If America and China Go to War, It Won’t Be an Accident

Bloomberg
Fog of war? Getty Images Bloomberg | James Alexander Michie

Fog of war? Photographer: Mark Schiefelbein/AFP/Getty Images

History doesn’t support the idea that countries “stumble” into major conflict.

U.S.-China relations are deteriorating by the day, and the bad news is that the two countries could end up fighting in the coming decade. The good news is that such a war won’t start by accident.

There is a venerable argument that states can stumble into a major conflict that neither truly desires, and it has been revived as tensions between the two great powers escalate. Nevertheless, history shows that big wars don’t just happen inadvertently.

The accidental war thesis was raised recently by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia. Noting the many flashpoints at which U.S. and Chinese interests collide, he argued that there is a growing danger of them “stumbling into conflict.” An accidental collision between ships or planes in the South China Sea, or several other plausible scenarios, could lead to crisis, escalation and war. Just as the great powers of the early 20th century “sleep-walked” into World War I, China and America could blunder their way to disaster today.

World War I is often considered the classic example of an unwanted war: a devastating conflict that none of the participants would have chosen had they known what was coming. During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers worried that crises over Berlin or Cuba could get out of control. There is a body of political science literature devoted to understanding how accidental war can occur.

Yet there is one big problem: It is hard to identify any major wars that came about even though no one wanted them. The trouble in July and August 1914, it turns out, was not that inflexible mobilization schedules and military plans thrust political leaders into conflict. It was that several powers, most notably but not solely Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany, insisted on pursuing aggressive policies that they knew risked a localized war at best and a continental war at worst. They nearly all believed, moreover, that if war had to come, better it should come sooner rather than later.

A generation after that, Franklin Roosevelt may not have foreseen that slapping an oil embargo on Japan would lead to the aerial assault on Pearl Harbor. But he certainly understood that war was a distinct possibility once the U.S. began strangling the economy of a country that was already pillaging Asia.

Likewise, the Six Day War of 1967 is sometimes treated as an inadvertent conflict. But again, Egyptian leaders were hardly blind to the danger of war when they mobilized forces in the Sinai Peninsula, blockaded Israel’s port on the Red Sea and took other belligerent steps.

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Source: Hal Brands | Bloomberg

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