Friday, May 22, 2015

How a war might start in Asia

A new episode took place yesterday in the saga of what is perhaps the most potentially dangerous territorial dispute on earth - the contest over the South China Sea. This dispute pits the world's two greatest powers, China and the US, in direct confrontation with each other. Feelings run high over it in quite a few countries. Amazingly, Western public opinion is pretty much oblivious to the whole issue.

A US surveillance plane was flying over the Spratly islands, the ones which China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei and Taiwan all lay some sort of claim to (China's claim is based on the "nine dotted line"). As it approached the artificial island which the Chinese military are building in the archipelago, the Chinese navy became aware of the plane, and gave it eight different warnings to leave. The US pilots replied that they were in international waters and refused to heed the warnings. In the end they were not impeded.

It sometimes strikes me that modern Asia is a bit like Europe in 1913. It's full of hostile powers living in uneasy coexistence, nationalism and militarism are still the order of the day for both the governments and the people, and there is an emerging power (China) which wants to challenge the regional order, just like Germany did in its day. Military spending is increasing everywhere.

Asian countries unfortunately do not have anything like the shared moral framework which Europeans finally developed after the Second World War, and which now makes it quite unthinkable for European countries to attack each other, or even to get too worked up over pending territorial disputes (which do exist, see Gibraltar).

All it might take for things to escalate would be for something like the Hainan incident of 2001 to happen again. A US and a Chinese jet colliding in the South China Sea, or even worse a Chinese and a Japanese jet colliding in the disputed areas in the East China Sea, might lead to a situation where no one felt they could back down. It might be Asia's equivalent of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

There are however reasons for optimism. Considering that most of the disputes are maritime, if a war broke out much of the fighting might well take place at sea, without affecting the civilian populations too much. It would hopefully come down to a lot of posturing over a few uninhabited islands.

What's more, a war is not in the interest of the main contenders. China's leaders may play on jingoistic feelings internally, but they are probably aware of the fact that, when push comes to shove, they do not have much hope of beating the US even now. In reality they have few allies in the neighbourhood: only the unpredictable North Koreans, Pakistan (which is also amenable to US pressure) and a few irrelevant Chinese client-states like Cambodia and Nepal.

Asia's other powers (Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India) are liable to take sides against China (although South Korea would probably not want to take Japan's side in any dispute against China, because of strong anti-Japanese feelings over there). The only issue is if Russia decided to weigh in on China's side, but that is unlikely, and might lead to a wider world war, which hopefully the world is now wise enough to try and avoid. 


justrecently said...

A US and a Chinese jet colliding in the South China Sea

It might be two jets next time, but in 2001, the US plane was a propelled bathing tub, as clearly shown in this JIU (JR Intelligence Unit) footage.

I agree that it is striking how ignorant Europe is of the real hotspots - be it India-Pakistan, be it China-ASEAN, China-Taiwan, etc.
The European worldview still centers around the Mediterranean, and seems to end there, too.

Ji Xiang said...


I agree, the US plane wasn't a jet.

The Europeans are obsessed with the issue of Israel-Palestine, and the Middle East in general.

If they are so ignorant about the hotspots concerning China, it's also because the media don't really talk about them too much.

FOARP said...

I really doubt that full-scale war will break out in the South-China Sea, especially not caused by a accidental collision between aircraft.

It is fine to raise the example of Franz Ferdinand's assassination, but we should remember that at the time of his assassination Austria-Hungary's leadership was actively seeking a pretext to invade and conquer Serbia and the German leadership already understood the likely consequences of an Austrian attack on Serbia (i.e., a general war breaking out) but went ahead with supporting them anyway. Franz Ferdinand's assassination was therefore only a convenient excuse for invasion, and when Serbia accepted all of the Austro-Hungarian demands except one (i.e., allowing Austrian policies jurisdiction in Serbia), the Austro-Hungarian leadership still went ahead with their declaration of war.

WW1 therefore did not happen by accident, and is a good example of why wars almost never break out simply by accident: had the leadership Austria Hungary not been seeking a pretext for war, then the assassination would not have led to war but would have been resolved peacefully, since Austria Hungary's leadership (backed by Germany's Kaiser) was seeking war they would have found a pretext sooner or later.

As long as China and its neighbours do not actively seek war, no accident will cause it. If they do seek war, no accident is needed except as a pretext.

Ji Xiang said...


interesting comment. On the other hand, given the nationalistic leanings of most of the Chinese public, it might well be that the Chinese government would feel unable to back down in the face of a major incident, because they would be afraid of being called cowards by their own people. Then again the Chinese media could be made to minimize the incident, or present it so that China had received an apology even though it wasn't true.

But in general you're right. The question is if they are seeking war. I suspect they are not, just because they are aware of their military inferiority vis-a-vis the United States.