loose leash. But the inevitable return of American global strategy to a tighter focus on more ‘traditional’ security challenges virtually guarantees a US retreat from that comforting [to Beijing] policy stance-all the more so when pressure for more overt support for Taiwan comes from the US congress after the 2006 elections. And the core substantive military supply issue still sits in front of everyone, ready to pitch Sino-American relations instantly into the ice box: when or if to sell advanced diesel submarines to Taiwan.
We needn’t bother listing all the subordinate war risks in Asia – e.g. the temptation by PLA commanders in the Formosa straits area to steal a march for glory at a time when Hu Jintao’s power base still remains incompletely consolidated amid residual opposition from former president Jiang Zemin’s cohort. In this sense therefore, the specific issue of peril to China-whether US Japanese responses to North Korean provocations, missteps by Taiwan, major US military sales to Taipei, or a complex set of tensions in the South China Sea-matters far less than the internal circumstances in China which could badly affect how the Chinese leadership, or portions of it, reacts.
Meanwhile, the dreaming goes on. Strategic discussions in London, Washington, and in scrupulously polite Asian security forums pose their basic non-issues: energy resource competition, maritime terrorism, or the menace of ‘non-state actors’ such as Muslim extremists in Southeast Asia. Yet despite America’s willingness to recast local insurgencies as cut from the same cloth as terrorism elsewhere, Asia does not present an arena where state capacity really has become so weak that others can employ violence on a large scale.
In an unclassified report for the Pentagon’s Office of NET Assessment, a unit within the office of the Secretary of Defence, a consultant firm in 2004 listed at least eleven ‘hot war’ risks in Asia. All arose out of endemic local conditions. All led to the intervention of external powers. Many spiralled into serious military confrontations. In each contingency, China, Japan and the United States played decisive roles. The leitmotif above – Japanese re-entry into the power balance; the intractability of Sino- Japanese competition; the shift to naval power projection, and a demonstrable risk of Chinese miscalculation – has set the stage for a shooting war in Asia. And sooner than we think.
James Clad is an academic and former Pentagon official