Despite my harsh criticisms of the Obama administration’s policies towards the Asia-Pacific, I’m of the opinion that an actual shooting war between the U.S. and China is very unlikely for the foreseeable future. Like the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, real conflict was considered simply too costly to statesmen on both sides.
But John Mearsheimer, professor of Political Science at Chicago University, thinks “there is a greater possibility of the U.S. and China going to war in the future than there was of a Soviet-NATO general war during the Cold War,” Zachary Keck, writing at The Diplomat, sums up Mearsheimer’s recent comments at a DC gathering.
Specifically, the center of gravity of the U.S.-Soviet competition was the central European landmass. This created a rather stable situation as, according to Mearsheimer, anyone that war gamed a NATO-Warsaw conflict over Central Europe understood that it would quickly turn nuclear. This gave both sides a powerful incentive to avoid a general conflict in Central Europe as a nuclear war would make it very likely that both the U.S. and Soviet Union would be “vaporized.”
The U.S.-China strategic rivalry lacks this singular center of gravity. Instead, Mearsheimer identified four potential hotspots over which he believes the U.S. and China might find themselves at war: the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the South and East China Seas. Besides featuring more hotspots than the U.S.-Soviet conflict, Mearsheimer implied that he felt that decision-makers in Beijing and Washington might be more confident that they could engage in a shooting war over one of these areas without it escalating to the nuclear threshold.
For instance, he singled out the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, of which he said there was a very real possibility that Japan and China could find themselves in a shooting war sometime in the next five years. Should a shooting war break out between China and Japan in the East China Sea, Mearsheimer said he believes the U.S. will have two options: first, to act as an umpire in trying to separate the two sides and return to the status quo ante; second, to enter the conflict on the side of Japan.
Mearsheimer said that he thinks it’s more likely the U.S. would opt for the second option because a failure to do so would weaken U.S. credibility in the eyes of its Asian allies. In particular, he believes that America trying to act as a mediator would badly undermine Japanese and South Korean policymakers’ faith in America’s extended deterrence. Since the U.S. does not want Japan or South Korea to build their own nuclear weapons, Washington would be hesitant to not come out decisively on the side of the Japanese in any war between Tokyo and Beijing.
As I’ve argued, there is an alternative.