Amid growing tension between the US and China over the South China Sea, Humphrey Hawksley visits America’s Naval War College, which studies how to avoid war, but – if necessary – win it

In the past ten years, the prospect of a direct conflict between the United States and China has moved from the material of thriller writers to an openly-debated scenario that, for many, is less about if it will happen and more about how.

The United States has been through this process before, most recently dealing with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which included major conflicts on the Korean peninsula and Vietnam and, before that, fighting off the rise of Germany and Japan in the 1930s.

The question now is: how will it handle the rise of China, and will there be blood?

The US Naval War College, set against a panoramic coastal backdrop in Rhode Island, has been examining conflict scenarios since it was founded in 1884. Its mission is to study the ‘art and science of war’, and advise on ways of deterring conflict by constantly preparing for it. It has become America’s key centre for research and the gaming of possible future wars.

In September more than 80 naval chiefs from around the world gathered there for the International Seapower Symposium. Top of the agenda was the protection of shipping lanes – or what is referred to in naval circles as freedom of navigation. The real-life background to all discussions was the increasingly tense South China Sea dispute.

China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, and its building of military outposts, is creating severe structural stress in its interwoven relationship with America which, in turn, is shifting its concentration from the smaller and unresolved land wars in the Middle East to the trillion-dollar shipping routes of the Asia-Pacific.

The view from India

Recognising that over half of India’s trade is now routed through the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Navy has articulated its new vision for maritime security in a paper, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy.

The paper clarifies that India is now looking beyond its earlier areas of primary interest, which extended from the seas immediately surrounding the Subcontinent across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa. The South China Sea, East China Sea and western Pacific Ocean are now included in the navy’s secondary areas of priority.

A joint strategy document for the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions, signed by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, affirms the ‘importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea’. It calls on all parties to ‘avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means’.

Japan has now joined the navies of India and the US in the annual Malabar Exercise. Bilateral naval exercises with Japan, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea and Indonesia, among others, signal India’s preparedness for an enhanced role in the Indo-Pacific region, as does stepped-up contact with smaller nations in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. This is accompanied by plans to modernise the Indian Navy with new ‘stealth frigates’ and 12 nuclear-powered submarines. There are also plans to build and deploy three aircraft carriers by 2030.

G Parthasarathy

During his recent visit to China and South East Asia, President Obama made a point of underlining his commitment to the region. ‘This is where the action’s going to be when it comes to commerce and trade,’ he said. ‘The United States will stand with allies and partners in upholding fundamental interests, among them the freedom of navigation and overflight, lawful commerce that is not impeded, and peaceful resolution of disputes.’


Among the findings of the Rand Corporation’s study was that the US would be better off fighting any war now than a decade hence, when China’s military would be more advanced

Tensions stepped up in July, when Beijing robustly rejected a decision by a panel of international maritime judges that its activities in the South China Sea were mostly illegal. In the same month, the strategy think-tank, the Rand Corporation, published a study entitled War with China: Thinking the Unthinkable. Among its findings was that the US would be better off fighting any war now than a decade hence, when China’s military would be more advanced.

‘A conflict with China is certainly not inevitable, as some people say,’ says the Naval War College’s president, Admiral Jeffrey Harley. ‘When a power continues to rise, we can find space in the world, as long as all follow international law.’ But, unless Beijing has a change of mind, it is roundly dismissing international law as a way forward, arguing that America itself has routinely violated such laws in its tenure as a global superpower.

'STRUCTURAL STRESS': China's construction of military outposts in the South China Sea is affecting its relations with the US
‘STRUCTURAL STRESS’: China’s construction of military outposts in the South China Sea is affecting its relations with the US

No other country has the capacity to take on China and, unlike in Europe, there is no NATO-style military alliance in the region. Several governments have defence treaties with the US, and India and Japan are working closely together. But ultimately all lines lead to and from the Pentagon.

‘My reading of history makes me rather pessimistic about the future course of US-Sino relations,’ says Toshi Yoshihara, professor of strategy for the Asia-Pacific at the college. ‘If you look at past rising powers, it has tended to create the kind of security dilemmas we are seeing today.’

Last year, a research team at Harvard’s Belfer Center studied 16 cases over the past 500 years of a rising power challenging an existing power. It found that 12 of them ended in bloodshed. ‘When the parties avoided war,’ says Graham Allison, who headed the research, ‘it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger, but also the challenged.’

So far, there has been no sign of adjustment by either China or the US. The South China Sea has therefore become a testing ground, with America believing that if it gives way to China here, trade routes through the Arctic, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere could be threatened by other nations as they become more wealthy and confident.

The current challenge falls into three categories.

First, the two governments are viewing the dispute through different prisms. In Beijing’s eyes, control of the South China Sea is not ideological. It is needed to secure its maritime borders and prevent a repeat of what has become known as the ‘century of humiliation’, when much of its territory was occupied by Japan and Western powers. It compares this to the 1825 Monroe Doctrine when, to counter interference from Europe, the US declared itself the predominant, controlling power on the American continent.

Admiral Jeffrey Harley, president of the US Naval War College
Admiral Jeffrey Harley, president of the US Naval War College

America, on the other hand, views the dispute through an old 20th century lens, seeing it as the liberal international system standing up to authoritarianism. After Iraq and the Arab spring, however, liberal democracy’s credibility is now in question, while American-led liberal capitalism was fractured from the 2008 financial crisis. Beijing believes it is now on firm enough ground to win its corner.

The second challenge is America’s own dysfunctional political system, with its polarised Congress, deadlocked budgets and bitterly hostile presidential election campaign. China sees this as a wounded system ripe for exploitation.

Third is that China is now rapidly modernising its military, with a focus on its submarines, surface vessels and precision long-range missiles. Not long from now it will be able to cause real damage to American naval power. Meanwhile, Beijing will keep reinforcing its South China Sea outposts, while the US will continue its Freedom of Navigation operations to test Beijing’s territorial control. Both governments have warned that any slight miscalculation could lead to a military clash.

‘You have to walk the dog pretty carefully, particularly when you’re the captain of one of those big guns out there,’ says James Kelly, a college dean who formerly commanded a carrier group in the Asia-Pacific

The present impasse is likely to continue at least until after the presidential inauguration in January. In purely military terms, if the politicians fail, it will fall to the US Navy to project enough force to try to deter conflict and if that fails, to go to war and win it.

‘The issue of sea power and control is more critical than it ever has been,’ says Harley. ‘Through the war college’s gaming efforts and research projects we can have enormous influence on the way our maritime forces take the fight to our enemy.’

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Beijing correspondent. His next book, Asian Waters: America, China and the Global Paradox, will be published next October

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