“Kings are the slaves of history”.
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Alphen, Netherlands. 25 February. War is coming. Big war. It will start not in Europe, but Asia-Pacific. Several events this past two weeks have convinced me that to think otherwise is simply denial, and thus makes the probable inevitable. What and why?
What? China is fast militarising the South China Sea. Last week China confirmed that it had deployed highly-advanced surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea and had also installed a highly-advanced radar system on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands to the south. This week the Pentagon confirmed that China had deployed fast jets to one of its reclaimed ‘string of pearl’ man-made islands that now ring the South China Sea. Reports by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also suggest China is installing advanced defence radars on three other islands.
Another Washington report by the Center for a New American Century (CNAS) warned that China is also developing advanced anti-ship missile technology which poses a direct threat to the ten US nuclear-powered super aircraft carriers. Whilst not the sole purveyors of US expeditionary might these ten ‘carriers’ are the very beating heart of American strategic power projection. Indeed, at least four carrier groups are normally at sea at any one time.
Taken together China’s new bases and its burgeoning anti-ship technology all suggest at some point in the none-too-distant future China will seek to force the US out of the South China Sea, and possibly East Asia. Senior American officers with whom I have spoken seem strangely complacent about the threat.
However, it is not just Sino-American relations that are entering a new and more dangerous phase. It was also announced this week that India’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine is about to join the Indian Navy. The INS Arihant is the first of five 6000 ton submarines that will join the Indian fleet in a move designed to counter both China and Pakistan. Pakistan is being helped by China to develop its own sea-borne counter-force in an attempt to force New Delhi to look both north and east at one and the same time, and thus prevent India from being able to concentrate force.
This week the Australian Defence White Paper will be published. It will state Canberra’s determination to increase Australian defence spending to some 2% GDP by 2023, with some $710 billion being injected into the country’s defence force by 2027. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this week that, "It [the investment] will set out how we will give our defence forces the resources they need, the capabilities they need, to keep us safe and to ensure that we play our part in delivering and ensuring regional security."
Why? The reasons for what is fast turning into a strategic arms race are manifold. First, states across Asia-pacific are locked into hyper-competition as the region’s states struggle to cope with the rapid emergence of an over-mighty and illiberal China. The Asia-Pacific strategic arms race bears striking similarities to that which took place in Europe between 1898 and 1914 as Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia slid towards the First World War. Add Japan, South Korea and other regional states and the similarities become even more alarming.
Second, China is the main force behind the hyper-competition. Although China and the US agreed limited sanctions on North Korea this week in the wake of its recent intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, it is the emerging Sino-American strategic stand-off which is at the centre of China’s concept of ‘security and defence’. Beijing’s hard-line political realism is also driven by the nature of the Xi regime. President Xi Jingping emerged from the military apparatus of the Communist Party. Moreover, he is determined to consolidate his power and that of the Party over China and extend China’s military influence far beyond China’s borders and is investing huge sums in the People’s Liberation Army to that end.
Third, such hyper-competition is simply the age-old pattern of international relations. One of my embarrassingly many degrees is a Masters in International Relations (with distinction of course). In “War and Change in World Politics” Robert Gilpin identified four stages between peace and war which liberal elites in the West today either reject, deny, or both. An international ‘system’ starts off in a state of relative equilibrium, which is where the world was briefly in the wake of the Cold War. Over time a redistribution of power takes place as revisionist powers seek to challenge the authority of status quo powers grown comfortable on their own victory. This is exactly what is happening today as the likes of China and Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, challenge a West that has become strategically decadent. The system gradually falls into a state of disequilibrium as the rules of the status quo powers are challenged by the growing power of the revisionists. If not resolved peacefully at some point the system collapses into tension and crisis which is then ‘resolved’ by major war.
Today, the liberal West is trying to break this age-old cycle and the challenge of the illiberal realist powers in the same way it has done ever since 1919 and the Treaty of Versailles, and with the same old ‘tools’. Disarmament, in the form of low defence investment, or by destroying its own long-term defence planning as the Americans are doing via sequestration. Trade, in the form of ever-more-desperate invitations for the realist powers to ‘buy’ into the West, most notably Britain’s current self-auction to China. Indeed, trade was the ‘principle’ that underpinned appeasement in the 1930s. Institutionalism, in the form of ever more regimes membership of which is designed to constrain extreme state action. Mutual constraint was the founding principle of the League of Nations, the United Nations, and indeed the European Union. The one thing the West is not doing is investing in the one thing that deters the illiberal; power.
So, why war? To this old Oxford historian and analyst China, Iran, and Russia (partly) are doing exactly the same as revisionist powers over the ages; taking the blandishments on offer, helping the status quo powers retreat into denial and self-induced relative weakness, remorselessly building up their military might even at the expense of economic and social development, and waiting until they are sufficiently strong to prevail in a showdown that Beijing for one probably believes is inevitable.
So, let me conclude by qualifying my opening statement. War is coming, unless the world-wide West wakes up collectively and smells the strategic coffee. After all, for the illiberal power does as power will.