Flashpoints that could ignite a US-China war

Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, set to meet on Thursday, have clashing visions which might make it difficult to contain crises

It may not be apparent when US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping meet beneath the towering palms and crystal chandeliers at Mar-a-Lago this week, but the nations they lead are on a collision course for war.

An irresistibly rising China is challenging the United States' accustomed dominance. Consider that the US share of global economic output has fallen from 22 per cent in 1980 to 16 per cent today, while China's grew from 2 per cent to 18 per cent over the same period. Historians know that when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarms should sound: extreme danger ahead. As Thucydides explained about the war that destroyed the two great city-states of ancient Greece: "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable."

Likewise, a century ago, it was the rise of Germany and the fear it created in Britain that allowed an archduke's assassination to ignite a conflagration so devastating that it required an entirely new category: world war.

This pattern, which I call the "Thucydides Trap", recurs often. A major nation's rise has disrupted the position of a dominant state 16 times over the past 500 years. In 12 of those 16 cases, the outcome was war. In the four cases that avoided violent conflict, that was possible only because of huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part of challenger and challenged. Think of Britain and the US under Theodore Roosevelt, or the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

We are bound to see a succession of confrontations between China and the US in the years ahead. What is in doubt is whether the leaders of these two great powers can manage these confrontations without escalating them to war. For now, that's up to Mr Trump and Mr Xi.


If Hollywood made a movie pitting the US against China on the road to war, central casting would be hard-pressed to find two better leads. As personalities, Mr Trump and Mr Xi could not be more different. Despite the formalities of a scripted summit, their contrasting styles will be on full display. But in many ways, they are mirror images of each other.

A Taiwan newspaper late last year featured Mr Donald Trump, before his inauguration, next to depictions of the flags of China (top) and Taiwan. The writer says the straightest path to war between the US and China would begin with a sharp turn by Taiwan towards independence.  PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Both have pledged to restore the greatness of their nations with an agenda of radical change. Everyone knows Mr Trump's trademark one-liner. But when Mr Xi rose to power in 2012, he announced his "China Dream", calling for "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation". Both men take pride in what they consider their unique leadership capabilities. Mr Trump built his presidential aspirations on what he portrayed as unrivalled business acumen, memorably claiming that he alone could fix the US' problems. Mr Xi has so firmly concentrated power in his own hands that he is now often referred to as the "Chairman of Everything". Indeed, the exceptionalism ingrained in each man's political agenda speaks to a broader similarity between the US and China: Both have extreme superiority complexes. Each sees itself as without peers.

And, perhaps most important, both leaders view the nation the other leads as the principal obstacle to achieving their core ambition.

The danger is that amid the structural stress caused by China's rise, and exaggerated by Mr Xi's and Mr Trump's clashing visions, inevitable crises that could otherwise be contained will result in outcomes neither side wants.

The potential sparks for such a conflict are frighteningly mundane. Already during the Trump administration, tensions have escalated over the status of Taiwan, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and trade. (During his campaign, Mr Trump accused China of "raping" the US economy. Last Thursday, he tweeted that the meeting with Mr Xi "will be a very difficult one", because "we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses".) Could a trade conflict become a hot war that ends with nuclear explosions? As preposterous as that may sound, remember that Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour happened after the US imposed crippling sanctions on Japan, bringing this country into a war that ended with atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


The straightest path to war between the US and China would begin with a sharp turn by Taiwan towards independence. During the presidential transition, Mr Trump tripped this alarm with tweets and a phone call with Taiwan's leader. No Chinese national security official I have ever met, and no US official who has examined the situation, doubts that China would choose war over losing territory it considers vital to its national interest.

Were a Taiwanese president, with or without encouragement from Mr Trump, to cross one of Beijing's bright red lines, China might begin with an updated version of its 1996 "missile tests" that bracketed Taiwan.

If the US went to Taiwan's assistance and provided navy escorts for the lifeline of ships supplying the island, China could try to sink one or more. And to prevent China from suppressing Taiwan, the US would have to conduct massive, repeated attacks on missile bases on the Chinese mainland, killing thousands of Chinese. It's hard to believe China would not respond to such attacks with equivalent strikes on US air bases in Guam and Japan, as well as on carriers. From there to bombs exploding on US soil is not a very long hop, skip or jump.


North Korea is another possible catalyst for a war no one wants - but nonetheless could happen. During the upcoming summit, Mr Trump is expected to demand that Mr Xi put more pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to rein in his nuclear programme. On its current path, North Korea will acquire the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the US homeland on Mr Trump's watch. The President has said he won't let this happen. The Pentagon is said to have prepared various military options to slow Pyongyang's missile programme. Although some might hope that fallout from a surgical strike would be limited, a US attack could provoke retaliation that triggers a second Korean War or the collapse of the Kim regime. Either could lead to war between the US and China.

US war planners have examined scenarios for North Korea that begin with regime collapse. As the country descends into chaos, American forces would try to destroy weapon systems capable of delivering a nuclear warhead against South Korea, Japan or Guam. The US Joint Special Operations Command has a longstanding mission to secure "loose nukes" and has trained to enter the North to take control of its nuclear weapons facilities before rogue commanders could pirate these weapons to global arms bazaars. But because the sites are thought to be near China's borders, it is likely that Chinese special forces would get there first. As General Raymond Thomas, a former head of the Joint Special Operations Command, has warned, trying to secure North Korea's nuclear weapons would result in a "vertical track meet" between Chinese and US-South Korean forces. Unaware of each other's presence, they could end up in a firefight and mistake accidental engagement for an intentional ambush requiring retaliation.

Another possibility is that, after a regime collapse, North Korean refugees would pour into China. Fearing its own instability, China could send troops into North Korea and set up a buffer state between it and South Korea. Under pressure from its population to liberate those who have lived under the most brutal regime on earth, Seoul could also send troops north. Because US troops and aircraft stationed in South Korea are integrated with South Korean troops in operational military plans, US and Chinese troops would then engage one another directly, as they did in 1950.

Is it possible to manage the structural stress between rising and ruling powers without war? Yes. Mr Xi and then President Barack Obama even discussed the Thucydides Trap at their 2015 summit, but could not agree what to do to escape it. Mr Xi had proposed a "new form of great power relations". But by this he meant an expansive concept of China's core interests, including an Asian sphere of influence, which the US could not accept.

Mr Trump and Mr Xi now have an opportunity to redirect the most significant relationship of the 21st century. More important than any specific deliverables from this summit will be whether the leaders of the world's most powerful nations recognise the risks as far as any eye can see. If they settle for business as usual, we are likely to get history as usual - where the odds of war are against us.


  • The writer is director of Harvard's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs and author of Destined For War: Can America And China Escape Thucydides's Trap?
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline 'Flashpoints that could ignite a US-China war'. Print Edition | Subscribe