Steering Clear of War With China, Accidental or Otherwise

Hal Brands dismisses the idea that wars between great powers may begin by accident:

The reality, as the historian Marc Trachtenberg has shown, is that countries tend to avoid war when neither really desires it. Yes, leaders do sometimes misjudge how wars will turn out and how destructive they will be. Tensions can gradually ratchet up in a way that makes de-escalation progressively harder.

Yet there is no more monumental decision than to initiate a major conflict. So when countries really do want to avert a showdown, they are generally willing to tack or retreat, even at the cost of some embarrassment. 

Brands is talking specifically about the danger of an accidental U.S.-Chinese war, and he doesn’t think this is likely to happen. He floats some scenarios where deliberate Chinese aggression might precipitate a conflict instead. He doesn’t take seriously that the U.S. might blunder into an avoidable war with China because it has made too many commitments in the region, because he never thinks that the U.S. can be too committed anywhere. The U.S. has said that the Senkakus are covered by our treaty with Japan, so it is not very difficult at all to imagine how the U.S. and China might find themselves in a shooting war after a minor incident over disputed territory spins out of control. The same people that tell us today that an accidental war is unlikely would be the first to insist that we have to “stand up” to Chinese aggression and preserve our “credibility.”

“Accidental wars” are always chosen, but that doesn’t mean what Brands thinks it does. Something unfortunate happens, and instead of looking for a way to calm the situation down one or both governments opts for making things worse. Incidents become pretexts for the pro-war lobbies in the respective capitals of the major powers, and regrettably there are always pro-war lobbies. Things that would normally never trigger a major war are used to rationalize the use of force against another country because it suits the interests of the leaders and their political allies in that moment, or because their ideological blinders are so thick and heavy that they cannot see any other way forward. By all rights, the Austrian offensive against Serbia shouldn’t have happened because Serbia agreed to almost all of the Austrian demands in their ultimatum and even the German Kaiser believed that the crisis did not have to lead to war at that point. The Austrians insisted on pressing the issue anyway. That then set everything else in motion and destroyed Europe. It was the Austrians’ choice to escalate, but it was a choice that didn’t have to happen and wouldn’t have happened without the triggering incident in Sarajevo. We forget the role of emotion and nationalism in these crises, and we forget how deranged we have become in moments of crisis. If there is an unexpected clash, it is bound to excite strong feelings that can override rational thought. We should assume that the same is true of other countries.

When enough analysts and pundits promote the idea of conflict between two major powers, sooner or later their political leaders accept the idea that the conflict is inevitable. Predictably, they will always put the blame for the outbreak of the conflict on the other side, just as Brands does, and they will fail to see how their own government’s behavior makes conflict more likely. By ignoring our role in fueling tensions with the other side and by dismissing the dangers that can result from an accident, hawks pave the way for “accidental” war.

If we want to avoid unnecessary clashes with China, it would make much more sense to limit our commitments in their immediate vicinity. The fewer tripwires we set, the less likely it is that they will trip them. The fewer guarantees that we make, the fewer occasions for conflict. The more that we overreach in our policing of their behavior, the more likely it is that they will mount a challenge and test our government’s willingness to back up its hard-line posturing. If the U.S. wants to maintain stability and keep the peace in East Asia, the best thing it could do is to stop adding to its existing commitments and to stop taking sides in disputes that do not concern us. Chinese claims in the South China Sea are not our concern, and if we make them our concern we will find ourselves in the dangerous spot of having to back up a position we should never have taken.