The leaders of China and the United States certainly do not seek war with one another. Both the Biden government and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping see economic renewal and growth as their main goals. Both recognize that any conflict between them, even if confined to Asia and waged with non-nuclear weapons – not a safe bet – could cause catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the world economy to its knees. Hence, no group has any intention of going to war on purpose. However, everyone is determined to show their willingness to go to war if provoked, and so are ready to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and in the air) off China’s coast. Everyone makes the outbreak of war, however unintentional it may be, more and more likely.
History tells us that conflict doesn’t always start out of planning and intention. Some, of course, begin as they did with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Japan’s attacks in December 1941 on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. For the most part, however, the countries have historically been involved in wars which they hoped to avoid.
This was the case in June 1914 when the great European powers – Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – stumbled into World War I following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand von) Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), them mobilized their armed forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would step down. Nobody did it. Instead, a continent-wide conflict broke out with disastrous consequences.
Unfortunately, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the years to come. The three major military powers of the current era – China, the United States, and Russia – all act eerily like their counterparts from this earlier era. All three employ forces at the borders of their opponents or their main allies, performing muscle flexing and show-of-force operations to intimidate their opponents while demonstrating their will to intervene in combat when their interests are at risk are. As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers carry high risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintentional collision that can lead to an all-out struggle or, in the worst case, global war.
Provocative military maneuvers today take place almost daily along the Russian border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China’s east coast. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let’s focus instead on the situation in China, where the risk of accidental or unintentional collisions has steadily increased. Remember that unlike Europe, where the borders between Russia and NATO countries are pretty well marked and all parties are careful to avoid intrusion, the borders between China and the US / allied areas in Asia are often highly competitive are.