Recently, there has been some worry that a Chinese government facing internal challenges might choose to aggravate external conflicts. These worries are plausible, but it strikes me that it is far more likely that an American president might provoke a conflict with China than the reverse. After all, a war with China would be primarily at sea and in the air. It would provide the United States with clear victory conditions. And it is one that (as of right now) the United States would win.
So might an American president be tempted? Realistically, any scenario would need to fill several requirements:
- No cognitive dissonance. I do not believe in a Reichstag fire scenario. Any series of provocative responses by an American president would have to be ones that she or he could justify in their own head. Which also means that they would be justifiable in the eyes of much of the public;
- Provide electoral advantage. The lessons from George H.W. Bush are useful here. He came out of an amazing overwhelming victory in a popular war and still went on to lose in November of the subsequent year;
- Retain East Asian support. Any series of American provocations against China would need to keep Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and (to a lesser extent) Vietnam on side at every stage. Lose them and you likely lose (2) as well;
- Provide advantage short of war. Given the geopolitical circumstances, no single American action would lead to war. It would result from a cascading series of American actions and reactions. Each individual American action, however, would have to fill all of the above requirements, should the Chinese government not take the bait. In other words, the U.S. administration would need to believe that it would come out ahead regardless of the Chinese countermove.
One question, of course, is whether a short naval war with China would have adverse economic impacts on the United States. The answer to that question is surprisingly unclear. Chinese demand for U.S. bonds is irrelevant, given that we borrow in our own currency. A decline the U.S. dollar could be good for the American economy. Most Chinese imports are replaceable, certainly in the short run. The long-run consequences would not be good, but the assumption here is that the American administration is not worrying about the long run.
The question for you, then: what are the circumstances under which an American president might deliberately try to provoke a war with the People’s Republic of China?
Read this first.